[Christina Rees in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 3:02 pm ar 15 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Ceidwadwyr, Bolton North East 3:02, 15 Mai 2024

Unlike my hon. Friend Bob Seely, I have not prepared a very thorough speech, but I am glad that he has brought this important topic to Westminster Hall.

(The Member continued in Mandarin.)

Neil Coyle—I am not sure how to say that in Chinese—speaks fantastic Mandarin Chinese and is a living manifestation of what our aspirations should be for the country. More people should study Mandarin Chinese. That was in the integrated review, and we have talked about it for years on end, but we need more diplomats in the Foreign Office and people across the whole of Whitehall who can not only speak Mandarin Chinese, but engage with China. Many experts have in the past talked about the plus one: no matter what field someone is working in these days—they may be a biological scientist of some sort, an accountant or a Government official—that should be the substantive part that they own, and then the Chinese understanding is the icing on the cake.

I do not want to step on the toes of the Deputy Foreign Secretary, but I will give some of my own thoughts in response to the points that colleagues made. I was based in the People’s Republic of China for about 13 years —I worked in the Foreign Office and was based in Shanghai. I have studied China for about 20 years, and I know less about it today than I did 20 years ago, but I will try my best.

I worry sometimes about the overall tone or mood of a lot of these debates about China over the past four and half years—my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight will be very perceptive of this—because whether we are sat in the United Kingdom, the United States or elsewhere in the west, it feels completely driven by fear and by that sense of threat. That makes me a little worried, in that that strikes as us being reticent and not having confidence in what we have to offer ideologically or in our system. Implicitly, in the 1980s, we did not really care about China, because it was not competition for us, but today we care about it and talk about it every day, in every single debate, which unfortunately might give a signal to others in the world and, indeed, to China that it perhaps does have the upper hand in many different forms of engagement, whether that is business, commercial, political or diplomatic, among other things.

That soul searching part is incredibly important for us, because this should not just be about asking what our China policy or strategy is. Rather, this is about the UK: what is our identity? What is our place in the world? What are our priorities? And then, it is about having everything else flow from that, because at the end of the day, China is just one country out of 200. It is a very important country: it is a United Nations Security Council member and the second biggest economy in the world, it has a population of 1.4 billion and it had great GDP growth rates, in the double figures for many numbers of years. When the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and I were there, it was experiencing 13% or 14% GDP growth rates every year, but that has ended. China is in a very different economic climate now, especially over the past couple of years.

The question I often ask myself is not what our China policy is, but what do the Chinese think of us? What is China’s UK strategy? What is China’s UK policy? I am never really sure of the answer. Again, I am conscious of different friends in our audience who have been long-time China watchers, but I have always felt, in the years of being based there—even working in diplomacy and coming into contact with party secretaries, mayors and those from the politburo from time to time—and to this day, that it has felt like an invisible hand. So I am always perplexed when people speak with great authority about the Communist party of China, because it is just so invisible. I often wonder where that intel and knowledge about the CPC come from.

There is another thing about some of the points that were raised, and this can be really difficult. Obviously, we do not want to play into China’s political rhetoric, but we often talk about the disaggregation between the people of China and the Communist party of China, and although I know that this stat has been overused over the past number of years, there is a certain amount of truth in it: in 2020, when the Ash Centre in Harvard researched levels of approval for the Communist party of China or the central Government in China, their approval ratings were sitting at about 95%. I know that everyone will come back to say, “That cannot be true,” but my feeling—my sense from being there for more than a decade—was that very rarely did people complain about the national leadership. Usually, complaints were about local government at the village level, or the municipal or provincial level, but rarely were there complaints against the national Government. It would be interesting to see an updated poll, because that research was from 2020, just before covid struck, and China has had a lot more difficulties politically and economically since, especially in the past couple of years. I would be very interested to see polling on that.

On Monday, when we were at Policy Exchange, the Prime Minister made an incredibly interesting speech. I was struck by these ideas of securitisation and of entering into a world over the next five to 10 years that is potentially more dangerous than the one that we have lived in in recent decades. Another slight concern from my end—not necessarily vis-à-vis the Prime Minister—was something I wrote about in the South China Morning Post about three years ago, and that is this idea of liberalisation, or ideas of liberalism, in the international system. We have often talked about how, with economic engagement, China would become more like the west, but it seems that we have given up on that for the most part in recent years. My contention, however—this is very provocative, but I ask it every single time in this kind of debate—is this: is it China becoming more like the west, or is the west starting to copy things from China’s handbook when it comes to banning things?

Those linked to the Policy Exchange think-tank are very clear and intent on banning TikTok in the United Kingdom, but my worry is that that is driven by fear, by this idea of threat. What is more important than politics and regulation, however, is being innovative. It is about saying to ourselves in the UK, “Can we come up with a company that can outstrip the American tech companies and do better than TikTok has done? Or will we become like the European Union and just think we can regulate our way into a successful future?” I do not think that is possible. The Chancellor recently stated that he is keen for us to have “a British Microsoft”, and I absolutely agree with that sentiment and that positivity.