Free Politics won’t necessarily follow free markets in China

How the West handles the emerging Chinese superpower will define foreign relations in the 21st century, argues Greg Pope MP

I had become so used to describing the UK as the fourth richest country in the world that it came as quite a surprise to learn that this is no longer the case, we are in fact the fifth richest country. Despite the Government’s other recent travails I thought the economy was doing pretty well, so why had we slipped? The answer isn’t that we have been doing badly—it is simply that another country has been doing better. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) overtook the UK in terms of Gross Domestic Product last year, it will overtake Germany by 2009, Japan by 2015 and is on track to overtake the USA within 30 years. Indeed, if you take purchasing power parity (PPP) as the benchmark as many economists do, then China’s PPP of over $8 trillion is already second only to the mighty American economy.

Commentators and politicians expend countless hours debating how we handle he rise of Islam and raise the spectre of a "clash of civilisations". In fact, how the West handles the emerging Chinese superpower will define foreign relations in the 21st century. Worryingly, neither the Blair government nor the Bush administration seems to have a clear view of how to approach the PRC. At the heart of this complacency is the underlying western assumption that free markets and free politics inevitably go hand in hand. After all, that has been the hallmark of western development since the industrial revolution. As rapid economic expansion along China’s east coast continues apace then the emerging middle class will surely demand political choice in the same way as they have come to expect consumer choice, or so the theory goes. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence for it at all in China. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. China may not yet be the world’s leading economy but it is a world leader in another field: it is the world’s number one abuser of human rights.

Even our Foreign & Commonwealth Office, not China’s sternest critic, noted in its last Human Rights Report in 2005 that there was "extensive use of the death penalty; torture; shortcomings in judicial practices and widespread administrative detention, particularly re-education through labour; harassment of human rights activists, lawyers and religious practitioners … and severe restrictions on basic freedoms of speech and association." The campaigning group Human Rights Watch went further and has suggested that since President Hu Jintao came to power the human rights situation has deteriorated, especially in the last year. To put all this into some perspective, Amnesty International’s lowest estimate for the number of Chinese people who suffered the death penalty in 2004 was 3,400, or over 90 percent of the world’s total. Chen Zonglin, a Deputy in China’s National People’s Congress put the figure at 10,000 per year. Both the UK and European Union have human rights dialogues with China but have very little to show for them other than the release of the odd political prisoner. Whilst even these small gains are welcome, there is a fear that the existence of the dialogues allows the PRC to compartmentalise human rights concerns. It seems that the PRC can show the West that it is serious about tackling human rights abuses by pointing to the existence of the dialogues whilst the abuses themselves continue apace.

Central to the problem has been the West’s inability to decide whether China’s emergence as an economic and military superpower presents a challenge or an opportunity. The US in particular has too often appeared as an appalled bystander at the rise of China’s economy, unable to see beyond the unpalatable truth that it has an annual trade deficit with the PRC of over $200 billion. The US has been similarly unsure at how to cope with China’s spectacular military build-up: the People’s Liberation Army has 2.3 million ground forces, 8,000 battle tanks and an air force of over 3,500 aircraft; but it is China’s navy that is the real concern as it develops both the capacity to have a "blue water" global force combined with the sophisticated submarine presence to provide a real threat in the Taiwan Strait. Earlier this month China threatened Taiwan with a military invasion if it contemplated independence, and as I discovered on my recent visit to Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party is none too keen on the concept of self-determination for the people of Taiwan. America’s response to this provocation last week was to invite the Chinese military to observe their military manoeuvres in Guam as a sign of friendship. You don’t have to be a supporter of Taiwanese independence to see that this may be sending the wrong signal to Beijing.

Most of China’s aspirations are entirely reasonable: it sees the per capita wealth of the West (an area where China still lags far behind) and wants to emulate it; it wants to emerge from being merely a dominant regional player to being a global player, eclipsing its former (and largely unforgiven) occupier Japan in the process; it wants to be a responsible stakeholder on the United Nations Security Council. Some of its aspirations are less appealing: China’s desire for re-unification with Taiwan has too often veered into bullying behaviour; its respect for the integrity of the internal affairs of other nations has led it to believe that selling arms to the Zimbabwean dictatorship is a reasonable thing to do; and its desire for rapid economic expansion is having dire consequences for the environment, for example with its plan to build 500 coal-fired power stations over the next ten years.

We need to change tack in our relations with the People’s Republic of China. It wants to emerge as a global player economically, militarily and politically and it is in our strategic interest to assist China in that aim, and our role should be that of an honest friend. It is too simplistic to see the PRC with its seemingly endless supply of cheap labour as an economic threat to West, and in fact China is already suffering as some jobs are being outsourced in industries such as textiles to countries such as Vietnam. The irony of this, as someone who represents a former textile manufacturing constituency, is not lost on me. We should instead be looking at the PRC as a prime location for UK investment and not just in the well-established and highly profitable financial and banking sectors; why not engage more aggressively in other areas of British expertise such as green technologies? China is showing real signs of finally taking its place on the Security Council of the UN seriously after decades of merely seeing it through the prism of self-interest; adroit but robust diplomacy over facing down the nuclear ambitions of both Iran and North Korea is essential for China to demonstrate this new-found seriousness. As US Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos has noted, if China steps up to the plate on the issue of nuclear proliferation then it will be a welcome sign that the PRC is finally recognising that with global power and prestige comes global responsibility. On Taiwan, China needs to discover that bullying doesn’t pay dividends; as with other territorial disputes (Spain and Gibraltar come to mind) a prolonged period of wooing would be much likelier to achieve China’s desired outcome, not least as most Taiwanese want to see the issue resolved peacefully. Opening up transport links such as direct passenger and cargo flights between the PRC and Taiwan would be a welcome step in the right direction.

Finally, we ought to accept that the human rights dialogues with China are not working and break them off, for they provide a cloak behind which China routinely abuses the human rights of its citizens. Far better to be an honest friend that can look the Chinese Government in the face and tell it that the repression of free speech, religion and the right to freely associate have no place in the modern world of which China so desperately wants to be a part.

Greg Pope MP represents the constituency of Hyndburn and is a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

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