Tom Tugendhat, the politician warning of China’s “cage-rattling”

Tom Tugendhat, the politician warning of China’s “cage-rattling”
Image: Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Tom Tugendhat is a member of Parliament and chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. In April 2020, Tugendhat and fellow MP Neil O’Brien launched the China Research Group (CRG), a think tank that aims to “promote debate and fresh thinking about how Britain should respond to the rise of China.”

Tugendhat, who is a former Army officer, was sanctioned by the Chinese government, along with the CRG, for his role in raising awareness about human rights issues in China. He can no longer enter the country or do business with it.    

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: You’re a military man and an expert in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where does your interest in China come from?

Tugendhat: I’ve been to China on several occasions and have always had an interest in it, but it really arose when I took over the chairmanship of the [House of Commons foreign affairs] committee.

One of the first things I had planned to do was see how Britain could assist China more greatly—we’d been instrumental in enabling the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank—and seeing how Britain could help with China’s growth within the rules-based system. That’s not what happened. What happened is, almost immediately, we started to get aggressively bullied by the Chinese ambassador to the UK, which left me somewhat cautious.

What happened?

Tugendhat: Somebody from the National People’s Congress had come to dinner in Parliament, I had met her, she had extended an invitation to me as her opposite number, and the embassy had followed up on it. We had applied for visas in the usual way, we discussed the sorts of things we were looking at, and suddenly we’re getting bullied by the ambassador.

So that’s when it started to go awry. He tried to tell me who could come from the committee and then tried to get some people to apologize for having been connected to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Taiwan. And I said, ‘look, you can invite the committee, or you can not invite the committee, but what you can’t do is choose who is on the committee.’

And then, although we did go as a committee to China, we had a strange series of encounters which led me to be much more concerned about the relationship with China.

What strange encounters?

Tugendhat:  [We] were politely harassed. Our kit was gone through in the hotel and things like that, but in such a way as to advertise presence, not to really intimidate. And it was made quite obvious to us that they were not viewing this as a friendly encounter. It left a lot of us uncomfortable with the progress of the relationship.

Do you feel like you’ve evolved in your views on the Chinese government and on China? Become more hawkish over time, perhaps?

Tugendhat: I think the committee has changed. But I would be cautious about saying we’re hawkish. I wouldn’t describe it as hawkish to seek to defend your interests. We’re not hawkish in the sense that we’re trying to invade Iraq or send gunboats up the Yangtze. We’re just very conscious that the international rules-based system, which is a rather grand way of saying the way in which the world tries to settle disputes in a predictable and ordered fashion, is being undermined by a country that has decided that it wants to use its weight and authority rather than established practice.

That’s a problem for many countries, but it’s particularly a problem for the UK. We have a very strong interest in international norms because we are so invested in a form of global service culture. Many other [countries] are invested in manufacturing, where of course the norms matter, but the product matters. Whereas if you’re a service economy, the norms are everything.

What about the CRG?

Tugendhat: Obviously Neil [O’Brien] and I are cautious about the relationship we have with China, that’s not exactly a secret. But the organization itself is neutral and hasn’t lobbied in favor or against anything, which made it rather entertaining when we were sanctioned, because it’s not an organization that has any views. It’s like sanctioning the library. But it is what it is. I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to go back [to China], but it’s not like I’ve never been.

When CRG launched it was often mentioned in the same breath as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), but since then it seems the groups have drifted apart. Do you see them as similar or different?

Tugendhat: I think they’re pretty different. IPAC are a lobbying group, and they’re trying to get people together to do bills on the Uyghur genocide, or whatever it is. There’s a role for that, and we’re not trying to do that. We’re trying to be more academic.

I don’t disagree with IPAC on some of the things that they do [but] I may not do them myself. I’ve always been, for example, more cautious about calling the serious violation of human rights in Xinjiang “genocide.” I think it probably is, but I’m not a lawyer. As Philippe Sands put it, serious human rights violations are serious enough. These are very, very, very, very serious—whether they’re genocide or not, I’m not bothered about. The important detail is there are people, particularly women, particularly Uyghurs, whose rights are being seriously violated by the Chinese state.

You didn’t attend the debate on the genocide motion in the House. Is that why?

Tugendhat: I don’t have anything to say. I can repeat everything that the journalists have said, but I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have proof. I also chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, so I carry a responsibility towards the whole House not to use my position to be too out there if I’m not certain. And I’m not certain.

What would you consider to be an acceptable relationship for the UK to have with China?

Tugendhat: I really want to have a good relationship with China. After all, we have demonstrated that we work very well with Chinese culture over many, many years in Hong Kong. And this isn’t a division over being Chinese or not, it’s about the fact that there is a brutal dictatorship currently governing one of the world’s most populous countries. That’s bad.

Chinese human rights are British human rights. I can tell you this for certain, because PC Chang, who wrote the Universal Declaration on Human Rights [in 1948], embedded quite deliberately into the UN principles the values that he saw as essential to a free society and a rights-based state. I think they work pretty well for us and that’s where I would like to get to. But if you’re asking me, do I think it’s likely with this administration? No, I don’t.

But this is an administration that has clearly got an internal weakness. There’s something unusual about a state where the leader feels that they will never be able to retire, and that’s what he’s done by abolishing term limits. He’s effectively said, ‘I don’t think that I can ever make this country stable enough that I can hand [it] over to somebody else.’ It’s a bold statement.

Is that really what that means? Or is it just that he thinks he’s the best person for the job?

Tugendhat: I don’t think any ruler wants to hang on forever.

Now, Xi [Jinping] has made it all the way to president of China; I haven’t. So I’m not going to pretend I’m the China expert, he’s the China expert. But a couple of years ago, he found himself asking various generals to vow allegiance on TV. It was the first time any Chinese general has ever done it. They didn’t have to vow allegiance to Mao [Zedong], Deng [Xiaoping], or Hu Jintao, or any of the others. Their loyalty was never in doubt. So what’s going on in the People’s Liberation Army that means that Xi is so concerned about their loyalty—or probably the loyalty of people subordinate to them—that he is making them vow allegiance publicly? I don’t know, but there’s clearly something going on.

What would that be?

Tugendhat: I’m informed guessing. The demographics are much worse against him than people recognize. The level of indebtedness is worse. The indebtedness is more property-based than we think it is, therefore, the entire fragility of the economy is much greater than we think it is. I know those are true to a degree and I’m just speculating that it may be worse than we think it is.

Xi is a very, very astute man, and he has achieved power in a very complex political system. He knows that the use of force as a political weapon is an option, but not one to be used too often. And yet here he is, ramping it up in places like Xinjiang. He knows that if had waited 10 or 15 years, he would probably be able to reunite with Taiwan peacefully [and] claim great credit. But now he knows that the only way to reunify with Taiwan is going to be by force.

Why don’t we just say, look, this is the beginning of a Chinese century, and we should just make the most of it?

Tugendhat: Two reasons. One, I don’t think it is the beginning of Chinese century. There is a difference between a strong country [China] rattling a cage and a strong country setting a new normal. I think this is a strong country rattling a cage.

Secondly, what they’re trying to do is fundamentally against the interests of the British people—the people I am pledged to represent and defend. And the interests of the British people are in having as predictable as possible a future. The way you create predictability in an unstable system like the global economy is you agree on rules. A peaceful world is a stable world and a predictable world.

But it’s more than that. The UK, by accident of history, was fundamental to the writing of the operating system of the global system from 1700 through to 1990, and the UK economy, more than almost any other, was built on the basis of it. The UK has gone further down the finance, services, legal, and the accountancy route, so we are much more dependent on the predictability of the rules, than almost anyone else. We therefore have a choice, which is, do we defend the system upon which our prosperity is built? Or do we hope that the changes that come will not impoverish us too much? I think the second is a bit of a gamble.

The Chinese say, precisely as you just did, that the system underpinning this global order was written by and for the British, and not for them.

Tugendhat: I have complete sympathy for that. And if the Chinese state were coming with changes to the system that recognize that predictability is necessary, that change is necessary, I would welcome it. I welcomed the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, which I saw as a sort of Sinophication of the IMF or the World Bank. I think that’s a totally legitimate thing to do.

China was absolutely fundamental to the creation of the United Nations, indeed the first signatory of the United Nations charter. It was fundamental to the drafting of that charter, fundamental to the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights. From 1947 to 1950, an active member of the UN. And then civil war. And so basically from the 1950s through to the 80s, China wasn’t there. And I’m not blaming anybody. All sorts of things happened. But they weren’t there. The People’s Republic of China took the seat at the UN Security Council, replacing what was then the Republic of China, in the 60s. Realistically, China’s serious engagement in international affairs didn’t really happen until the 1980s roughly. And so I completely sympathize with China’s view, and if the argument is China should have a greater voice in the writing of the rules—yeah, absolutely. But writing the rules, not just using force.

Where do you see things going in the next year?

Tugendhat: I hope that we find a better way of talking to each other. I fear that the stresses that apply to chairman Xi are going to apply even greater. I know of internal divisions within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). I speak to CCP members who are concerned about the way that it’s going. I don’t think that his dominance of the organization is going to change. He is still the most powerful member. But I do think the pressures on him are growing.