Stephen Kinnock, the British opposition’s China man

Stephen Kinnock, the British opposition’s China man
Image: UK Parliament/Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
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Stephen Kinnock is a member of Parliament and shadow minister for Asia and the Pacific. He represents the constituency of Aberavon in Wales, which is home to the largest steel production plant in the UK. As MP, Kinnock has often focused on the oversupply of Chinese steel and its impact on UK steelworkers.

Before becoming an MP Kinnock worked for the British Council and the World Economic Forum. He is a leading voice on China within the Labour Party, and his father Neil was party leader in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: Where does your interest in China come from, both personally or politically? 

Kinnock: Before becoming a member of Parliament, I worked for 11 years for the British Council, which is the cultural relations agency for the UK. So I have always had a very active interest in Britain’s role in the world. And China is a vitally important part of that picture.

How does your time at the Council relate to China?

Kinnock: I’m passionately of the view that the UK is still a soft power superpower and it really is one of our aces that we have to play. It’s actually part of my brief.

Where it fits in terms of the discussion around China [is that] it’s really important to underline that we stand in solidarity with so many of the Chinese people who are hungry for that international engagement. They are not a part of the government that is engaged in some of the activities that we are very concerned about. Those people-to-people connections are vitally important building blocks for the future relationship.

Have you ever been to China? And if so, how did it affect your views of the country?

Kinnock: I’ve been there a couple of times in connection with the work that I did at the World Economic Forum [from 2008 to 2011]. The forum used to have an annual meeting in China. I went and it was a fascinating experience. It was quite a different China then, because it was prior to [Chinese president] Xi Jinping taking over, and that’s when the big change really happened.

It really underlined the central importance of the country to me. The sense that, unlike in a democracy, they would just be pushing ahead with it without too many brickbats being thrown at them from the media or from competing political parties—it gives you a sense of the power of the country.

But also, I am a democrat to my fingertips. I did three years in Russia [for the British Council], so I know what an autocratic regime looks like, and I know what it means if you are on the wrong side of it. And whilst, of course, I was very impressed by the power and the strategic grip of the senior politicians that I saw operating at that meeting in China, I am very clear-sighted about what that means in terms of people’s rights and freedoms.

As an MP you did a lot of work on Britain’s steel industry. Was that a natural lead-in to the China question?

Kinnock: My constituency includes the Port Talbot steelworks, the largest in the country. It’s absolutely clear that the Chinese steel industry is state-owned and subsidized to the hilt, and there’s a very clear strategy of over-producing steel to create a glut on world markets, which pushes prices down. It is one of the drivers [of] the steel crisis in the UK.

That brought a new dimension to my interest in China because it’s a clear example of how decisions that are made thousands of miles away from the UK have a direct impact and effect on the lives of people in my constituency working in the steel industry—how the global is local.

When we were in the European Union, the UK government was one of the ringleaders of a number of countries that were trying to stop the European Commission from taking a stronger position against the dumping of Chinese steel. I think [it was] probably part of this completely failed “golden era” 1 strategy, where the red carpet was rolled out whilst Beijing was actively undermining British industry.

How do you feel the current UK-China strategy compares to that golden era?

Kinnock: I think we’ve gone from golden era to mixed messages. The golden era [was] an unmitigated failure. It was very naive and complacent to think that there would be a natural transition [in China], through deeper economic integration, into alignment and respect for the international rules-based order. Anybody that had more experience and understanding of how authoritarian regimes operate would have taken a far more hard-headed and clear-sighted view of president Xi.

In terms of where we are now, I think we just see these very damaging mixed messages coming from the Conservative government. Look at the mess around Huawei2: It was pretty clear that Number 10 Downing Street, the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, and the Treasury [wanted] to go ahead with giving Huawei the 5G access that they were after. But the Conservative Party, and particularly MPs, are deeply divided on this issue. Of course, this is an area where we in the Labour Party are on the same page. Nothing should be placed ahead of our national security in terms of the government’s order of priority. So that, in essence, gave us the numbers in parliament that forced the U-turn.

It’s damaging because the Chinese government respects strength, unity, and consistency, and is contemptuous of weakness and division. But I’m afraid the UK government seems to have one foot still in the golden era camp. And as a result, our national interest and our values are being undermined, and we end up looking indecisive, weak, and divided. The golden era strategy was an unmitigated failure, but you could argue that the current place of mixed messages, lack of clarity, indecisiveness, and dither is at least as damaging.

You talk of your party being in lockstep with Conservative MPs on this issue, but that wasn’t always the case. How did the new Labour Party position on China come to be?

Kinnock: I think it’s a combination of the Labour Party being under new management and taking a far more realistic position on foreign policy, and the increasingly belligerent and aggressive behavior of the Chinese government under president Xi. That’s really manifested itself in what we’ve seen in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, and in the South China Sea.

We’ve got a real problem with the fact that the Conservative Party has spent the last five or six years burning bridges. Whatever you think about Brexit, the way it’s been handled has really undermined the government’s ability to build alliances. That is where there’s a very clear dividing line between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. We are a party that is still in a very good position in terms of building alliances. We want an alliance-based foreign policy, not one which is about “Britain Alone,” which is what “Global Britain” 3 seems to be turning into.

Also, threats to break international law4 are not very helpful when you’re going out into the world trying to defend the international rules-based order.

You are leading a new group to reconnect with voters the Labour Party has lost. How does the issue of China play with those voters?

Kinnock: There is a very broad recognition across the electorate of the role that China is playing in people’s jobs and the economy. The Covid crisis has also brought that into sharp relief: Suddenly there was a realization that we didn’t have enough PPE in the UK, and that huge amounts of PPE were being imported from China. I think it brought home to people just how overexposed we are, because we don’t have a strong enough manufacturing base, we have outsourced so many good jobs, and so many important products are just not made in the UK anymore. That doesn’t make economic sense, it doesn’t make political sense, and it’s not good for our national security.

China is playing a really big role in shaping people’s thinking around what we mean about a UK that is going to stand tall in the world. A strong economy is your platform for being strong in the world. You’ve got to get your own house in order. Our own manufacturing sector used to account for about 30% of our GDP in the 1970s (pdf, p. 4), and it’s now less than 10%. There’s a really important argument to be made about the need to rebuild the UK’s manufacturing base, and China is a really important part of that argument.

Do you think your party is doing a good enough job of making that argument?

Kinnock: Within a month of Keir Starmer taking over as leader [of the Labour Party], we had discussions within the Shadow Foreign Commonwealth and Development team about China. The broad strategic line was set by the early summer of 2020.

Would things have been different if Labour were still led by Jeremy Corbyn?

Kinnock: I was on the back benches during the time of Jeremy’s leadership, and I don’t know really what his thinking was, how he was operating, and what his approach was on these kinds of issues. I just know that where we are now is under new management, and with a more clear-eyed and realistic position that needs to feed into every aspect of government.

When it comes to China, you can’t really distinguish between foreign policy and industrial strategy, for example. Our industrial strategy should be informed by the need to ensure that British industry is able to thrive and that we’re not flogging off our national assets, not only to those who are just coming with the money, but also those who, if they acquire those assets, are potentially a security threat—nuclear being an obvious example, [and] 5G, and semiconductors.

We’re not talking about protectionism. We have gone so far in the UK into just putting Britain up for sale5, from our utilities to our railways to our semiconductors to our digital infrastructure. We’ve flogged so much of it off to businesses that are backed by increasingly hostile foreign governments or backed by financial interests that are just interested in stripping assets. It’s a total failure of industrial strategy. And China is a really important piece of that jigsaw.

My hope is that when Keir Starmer becomes prime minister of the UK in 2023 or 2024, having this active industrial strategy will be right at the heart of government policy.

I’m pretty clear on where you feel engagement with China is harmful to the UK’s interests. But I’m less clear on where you would actually advocate engaging with China in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize national security. 

Kinnock: I’ve always felt that there is a false dichotomy around this idea that if you challenge China and stand up for what you believe in, that that will somehow automatically lead to a complete collapse in every dimension and aspect of the relationship. I actually think the opposite is true.

My experience of dealing with authoritarian regimes is that you have to establish some respect, and once you have that, you can actually have a more productive and constructive relationship right across the board. That’s about having unity and consistency because otherwise you’re treated with contempt if you’re weak and divided. And if you talk about having red lines but then you don’t take a robust position to defend them, you’re seen as weak and ineffective.

Can you give me some examples?

Kinnock: It is a complex and multifaceted relationship, and that means we’ve got to do three things. We have to be ready to challenge when we can see the international rules based order is being disregarded, for example, the blatant breaking of the Sino-British Joint Declaration 6.

Then we have to be able to compete with China. We’ve got to work with other countries to ensure that we’ve got the scale and the ability to compete, for example, on things like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. I think 10 Downing Street should be doing more of this.

And then we do have to cooperate. The obvious area there is climate change. It Is absolutely clear that we’re never going to tackle the climate crisis without China. I was very encouraged by the fact that even after the US published a list of [Chinese officials] they were sanctioning under the Magnitsky Act 7, just a few days after that, John Kerry flew to Beijing and had constructive and productive talks with the Chinese government on climate change. That shows that it is perfectly possible to do and it has to be done. Those three pillars of challenge, compete, and cooperate, they have to be the framework for our strategic relationship with China going forward.

Dare I say that that sounds pretty similar to the language that’s already in the government’s Integrated Review 8?

Kinnock: Well, of course, that’s the framework. The problem is that the British government isn’t really doing any of them effectively. It’s all very well saying we know what we need to do. But the question is then how are you going to do it? Where are you taking the robust position on the human rights and values side of it? What are you actually doing to develop the kind of scale and scope and capacity that we need to be able to compete effectively, particularly in the global technology race?

The jury’s out on COP 269, but it doesn’t feel right now like Boris Johnson has really got much of a grip on the agenda. And he doesn’t seem to be, as things stand, finding a way to really bring China to the table. But there’s still some time to go. We know what needs to be done, but I’m afraid that we have a government that just keeps sending mixed messages and isn’t actually delivering on any of those three key pillars of the strategy.