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Iain Duncan Smith, the standard bearer for the China critics

Abstract photo illustration of Lain Duncan Smith
Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Published

Iain Duncan Smith has been a member of Parliament since 1992. He was leader of the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003 and secretary of state for work and pensions from 2010 to 2016. 

Duncan Smith, who is a vocal Eurosceptic, served as chairman of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign. He now creates problems for Johnson in Parliament as co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group that he co-founded last year to “promote a coordinated response among democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions” of China. 

He was recently sanctioned by the Chinese government for “maliciously spreading lies and disinformation” about China’s human rights record after the UK sanctioned Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  


Quartz: You are one of the most influential voices in Parliament on China. How did you first get involved in this issue as a politician?

Duncan Smith: It goes back to when the then-government that I was a member of decided that it wanted a very open door policy to China. I think they called it the golden generation [or the] golden era—I don’t know, golden something anyway 1. And I was concerned that almost every cabinet meeting was filled with the chancellor [George Osborne] constantly berating others for not having done enough to make available their activities to China. And then we had the [2015 state] visit of president Xi [Jinping], which I thought was way over the top. His speech to the joint session of the House of Commons and the House of Lords was very arrogant.

1
They called it the golden era.

I became concerned that China was going to use us to enter the rest of the world. And that’s happened now with British universities, which have become utterly dependent on China. And then China’s activities progressively over that period, their attack on the Uyghurs 2, the ongoing and accelerating problems in Tibet, their problems with Christians and other religious groups, and internally, I gather, they are cracking down on the Inner Mongolians, particularly over their languages.

2
The US has accused the Chinese Communist Party of perpetrating genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in the northwest province of Xinjiang. The UK's House of Commons recently did the same, while the UK government has criticized "appalling violations of the most basic human rights," but shied away from using the term "genocide." The Chinese government forcefully denies the charges.
…All of that poses a threat to the free world.

The icing on that ghastly cake was Hong Kong, where they completely trashed the Sino-British Agreement 3. If you bring all this together and then add to that the South China Sea, the border with India, and the Belt and Road project 4, which seems hell bent on trying to buy out unaligned countries—all of that poses a threat to the free world. And that’s what brought me to it bit by bit.

3
A UN treaty signed by Britain and China in 1948 to arrange for the handover of Hong Kong from British colonial control back to the Chinese government. In the agreement, China committed to ensuring special rights and freedoms for Hong Kong for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" model. The agreement is a source of major tension: The Chinese see it as a legacy of an unjust colonial regime, while the UK has declared that China is in "a state of ongoing non-compliance” with the declaration.
4
China's Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious global infrastructure financing scheme meant to tie East Asia with Europe. It is Chinese president Xi Jinping's signature foreign and development policy.

Lots to unpack there. What did president Xi say that bothered you so much?

Duncan Smith: Rather than in any way attempting to compliment the UK, he basically tried to tell us the story of how China’s rightful place in the world was as this dominant power and dismissed the UK or the [Western] concept of government. I thought it was very unpalatable. And given my other concerns, I was about to [walk] out, when I was told by somebody that if I did that, it would create a complete and utter chaos for the government. As I was in the government, I hesitated. I resigned later on anyway, so it didn’t matter. But at that stage, I was involved in a very big reform and I wanted to complete it.

That state visit is typically thought of as the height of the golden era.

Duncan Smith: I thought it was the beginning of Project Kowtow 5. I’m proud of being British and I’m proud of our role in the world and the importance of us standing up for human rights, free speech, and democracy. But I thought that what we were engaged in was turning away from the abuses of China in a greedy rush to try and buy into their ability to produce goods and technology. Opening up became the priority and the growing threat was dismissed.

5
Duncan Smith has often used this formulation, including in the House of Commons, and he is not alone in doing so, but in many parts of the world, the use of the term "kowtow" is considered culturally insensitive.
We were turning away from the abuses of China in a greedy rush to try and buy into their ability to produce goods and technology.

We weren’t alone in that, by the way. There were plenty of countries around the free world that were doing the same thing, it’s just that the UK perhaps did it more blatantly than anybody else did at that time.

You were in government during this time. Did you try to voice your disagreement with this approach, to change it from the inside?

Duncan Smith: Not massively, because I was running the Department for Work and Pensions, and I was heavily engaged in a daily basis on welfare reform, which was a big undertaking, and which we completed. So although internally I’d mentioned my concerns to the then-foreign secretary and others, I had to make a decision: Either I dumped what I was doing and walked out, or I just got on with what I was doing, which I did. I rather hoped that they would see the light, as we seem to have become more and more dependent on China. But these things are often best done from outside the government rather than inside.

Do you have a personal connection to China? What is the origin of your interest in this country?

Duncan Smith: My great-grandfather set up a trading company in Fuzhou and lived there from about 1860 or 1865. My grandmother was born in China, along with a lot of the rest of her family. Her mother was actually Japanese because she was ex-samurai who had come over to China with her brother, who was an artist, after the Meiji Restoration. He came over to China, became good friends with my great-grandfather, and his sister went to look after my great-grandfather in his house. And eventually, quite later on in life, he married her. They had some children and my grandmother was one of them.

My grandmother was brought up in China and my grandfather went to China on secondment from the Foreign Office. He helped set up the Chinese postal system around the whole of China, which is a huge undertaking. And he met and married my grandmother. So I have family links going back well over 180 years.

I’ve been there a couple of times. I went there quite early on, actually, on business, before I was in Parliament. It must have been around the mid-1980s. This is before China had fully opened up so hotels were few and far between. I went up to the Great Wall and visited some of the tombs of the various emperors, but in those days you could wander in and out if you liked and have a look. It was fascinating.

The next time I visited Hong Kong, so I’d only really been there twice. My son’s been there. He spent some time out there because he studied Mandarin. And my daughter has been there as well.

How does that family history inform your views of China?

Duncan Smith: I do remember talking to my grandfather about China. He was first employed, I think, by [Chinese statesman] Sun Yat Sen, and he retired in the mid-1930s. He saw China through the nationalist government, the arrival of Chiang Kai Shek, the Mao Zedong Rebellion.

Nothing in China is short term.

He left me with the enduring sense that nothing in China is short term. What he said to me all along was, ‘Always remember that China sees itself in the grand sweep of things over a much longer period than the West has come to see things.’ We tend to be more immediate, whereas he said 100 years is not a big deal for China. He used to say to me, ‘China doesn’t see its place as it is at the moment. It sees that it was civilized long before places like Britain were, and it was sophisticated with arts and medical systems that were in advance of the West for many years, and its culture and its heritage. The Chinese see this period really in the last 200 years as an aberration, that their rightful place is to be a dominant nation again. And you should never assume that they will make an allowance for you’—which was pretty true now I look back at it.

Do you see any merit to the UK government’s argument that post-Brexit, it needs to find further trade opportunities—and why not turn to what may soon be the largest economy in the world?

Duncan Smith: I don’t have any problem with companies trading into any country. My concern is that we shouldn’t be giving special arrangements to a country like China because that distorts your own political views and makes you incapable of criticism. So I am utterly opposed to any new [trade] arrangements with China at all.

There are plenty of markets around the world that we will find better and easier access to, and ones that actually obey the World Trade Organization rules. In my view, India is the best counterbalance to China in the Far East. It’s the one country, funnily enough, that China worries about because of its size and its population, and first-rate educational system. It is capable of some really advanced things but it’s behind China in that regard. India is the world’s largest democracy. Whatever else our concerns about elements of it, it still has an independent judiciary—at least you have a starting place.

And the Commonwealth is a marvelous organization for us to now reinvent, for us to do business with. Many of them are emerging nations. Many of them are technologically very savvy. What we’ve allowed to happen, sadly, is for China to move in on so many of these areas [like Thailand and Burma] whilst we’ve been members of the EU.

This idea of a pivot to India as a counterbalance of China has been around for a long time. But the EU tried to sign a trade deal with India for years and failed. What leads you to believe the UK would fare any better?

Duncan Smith: Well, we’re out of the EU now so we can make our own decisions. I’ve talked to a lot of Indian politicians. They know now, with this threat on the border, that they face a real issue and could do with support and help. The fact that China supports Pakistan on their border is a real problem for them, so they are looking for allies. I’m hoping to go out there at some point to talk to them about this.

I used to do business in India. In fact, on my father’s side, a bit like China, all my family were born in India. I’m the first generation not to have been born on my father’s side in India for over 150 years. So I’m very fond of the country.

Europeans weren’t prepared to do deals with India because the EU is a huge organization and everybody is basically protectionist. I think the UK can do this. And the rest of the Far East, [they want us in] the Transpacific Partnership, it’s exactly what we should be doing.

Leaving Europe was not about sitting on the edge of Europe, it’s about rediscovering the very positive feature of the UK as a global trading nation, whose influence is much greater than most countries. One of the reasons I wanted to leave the EU was to reinvent our relationship with all those countries [in the Far East] which we spent so much time with and are very good friends with.

You were one of a few MPs on the Chinese sanctions list. How does it feel?

Duncan Smith: It is a badge of honor to have been sanctioned by the Chinese for speaking out on [behalf of] democracy and against genocide.

Why would I not do anything else but carry on?

What will it do? I didn’t have any plans to visit China and I don’t have any assets in China. My grandparents did have a lot of assets in China, but not anymore. It’s more likely to affect my children. My daughter was hoping to go there again at some point. But they all accept that’s what it is.

So, what does China do? They attack my websites. They attack IPAC websites. They send bizarre emails trying to destroy us. They mess around with our email addresses, try and take over those. But we can get through all that. I’m just going to carry on. Why would I do anything else but carry on?

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