China: UK policy — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:17 pm on 7th May 2019.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 5:17 pm, 7th May 2019

I had not actually intended to participate when I decided to come to this debate, but I find that I really want to. Although I accept that there are very considerable issues about the treatment of various groups in China, it seems that there is a much larger issue, to which my hon. Friend Leo Docherty began to attend in moving the debate. It really is very important that we should begin to attend to it.

The fact is that the world is being remade before our eyes. Between them, China and India are very likely to be the dominant features of our globe in the latter half of the current century, and they might simply reassert a position that was the norm until the industrial revolution. We should remind ourselves that after the industrial revolution, we in Britain were among the leaders in a period of imperialism and colonialism, and of aggressive mercantilism, in which appalling scandals were visited on both India and China. We inherited power in India at a time when the country accounted for 23% of world GDP; when we left, it accounted for 3%. I declare an interest in this issue: I am leading a project on India and China at the Legatum Institute—incidentally, I am the vice-president of the Great Britain-China Centre. Actually, one need not be involved in these things at all to know what the history looks like.

On China, the opium wars, which have been mentioned, were correctly described by an independent observer of the scene—namely William Ewart Gladstone in this House—as probably the most awful scandal that had ever until that time occurred in the relations between one country and another. We fought a war in order to force very large numbers of people to accept the export to them of a dangerous drug. It is not surprising, therefore, that India and China have certain issues with the west, and Britain in particular.

Nor is the construction of the so-called international rules-based order, which has been referred to, anywhere near as unequivocal as people often imagine. It is, in point of fact, a construct of the western liberal victors of the second world war. The whole international rules-based system, which is being replicated in a completely different way in the institutions surrounding the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, has embedded in it western liberal values to which I happen to subscribe, but which are not at all the values of the entire tradition of Indian thought and postcolonial Indian thought from Nehru onwards, nor of Chinese thought, ancient or modern.

The abuses and problems in China that have been referred to are reminiscent of things that went on in our country for many centuries. It is helpful in many respects to think of Xi Jinping’s regime as a kind of Tudor monarchy. The Tudors in this country, operating in part from this building, engaged in torture and religious persecution, and did all sorts of things of which we now do not approve. They also presided over the most vibrant cultural and economic renaissance that this country has ever seen, which gave great benefits to the world. They also initiated what became an industrial revolution—the greatest explosion of human progress and development, in economic terms, that had ever happened until the Chinese outdid it.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, in the past few years China has brought out of poverty the greatest number of people that has ever been brought out of poverty anywhere in the history of the world. It may in due course be overtaken by India, but unless and until that happens, it has a striking world record in improving the quality of life of its people. The fact that it is doing so in a way that does not wholly meet with the approval of western liberals is, first, no surprise, and, secondly something that, although I agree it should not be ignored, should not lead us to think that the major issue is what we think about China.

The major issue is a quite different one. My hon. Friend quoted Kevin Rudd, who happens to be one of the most sober-minded and sensible of the commentators, but in certain circles in Washington a powerful narrative is developing—this is why I asked him whether he really thought the Department for International Trade should be advising him to invent his own foreign policy vis-à-vis China—that foresees, almost as if it welcomes it, the prospect of an encounter, which actually means a world war, between the United States and China as China rises. Some of the more pessimistic texts have analysed cases in which one power has risen and succeeded the hegemony of another, and have found that rather few of such encounters have been peaceful. When Germany rose and sought to supplant Britain in the early part of the 20th century as the world’s leading economic and colonial power, the first world war eventuated. There are many other cases of such shifts occurring, not because of ideological difference, but simply because one power overtakes another. That thesis is now prevalent in some parts of Washington. Alongside climate change, I think it probably constitutes the biggest single danger to our children and grandchildren.

What therefore seems overwhelmingly more important than our criticisms of China’s internal arrangements, which we have a right, albeit a limited one, to criticise, is that we work with our allies to ensure we fashion a world for our children and grandchildren that does not disappear in a wholly unnecessary nuclear conflagration. That is a much bigger issue for humanity. Unless we start taking China and India seriously—not just in this country but in the west as a whole—unless and until the west as a whole recognises that it cannot expect to maintain hegemony in a world in which, on a very wide reckoning, there are 1 billion westerners and 2.6 billion Indians and Chinese, and unless we reconcile ourselves to a peaceful coexistence based on a radical reassessment of the whole post-war structure, which was designed around the principles of western hegemony, we are heading for a very great catastrophe. That above all is the issue that we need to debate.