Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Chinese aggression hit the headlines after Beijing imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine. But resisting Beijing’s exploitation of the international economy to build up its own power needs democracies to do far more than buy the odd bottle (or case) of Cab-Sauv.
On Tuesday, the China Research Group, led by Tom Tugendhat and Neil O’Brien, released a hard hitting report, Defending Democracy in a New World, describing a toolkit of things democracies can do to limit China’s abuse of the international system (I was involved in drafting the report).
Quite rightly, the report emphasises the importance of engaging with China, and welcomes Chinese economic progress, which, since Deng Xiaoping began to open the Chinese economy in 1979, has brought huge gains in the standard of living of billions of Chinese people, and indirectly, to the rest of the world.
Yet that international economic system is based on fundamental principles that China has been systematically violating. Human rights abuses have intensified since Xi Jinping consolidated power, from the concentration camps into which Uighurs have been crammed, to the destruction of civil liberties and democratic rights in Hong Kong, and the totalitarian oppression to which all Chinese citizens are subjected. China is bullying its neighbours, even to the point of preventing Taiwan helping fight the Covid–19 pandemic through the World Health Organisation, and has been rearming to back that intimidation with force.
Defending Democracy’s most important contribution however, is that it identifies the core source of Chinese Communist Party power and presents a set of practical measures democracies can take to blunt this expansionism. Today’s China is capable of reaching into the open economies of the West and pressing the undoubted economic achievements of Chinese industry and technology into the service of the Chinese state.
When globalisation brought barriers between states down, it did so on the implicit assumption that in market economies, the purpose of business was to make money – not serve the home states of the companies’ owners.
This created a world where it’s possible for all of us who can afford it, no matter where we are from, to own parts of foreign companies by buying shares in them, and have that ownership protected by the foreign country’s legal system. Instead of competing politically-like nineteenth century powers, we invest in each others’ economies and reap the benefits of companies competing with each other across a massive international market.
This ideal, however, is based on governments’ understanding that their job isn’t to promote “our own” companies at the expense of “theirs”, but to create an economic environment where a market economy could meet people’s needs and create jobs. Notwithstanding occasional outbursts of protectionism like France’s declaring dairy producer Danone a “strategic” industry, or outright state capture in some of the smaller ex-Communist European states, this ideal has mostly been upheld in the advanced economies of the world.
Xi Jinping’s China has seen that it is possible to apply the subversion of open Western economies, pioneered by the KGB, at industrial scale. When Western countries began to open up to each other after World War II, we did so on the condition that foreign trade and investment would not be used as a crude tool of political influence.
Perhaps seduced by the size of the Chinese market, and deceiving ourselves into thinking that as the Chinese grew richer, their political system would automatically grow democratic, we neglected to apply the same condition to Beijing. China is now going further, and using its power not only to enrich itself at the expense of a naive international economic and political system, but to start shaping the system’s rules in its own favour, and against liberal democracy.
This report is the start of a line of thinking that democracies, including of course the incoming Biden administration, need to join forces to impose costs on China for as long as its abuse of the international system continues. It contains some powerful measures that we can take to limit proposes some powerful measures that can be used to limit the extent of Beijing’s exploitation of our openness to further entrench its totalitarian rule.
As well as innovative specific measures to support the people of Hong Kong, and British National Overseas passport holders, to which the UK has a special responsibility, the report develops policies that can be applied by other democracies.
These include the systematic extension of Magnitsky Act-style sanctions to individuals responsible for human rights violations in China, including those in leadership positions.
Another key proposal is a “know your supplier” obligation to hold companies responsible for goods they sell that have been produced in supply chains where slave labour has been used. Companies that fail to adequately investigate their own supply chains could be fined, and their directors be subject to personal liability and asset forfeiture if it is found that their wealth resulted from forced labour.
Chinese state-owned enterprises could be excluded from national-security sensitive infrastructure projects. Indeed, given the control the Chinese government exerts over even non-state owned enterprises such as Huawei, through its own national security legislation, the report could perhaps have gone further here, though considerable work is needed to make such restrictions compatible with WTO rules.
China’s participation in the open global economy has been good for China, and good for the rest of us, but it has become clear that China is actively undermining the separation of politics and business upon which economic openness depends. Until Beijing changes its behaviour, democracies need to work together to ensure that China can no longer use its economic power to to bend the international system out of shape.