Mark Logan, the MP leading a new guard of China watchers

Mark Logan, the MP leading a new guard of China watchers
Image: Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Mark Logan is a member of Parliament and a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on China, a grouping of MPs formed after the handover of Hong Kong to “widen the parliamentary contribution to the UK-China bilateral relationship.”

Logan was born in Northern Ireland and has extensive academic and professional experience in and around China. He recently helped launch the UK National Committee on China, a group whose official tagline is: “There is a much fuller debate to be had on China and we are going to have it.”

He learned Mandarin while studying law at Queen’s University in Belfast, then studied in Beijing, and read Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University. He worked for the Foreign Office as an attache to the UK embassy in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games and at the British consulate in Shanghai, where he focused on attracting Chinese investment to the North of England. He is now enrolled in a part-time PhD program to study the UK-China relationship in real-time.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: When did you first become interested in China?

Logan: I was born and grew up in County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. In the 1990s and a bit of the 2000s, it was a part of the UK going through a transition. We had the Belfast or Good Friday Peace Agreement1 in 1998.

The town I come from, Ballymena, is predominantly a unionist, or Protestant British, town. Northern Ireland, aside from Protestants and Catholics, was never a very diverse place. In my secondary school, [out of] 1,200 students, there were at most five students who were not white, Northern Irish, Protestant or Catholic. But the thing that always stuck out across Northern Ireland, and even in my hometown, is that there was always a sizable Chinese community. In my hometown, [of] 54,000 people, there were at one time 25 Chinese takeaway restaurants across the whole borough. So I grew up exposed in a very simple way to Chinese culture or Chinese people.

Can you describe your views on China and on the UK-China relationship?

Logan: The Americans and the Chinese have the most consequential bilateral relationship on the planet these days. Everyone knows that now, where they maybe didn’t 10 years ago. Our relationship with China is even more historic relationship than the one China has with the US. You could argue it goes right back to the 17th century, but predominantly it was the late 18th century, from the MacCartney mission 2 in 1793 right through to the 19th century, colonialism, and the Opium Wars.

During the 20th century, let’s not forget we were allies during World War II, and victorious over fascism, both in the East and in the West. If you miss out on the historic context [of the UK-China relationship], it does a disservice to how the institutions have developed over time, and how we’ve engaged with one another.

What I actually asked is, where do you stand on it?

Logan: It’s not a very popular word right now: engagement. When you use it, everyone is like ‘Ah, engagement, it doesn’t work, it’s meaningless.’ But that’s where I stand on this. From the UK’s perspective, we need to engage China on a whole broad range of issues, ones which are happy in nature and invite prosperity and building those positive links—climate change, [for example]—but also on the contentious issues. We have to seek more than ever to find solutions through diplomatic mechanisms.

But also, some of the anti-China sentiment that’s come into the debate from the UK side is in many ways a response to China’s reemergence on the world stage. I’ve had the good fortune to be engaged with China for a long time and to see it reemerge [and so] perhaps someone like myself has been able to calibrate for a much longer time. The first time I went out and worked and studied in China, those initial thoughts and impressions were like, ‘Holy shit, no one told me about this. Everyone is talking about it being communist, but it doesn’t look very communist.’ And I’m just surprised that it’s taken so long for the increasing influence that China has already been having to filter through.

Would you say you buck the trend of your 2019 intake when it comes to China?

Logan: There are people across the Conservative Party that have quite nuanced views on China, but definitely over the last year, the loudest voices and the most animated have come from this more stringent point of view in the Commons.

Before I joined Westminster, or even during my first couple of months, I never thought that my China experience would be that relevant in the short to medium term. Now, on any given week, it has become a top-three issue within parliament, and even within the public. There has been this huge rise in interest and commentary on the China issue. I suppose there’s always that question of how much are the parliamentarians reflecting public sentiment or vice versa.

I wouldn’t say that there aren’t people out there with nuanced views or even those who have what you would perceive as more hawkish views on certain elements of China that perhaps have a mishmash of beliefs. But it does come across a lot of times in the narratives that you see in newspapers, or from some of the sessions in the chamber, that can look quite one-sided.

You distinguished yourself from the rest of your intake early, on the Huawei issue 3 in March 2020. You voted against banning the company from UK telecoms networks and you asked at the time whether a flip flop from the government would send a bad message in terms of consistency of the UK as a long term reliable partner.

Logan: My thoughts on this have been very consistent. I sit on the Science and Technology Select Committee, and this time last year, I was still under the informed impression that the UK could absolutely manage Huawei being in the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure and that that had not changed for the last few years, and indeed the last 15 to 20 years. So obviously something changed—the American sanctions come May last year.

My point on this, whether it’s Huawei or the Confucius Institutes,4 if everything is about fear, it shows a complete lack of confidence in the West’s ability to set the agenda. Because if we believed that liberal democracy is the best system, then we wouldn’t be so full of fear. The competition and the competitiveness of ideas is very central to the idea of our society. What I worry about the most is that idea of Roosevelt in the 1930s, that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

An example is the criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative 5. A few weeks ago, there was this talk among different governments about having an alternative from the West. China is setting the agenda. The fact that we want to copy it shows that we’re thinking, ‘God, why did we not think of that?’ That to me is a competition of ideas. And I think that we should be much more confident in what we have.

Some of your colleagues were recently sanctioned by Chinese authorities for their criticism of China’s human rights record. What was your first thought when you found out?

Logan: First of all, it’s deeply unfortunate that that happened.

I’m not wholly convinced that sanctions of any kind actually work in the long term, because if I sanction you, you’ll just think I’m a dickhead. You’ll go into your corner and you’ll just think, ‘the world is against me.’ And I think it plays both ways. When you go down this route of sanctioning or expelling diplomats or closing down consulates, you’re closing off conversations. And you never want to see the world entering into a stage whereby it’s not the foreign ministries anymore that are the most important central departments in relationships. When it moves to other departments within governments, you enter into an unwanted terrain.

You were involved in forming a new group called the UK National Committee on China. Can you tell me about the group and what it’s meant to be doing?

Logan: The criticism is often made that the UK has never, or not for a long time, had a China strategy. My idea was to bring together lots of different conversations on the one platform. It was an idea that I’d put out there, and then a lot of different people across the UK showed an interest in it. I’m not actively involved, and I don’t have an official position of any sort, nor am I remunerated. But it has organically grown.

What I see happening, and I don’t think is a good thing, is polarization down complete political lines of good and bad, Jesus and the devil. There’s a consensus at the extremes on different factions. China isn’t as bad as a lot of people are making out. There actually are a lot of things that it’s done incredibly well at, and its people are incredibly hard working. No doubt many people within Chinese society will tell you that they deserve what they have accumulated in bringing themselves into prosperity. Right now in the UK, our biggest priority is leveling up, and there’s probably no greater example of leveling up than China over the last 40 years. It’s very difficult to say it’s all bad or indeed all good. You have to find somewhere in between but we’re missing a lot of nuance at the moment.

If the UK’s China debate is dominated by these extremes, where would you put your views on that spectrum?

Logan: It’s so boring to say, but highly nuanced. I’m a Northern Irish man who comes from a Protestant and unionist tradition. And I’m very proud to be politically British and culturally an Ulster or Irishman. I’m proud of what the UK has achieved and its place in the world, but at the same time, I know in the past that we haven’t always got things right. And it’s difficult to try and keep the peace and balance in your society. Despite all that great love and affection for the UK and being British, I know that there’s often more than one side to the story, and that it’s not possible that we’re always right and the Catholics or the other communities are always wrong. So, I think that’s quite important context.

Of 365 Conservative MPs, I am the only one that was born and grew up in Northern Ireland. So I’m always wary of people with strident points of view that are very black and white, and zero-sum, with little nuance.

Trying to find the boogeyman to blame or to point the finger at is actually the worst form of politics because you shouldn’t be defined by who you’re against, but what you are for, and what it is that you want to bring to the world. I don’t want to define myself by being anti whatever it is. It just lacks any sort of attraction whatsoever.

Would you ever want to be in government?

Logan: I would be lying to you if I didn’t say that, at some point in my career, that would be something I’d be interested [in]. But it’s not something that I have on my horizon, out of respect to constituents.