Kerry Brown is a professor of Chinese Studies and the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. He is a former diplomat who worked for the China Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, then became first secretary of the UK embassy in Beijing, and later headed a European Union research network on China.
Brown has written 24 books about China and is often quoted in British media as well as by think tanks and parliamentary committees. He headed Chatham House’s Asia Pacific Program and the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center, and has spoken to the House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee about the UK’s approach to China.
He’s also (reluctantly) on Twitter, where he engages with those who accuse him of being a Sinophobe by day and a CCP shill by night. He argues that Chinese diplomats have “lost the moral high ground” because of how they engage with critics on social media but blames the platforms for “infecting” the debate.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Quartz: Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you first went to China?
Brown: In 1989, when I graduated [from Gonville and Caius College], the Tiananmen Square massacre had happened and so there was an enormous disengagement with China. My subsequent engagement with it is really a product of accident, not design. By the time I came back from China in 1996, [after working for a development agency in Inner Mongolia], I could speak Chinese and read Chinese, and I remember writing to different organizations, and they all said there’s no future in [studying China]. When I joined [the Foreign Office] I thought, why don’t I deal with something like Europe. But of course, inevitably and happily, China always came to find me if I didn’t come to find it. I hoped I had backed the right horse [by investing so much of my career in studying China]. And from my point of view, I think I did.
I know that some people feel that their engagement did not lead to the transformative change they wanted with China. But because of the accidental nature of my engagement with China, I never had this big vision that I was going to liberate the Chinese from their oppressive system. You may call it a sort of amoral approach or pragmatic approach.
How did your time in China influence your views of how the UK should approach it?
Brown: One is to see things from a human level. To me, the China story is a story of people I know. It’s also taught me the value of building in complexity right from the start. You can come up with all sorts of very grand statements about China but my experience—and I’ve been to every single province and autonomous region, lived there for nearly six years in total, and been back about 100 times—has taught me about its complexity.
What is it that the UK doesn’t understand about China and how do you propose that understanding it would improve its relations with the country?
Brown: The problem is not so much that people in Britain don’t know, but that some of them have started to acquire a bunch of knowledge which is highly selective and contestable. It is right and proper to know a lot about Hong Kong, for [example], but it’s probably better that [it be] in context with other issues around China. [Hong Kong] is only one small part of the whole story of China.
Who’s responsible for telling that more complex story of China? And if it’s not being told, is it because the Chinese are not doing a good enough job of telling it, or is it because British people are not making enough of an effort to seek it out?
Brown: The media narrative on China in Britain has always seemed to me to be broadly either, ‘Wow, this is a place that’s growing day by day, let’s go and make a shedload of money,’ or ‘This is a human rights hellhole in which people are repressed, tortured, murdered.’ You can see just in describing those two alternatives, there is a problem. Is that also the fault of the Chinese government? Yeah, partly, because, particularly recently, it has really curtailed the efforts of journalists in China to [tell] all kinds of stories.
This is a perfect storm: On the one hand, you’ve got simplistic narratives in the UK, and on the other hand, you’ve got a desire to have very controlled and limiting narratives from China. Everyone ends up losing out and we’re all misinformed in different ways.
How do you change that?
Brown: In the current circumstances it’s almost impossible. On the one hand, Europeans and Americans have just got to live with the fact that China is the way it is and give up our missionary zeal to have it different because it’s just not going to happen. On the other hand, there’s got to be an acceptance on China’s part that the best they can ever expect from Europeans and Americans is tolerance; they’ll never get our love. They’ll get the passion and love of people like me about culture and the interests of China. But this is not a loving and lovely system. I guess no political systems are, let’s face it. But the Chinese one is not designed to be loved and liked, it’s designed to work for particular problems.
Accepting China as it is—does that mean giving up any hope of influencing their approach to human rights in Xinjiang 1, for example?
Brown: I think accepting [China] as it is is the only hope of influencing things in Xinjiang. You can choose to morally berate China—and I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m not remotely justifying what’s happening in Xinjiang. But the only people that can change the situation in Xinjiang, which is the current Chinese government, are just not going to listen to you. So you have a feeling of satisfaction that you are morally decrying what should be morally decried. But that’s not going to change things.
Until there is no hope, you have to try and find spaces where you can influence things for the better. The one space which might have traction is that in deploying surveillance technology in Xinjiang, the Chinese government is also playing with the fire that we’re all playing with, which is to create an artificial system that may end up turning on us.
In March, the EU, UK, US, and Canada sanctioned officials in Xinjiang, and one public body, for allegedly violating Uyghurs’ human rights. Was that the right move?
Brown: What you see at the moment are some tactical moves by Western governments to try and say they’re doing something about this issue by decoupling Xinjiang from the rest of China. So supply chains that lead into Xinjiang, these have got to be stopped. If you want to do something, these measures are probably the ones that you need to do, and I can see why governments are doing them. Sanctions however are symbolic. The EU sanctions list didn’t include the [CCP] secretary of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, who is the person most held responsible for what’s happening there.
But the consequences of the sanctions were very real.
Brown: Ironically, the Chinese response [to coordinated Western sanctions] was pretty quick and comprehensive. It had political figures in Europe and academics. But the language was very broad—it was about all of the [sanctioned people and organizations’] networks and associates, and that could be anyone really. It’s a typical piece of Chinese legislation that captures everyone and tells you nothing about who is really included. The question is, will it really mean that in effect? Will all academics and all think tanks in Europe just not be able to engage with China if they want to write things that are construed as being critical of Beijing? That will be an awful outcome, because there needs to be some middle space, and academics and think tankers mostly are trying to preserve that space. The sanctions have eroded it very significantly.
You are a relatively divisive figure in this small community of UK China watchers. Why do you think that is?
Brown: I remember a very good friend of mine who dealt with Tibet in the past saying that if both sides dislike you, you’re doing something right. There are good audiences to be gained from producing extremely critical things about China. I can’t really join that group because I’m a pragmatist. We’ve lived with our ideals for 30 years that magically tomorrow we’ll wake up and China will be just like us. And we’ve woken up every single day and found that, in fact, China is like China.
I think the Integrated Review2 isn’t a bad document because it gives space to everyone. But [the China hawks] want a nice, neat solution to this issue. And I haven’t seen that in the last 30 years, or looking back in history in the last 400 years.
When you think of the world from where a Chinese official sits, you can see why it’s not easy. You have become the world’s potentially biggest economy and it’s happened in 15 years. Everyone is interested in what you’re doing. Western partnerships didn’t go particularly well [for you in the past]. With that kind of context, it’s understandable that Chinese officials have the views that they do. I’m not sympathetic but I can understand the quandary.
In events and interviews you’re often put in the position of having to defend the Chinese point of view on things. Does that job suit you fine?
Brown: That’s not a job I want but I think things will never be resolved if we make them over-simplified. If we want to intelligently and seriously engage with this issue [of what to do about China], we have to be a bit conflicted. Why would I, a single individual with the experiences I’ve had, be able to magically find a way through this? It’s a collaborative exercise. And I feel all of us have a responsibility to be a little bit hesitant before we start hollering out these strong opinions.
For example, I think there is something important, unexpected, and enormously liberating about the fact that the world’s greatest practitioner of capitalism will be a communist—not because I’m a communist, not because I particularly like capitalism, but because I think it thickens the plot. Western thought systems demand pluralism and diversity, and this is the ultimate diversifier. And I suspect that once there’s been an acceptance of that, things we can’t resolve today will be resolvable.
So you think that a multipolar world will actually be good for us?
Brown: I think a multipolar world is more truthful.
Read us the tea leaves. What will happen to the UK-China relationship?
Brown: The economics will dictate the geopolitics. So I think it depends on how Britain’s economy performs in the next two years as a result of the pandemic. As of today, it’s very mixed, but it seems that we are heading into a recession. Ironically, the more critical and difficult the economic issues, the likelier [it is] that China will be seen as an option for getting us out of this scrape. It’s not a huge player in Britain at the moment, but it could be.
To me, the fundamental responsibility of the government is to look after people’s welfare, and partnership with China might be a way of doing that. So I think that will complicate our thinking and it will probably enforce more pragmatism. If the economic impact of the coronavirus is not as deep, then we have other options, and I think it’s likely that this contentiousness will continue.