The Brexification of the UK’s China debate

A lot has changed since Xi Jinping visited the UK in 2015, including Britain itself.
A lot has changed since Xi Jinping visited the UK in 2015, including Britain itself.
Image: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett
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When the UK officially left the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020 it put a lot of people out of a job—including Nigel Farage, the bombastic former leader of the Brexit Party.

It was an open question what Farage would do next; in a 2021 New Year’s video message that has since been watched more than 1.3 million times, he gave a surprising answer.

“I’ll tell you what the next big challenge is,” he said, “and in some ways, it’s an even bigger challenge than the European Union was—a bigger threat to our independence, our way of life, our liberty. And it is China.”

China doesn’t seem like the most obvious pivot for the man who spent the last two decades getting his “country back” from the EU. But in this pandemic, he spotted an opportunity. Public opinion of China in the West has been hardening for years, as the country has grown more powerful and more autocratic. But Covid-19 not only made people care about China in ways they hadn’t before, it also made them distrust it.

A recent poll (pdf, p. 5) showed that 60% of Britons see the Chinese government as a “force for bad in the world,” and say their opinion of it has worsened since the start of the pandemic. (Only 3% view it as a force for good.) And in Parliament, a handful of China-skeptic MPs has forced major changes through, including a ban on Huawei, and new screens on foreign investment. That’s partly in response to events in China, including a crackdown on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

As Brexiteers like Farage turn their attention to China, the issue is sure to become even more controversial in the UK. It’s one of many signs that point to a “Brexification” of the debate. In both cases, the demographic divide is similar, the rhetoric is inflamed, and the unintended side effect could be xenophobia.

But where the outcome of the Brexit debate was clear from the start—to leave or not to leave—there’s no clear resolution to the question of what Britain should do about China. And yet in exploring that question, the UK may really be asking itself a different one: Post-Brexit, what kind of country does it want to be?

Is China the new Brexit?

If the China debate is taking on some of the characteristics of the Brexit debate, it poses an interesting conundrum for a Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, a Brexiteer and self-declared “fervent Sinophile.”

At a time when engagement with China could help secure the UK’s economic future and tackle existential challenges like climate change, the British public is not sure it wants that. But what it does want is all over the place; if the polls are to be believed, it can best be summarized as minimizing Chinese investment in the UK while working with China on global challenges, but also confronting its government over human rights violations. (The UK is not alone in this; most of the West is recalibrating its relationship with Beijing.)

Mark Logan is the MP for Bolton Northeast and something of a China hand. Like others, he argues that the Brexit referendum was less a reflection of the UK’s opinion of the EU and more “about us evaluating ourselves and trying to work out what our identity is.” He sees similar dynamics in the conversation around what the UK’s relationship with China should be.

Popular opinions of the Chinese government already reflect some of the same divides that exist over Brexit: Older, white, rural Britons from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to trust China than their younger, urban, and more racially diverse counterparts. While this is an over-simplification—for example, BFPG found “no discernible differences [in opinions of China] based on education level,” while qualifications strongly influenced the Brexit vote—the demographic divides are similar. (It’s worth noting that trust in China is low across the board, but in some categories more than others.)

Meanwhile, Labour voters generally trust China more, except those who changed their vote to Conservative in the 2019 election. And people who voted against Brexit are relatively more trusting of China than their Leave peers, which stays true within parties: Conservative Remain voters are four times more trusting of China than Conservative Leave voters.

Chi Onwurah is MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, a Labour seat that is younger and more diverse than the national average. She sees a broad rise in interest about China, and especially human rights, but says it’s not among the top three international issues her office hears from constituents about. Still, she adds, “every time I raise issues about our national security concerns with China, I get a lot of support from people…[whose] support I don’t particularly want,” and who she says make “Sinophobic remarks.”

The sudden interest in China from people like Farage is another similarity. Farage has never been an MP, having failed seven times to convince voters to send him to Parliament. But his influence over the Brexit vote was undeniable, and he is now turning to China with the same zeal. Announcing recently that he would step down from electoral politics, Farage said he planned to tackle “the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party is taking over our lives.” His byline was recently featured in a Daily Mail editorial about Chinese financing in British education entitled “A Communist takeover of our schools that Britain must end at once.”

It’s no surprise that, according to a survey conducted by the British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG)(pdf, p. 44), 83% of readers of the Mail, the UK’s biggest-selling newspaper, distrust China.

In the same way that hate crimes went up (pdf) after the Brexit referendum, and eastern European migrants (especially Poles) became a scapegoat, an environment in which China is viewed as the biggest threat to Britain, and where Chinese people are portrayed as spies and associated with a pandemic in popular media, could become a breeding ground for a form of “ethno-nationalism” that has “been at the margins in British life,” argues Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.

Hate crimes against Asians as a whole are up in the UK since the start of the pandemic. The Metropolitan police recorded 34 “racist crimes” where the victims voluntarily identified as Chinese in March 2020, compared to seven in March 2019. Another 57 hate crimes against people who identify as Chinese were reported between Jan. and June 2020. And since only 27.2% of the victims of these crimes record their ethnicities, that number is likely to be “an undercount of the true situation,” the police say.

This is also happening in the US. Data collected by Bloomberg suggest “the US government’s distrust of China, which flared during the Obama administration and erupted openly during president Donald Trump’s trade war, has mutated into distrust of Chinese Americans,” with applicants for security clearances who have ties to China getting rejected at almost twice the rate of applicants with ties to other countries, including Iran and Russia. Anti-Asian hate crimes are up there too.

What is the future of UK-China relations?

The first major test of Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy came in May 2020, when the Hong Kong government put an end to the months-long protests that had racked the city by arresting protesters, media leaders, and pro-democracy lawmakers. This paved the way for a series of reforms of Hong Kong’s political and judicial system, which had previously been more free than in the rest of China because of the legacy of British colonial rule. Little by little, democratic rights were dismantled in Hong Kong.

In response, Britain offered millions of Hong Kongers a path to UK citizenship.

It’s a surprising about-face for a country that just a few years ago voted to leave the EU in part because it felt it had too many migrants. Government estimates show that 300,000 Hong Kongers could move to the UK over the next five years. That’s almost as many as the eastern Europeans who have left the UK since 2017. (The government believes Hong Kongers will contribute between £2.4 and £2.9 billion ($3.3 to $4 billion) to the Treasury over five years, which certainly helps.)

The UK is in a moment of flux, as it seeks to define its role in the world outside the EU, but also secure its economic future. And engagement with China, the world’s soon-to-be-largest economy, was meant to be a big part of that future. As part of a wider review of government policy that will be released in the coming months, the UK is expected to set out an updated strategy on China.

According to the BFPG survey (pdf, p. 31), “38% of Britons would prefer that Britain’s international activities emphasize economic and strategic defense interests, 19% would prefer them to emphasize democracy and human rights, and 30% would like to see an equal balance [of] the two.” That balance between promoting human rights and securing the UK’s economic future is at the heart of the debate over what ‘Global Britain’ means in practice—but Brown warns that “the China policy that tries to balance these two is going to end up probably achieving neither.”

Britons say they want the UK to work with China on global challenges, but don’t want China to have access to the UK’s research industry, schools, or infrastructure; nor do they want Chinese investment. These things “only come together coherently if you recognize that you’ve got to deal with the world as it is, while working for the world you want,” argues Richard Graham, MP for Gloucester, and head of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China.

In essence, if Britain figures out a way to get what it wants on China, it may also figure out a way to be the “pragmatic, but values-led” country it seems to want to be.

“Our role with China and our place outside the EU are necessarily linked,” says Onwurah, “and there are also broader questions as we see a rise of Chinese influence in Commonwealth countries with which the UK has traditionally had both a close cultural and trading relationship.”

More than 50 years ago, Dean Acheson, US president Harry Truman’s secretary of state, got into hot water for telling the cadets of West Point in a speech that “Great Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role.” That, argues Logan, is still true today, as the UK navigates the uncharted waters of independence from the EU. What does a uniquely British foreign policy look like? It’s in the national debate about China that it may just find the answer.