Charles Parton is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank and a former British diplomat who served in or around China for 22 years. He also worked on Chinese diplomacy at a European level, as first counselor to the EU Delegation in Beijing. He now works for himself as a consultant on all things China and advises the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Parton’s father served in the British Army, so as a young boy, he traveled widely with his family while on vacation from school in the UK. He was drawn to the Chinese language during his time in Taiping, Malaysia, a city with a large ethnic Chinese population, and chose to learn Chinese when he joined the Foreign Office in 1979.
His area of expertise is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—“trying to understand it, and its policies, and what it’s trying to do, especially domestically, but also inevitably what it’s doing abroad,” including in the UK.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Quartz: What first attracted you to China?
Parton: China was always my first love, partly because when you speak the language, you just get so much more into it, and also because which civilization in the world has more depth than the Chinese one? I find the whole way that the CCP rules China fascinating. I find the differences between our cultures fascinating.
So here I am, 40-odd years later, perhaps even more immersed in China, spending my days—you might say sadly, I don’t know—looking at what goes on in the CCP and in China and how that’s relevant to our world.
What are some memories that stand out to you from your time there?
Parton: I made a point in my first posting there, which was nearly three years in the mid-1980s, of always using as much leave as I could. You had to go back to Britain and briefly clock in—but whatever I could, I used to travel around China, and made it my aim to spend time, not just a day or two, but a bit more, in every province. I didn’t achieve that until , when I was on my Hong Kong posting [that began in 1990].
Some of the memories are small, personal. In the 1980s China was not developed at all and you would sit there talking to people. We went to Kashgar 1 in 1985 and I sat in the Id Kah mosque talking to a Uyghur in Chinese about Richard the First and Saladin. That was his culture and it was my culture [but] we’re both still in China.
The happiest memories were in the 1980s because everybody knew each other in the foreign community in Beijing, and there was a sense of exploring things as China opened up. People would come back from a place and they’d be the first ones who had been there, or you would go somewhere, and few others, if any, had been there. It was more exploratory then.
When was the last time that you were in China?
Parton: I left the EU delegation in 2016, but in 2017 the British Foreign Office asked me to go back for four months to cover the Party Congress. And then I went back in Nov. 2018 to speak at a conference.
Sadly, I don’t feel able to go back under the current circumstances. I’ve taken stances, said things, written things, which wouldn’t appeal to the CCP. It’s not that I think they would necessarily do to me as they have done unto Michael Kovrig2, but if things took a turn for the worse, as an ex-diplomat, it’s just not worth the risk. A small risk, but the consequences would be extremely unpleasant.
Did you know during that 2018 trip that it could be your last one in China?
Parton: No, I didn’t. And it is immensely sad when you spend 40 years working on or in China one way or another. I do hope I’ll be able to go back but I don’t think I’ll be able to go back in the foreseeable future.
If you are working on China and trying to understand China, of course it’s helpful to be there and talk to people on the ground. I think you can still meaningfully contribute, but it is a disadvantage.
How do you believe the Chinese government views the UK?
Parton: Of course China is more interested in nearby countries. But we’re not of negligible importance.
We have very good science and technology, and China would like to get hold of some of that. My line would be that where there’s mutual gain—because Chinese science and technology is a force to be reckoned with—and where it’s a subject which is not sensitive, meaning it has no potential military applications or applications to the surveillance state, then we should cooperate to the fullest.
We’re a member of the UN Security Council. We are strong supporters of an open, global economic governance system, which China has benefited from immensely. As they see it, in the face of an America that is increasingly decoupling, the UK is something to be cherished. And we’ve also got considerable soft power. There are [many] reasons why they would prefer that we were, if not fully on their side, then at least neutral, as opposed to in an [antagonistic] camp.
Would you say that the ship has sort of sailed for that?
Parton: It’s certainly loaded up the crew, and the victuals are all on board, and the officers are talking with the other ships as to which direction the fleet is going to sail. There is a strong risk that the UK may end up in the same sort of diplomatic doghouse that Australia is in, [but] I don’t think we’re there yet. I think at the moment the CCP is waiting to see exactly what strategy the UK is embarking towards—because the UK badly needs a strategy for China and it doesn’t actually have one. The Integrated Review 3 contains degrees of ambiguity about precisely where that strategy is going.
But if you were a betting person, you would probably put the money on the side of the cloth which says it is going to get worse. Clearly, we need to minimize that. There are plenty of areas where it’s in both China and our interest to get on well together. So let’s not dial up the rhetoric. But let’s also be very clear about where we stand in terms of our own security, our own interests, our own values, because in the past few years there’s been so much ambiguity. As Robert Frost says, and I keep repeating, good fences make good neighbors.
Isn’t the ambiguity the point? It gives the UK flexibility.
Parton: If you want to be a global leader, as the Integrated Review talks about, then ambiguity doesn’t work. Those that are going to follow you actually do need to know where you’re going to stand. Secondly, I’m not sure that it’s going to be possible to maintain that ambiguous status. I don’t think China is going to allow it and I’m not sure that the US will appreciate it greatly.
And even within ourselves, look at the mess it leads to. Exhibit A: Huawei and 5G 4. More flip-flops than a Cypriot beach, frankly. (I served in Cyprus.) It’s not good for businesses. If you’re Virgin or BT, certainty is better than uncertainty.
If you’ve got a definite stance, you are more likely to persuade them not to try to cross your red lines—because ambiguous or not, we do have red lines.
What are those red lines? Because if you had asked me a year ago, I would have said the UK’s red line was the “one country two systems” model in Hong Kong, but that line has been crossed.
Parton: A red line is forming around the fact that it is not wise to allow China into our critical national infrastructure. And it’s clear that we are outraged by what is going on in Xinjiang 5 and Hong Kong 6. There’s not a great deal anyone can do about that, but that doesn’t mean that we have to accept it and forget about it. Values are irrevocably going up the scale. How you define this in a red line, I’m not sure.
Why would China care about the UK’s red lines?
Parton: It clearly does care or it wouldn’t mobilize its considerable propaganda department to attack the UK.
The CCP’s one aim is to stay in power and to do that, it must legitimize itself and its people. If Chinese people coming to our countries go back with ideas, values, and thoughts on the way the CCP is behaving in China, which are inimical to the Party, that’s a threat. So that’s one of the major reasons why the CCP spends a lot of time trying to change that discourse in our country, in many cases by interference in our academic freedoms or trying to influence our media.
In the UK there’s a sort of spectrum of opinions on China—to oversimplify it, on each end of that spectrum are the China hawks, and then whatever the opposite of that would be.
Parton: I think we should define the spectrum as hawkish to mawkish—mawkishness [meaning] sympathetically cloying, and there are some who really are almost beyond that. And I would say that if there’s a center, then I’m slightly towards the hawkish side. But others might characterize me in different ways.
Among those of us [during the golden era] who wished to get this issue into the top of people’s consciousness, there were the grenade lobbers—things like the book “Hidden Hand,” by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Olhberg. There’s great scholarship behind it, don’t get me wrong, but some of the grenades they lobbed in that damaged people that probably didn’t deserve the damage. Some too rightly did. But it stirred the issue up. And in many ways it’s not a bad tactic.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a grenade lobber because as I’ve always said, the idea is not so much to oppose China as to prioritize our own national security interests and values, and accept that we’ve got to work with China, but not on the sort of terms that the Chinese are trying to impose. That inevitably ends up making me more hawkish on the hawkish-mawkish spectrum.
Where would you put the British public on that spectrum at the moment?
Parton: On the hawkish side. Two years ago, I wrote a paper on China’s interference in the UK with the aim of just stirring people up. We were coming off the back of the golden era [and] I don’t think people had quite got their minds around about the nature of the CCP. I think the protests in Hong Kong changed that a little bit. Xinjiang, increasingly, has made a difference. Huawei and 5G is one of the earliest things that began to make people think. But I think what really changed it was Covid-19 and the Chinese government’s reaction to that.
What are the areas on which we might want to work with China?
Parton: I always talk about the Chinese Communist Party, not about China and the Chinese people, [and] this sort of distinction, the CCP hates, because it likes to say, ‘Charlie, you’re being racist. You’re talking about China and the Chinese people.’ No, I’m talking about the Chinese Communist Party. There are plenty of Chinese people who say exactly the same things and probably worse about the CCP than I do. They’re not racist.
There’s plenty of [exchanges] going on that are irrespective of politics. Businessmen do business. Students study. People play music together. And the more of that the better.