Turning the tanker: the UK’s ‘lucky’ escape and averting the CCP collision course

It has often been said that institutional change demands patience akin to that required to turn an aircraft carrier. However, it has also been said that — since an aircraft carrier has four engines — it is actually one of the swifter large seacraft to change course, and that the discipline necessary to instigate the cultural change that in turn effects institutional reform is more like that of training a horse.

I am not sure whether the urgent need for a review of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy toward China demands a culture shift or not. After all, as Jung Chang discovers in her prologue to Wild Swans, we already have a culture that is blessedly removed from that of the CCP’s Frankenstein’s Monster of Confucianism-Leninism in every way imaginable. It was more a matter of admitting that the cultural gulf between the UK and the PRC is a fundamental and thus dangerous one, and acting accordingly. So, I will avoid the equine metaphors for today and stick to the nautical.

Extensive research suggests collisions with huge ships can be avoided with the method of ‘changing direction’.

We need be in no doubt though, that a nation changing course is less like turning a carrier, and more like turning a full capacity supertanker. We might say the iceberg had already been sighted early last year, in the form of Hong Kong’s island of common law & liberty being steadily frozen into another clone of Beijing. Yet, just as a supertanker needs to be alerted of a potential collision many miles prior to the fact, the HMS Britannic kept powering on headlong toward the threat, despite desperate warnings from friendly craft. By the time we took on a suspect stowaway — name of ‘Huawei’ — the crew itself had begun to mutiny.

A “handful of patriotic backbenchers”, as security analyst Bruce Newsome called them, that “cross parties, ideologies and Brexit” ruptured the logic vacuum in which a technology company that — by the government’s own admission — constituted a ‘high-risk vendor’ was welcomed into the heart of British telecommunications.

Awakenings come in waves, of course, and the next wave was coronavirus. There’s nothing like an outbreak of disease on a ship to let the Captain know all is not well, and while the direct connection between Chinese 5G and Chinese COVID-19 remained confined to the conspiracist fringe (who bemusedly welcomed Amanda Holden to their tin-foiled ranks), to the rest of us it was an instructive metaphor. Whether the average Brit grasps the zoonotic leap made from pangolin to bat to human did not matter so much as the general understanding that markets full of tightly packed critters that would never meet in the wild are not a good idea. If Remain voters in Richmond or Leavers in Lincoln didn’t follow every available detail of arrests of whistleblowers in Wuhan, they knew it wasn’t cricket. For the first time, the British took a collective look at the Many Adventures of Winnie the Flu in the Hundred-Flower Wood, and found them distinctly unwholesome.

And if you listen, you can hear the engine whirring as the tanker alters course, and millions of conversations occur above and below deck about the new direction. Around three-quarters of the country blames the Communist regime for the proliferation of the disease, according to the Henry Jackson Society’s YouGov poll. In my family, where the virus has had a lasting impact, we reached peak hostility some weeks ago, when I found myself dissuading bitter family members of the feasibility of an all-out China boycott. Wiping my chin of drying xenophobic drool, I felt it time to seek out less blunt instruments of correcting our relationship with Peking.

I felt extremely lucky to be invited to just such a sophisticated examination late last week in the form of a Zoom event held by Conservative Progress. Ably hosted by Seema Shah, the three-way discussion featured what must now be the bare minimum of poles of opinion needed to hold a sensible debate on China.

No such discussion these days is worth having without someone able to capture the hard-headed mood, and this view was fittingly articulated in an Australian accent. As her country spearheads the demand for an international inquiry into the origins of the virus, Latika Bourke delivered an urgent warning to we British, tempered with a grounded realism. Bourke is convinced that Australia is a model for the UK to follow, a golden mien between the extremes of mercenary cravenness and (self-)destructive rejectionism. Putting swathes of Australia’s near-three decade run of continued economic growth down to ties with China, there is no question of the two countries ‘decoupling’. Yet the regime is also widely understood and treated as a security threat in Canberra, and the UK’s arms-length embrace of Huawei was “almost mind-blowing” in Australian political and security circles. But now we have an opportunity to reset, and she reminds us that we are in the fortunate position of currently having very limited trade with China — around 2 per cent — and so can enter any further ‘coupling’ with open eyes. Bourke’s advice to the UK in dealing with China in two words: “Get smart.”

In the middle of the road — predictably — we had a politician. Alicia Kearns is the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, a founder member of the China Research Group and actually her view is not dissimilar to Bourke’s, just more diplomatically packaged. In facing the PRC, “we need to find a balance we haven’t yet found.” She accepts the need for expanding relations and is all for expanding our awareness of Chinese culture — her favourite Chinese restaurant is an authentic little joint in Camden, since sadly colonised by hipsters. “But where I see ethnic cleansing, I will call it out.” This artful flitting from David Cameron to Margaret Thatcher is basically just what the doctor ordered.

Going against the grain is Professor Kerry Brown. Director of the Lau China Institute at KCL and a fluent Mandarin speaker, he is inevitably the dove of the proceedings. His shade of realism borders on the fatalistic — “wonder[ing] if there is any scope for talking human rights with China” — and he does fall back irritatingly on the strawman that we mustn’t pretend China doesn’t exist, despite that Bourke and Kearns have explicitly stated they aren’t for decoupling (though in fairness this is perhaps directed at the Chat section, where the vengeful baying is reaching Versailles levels) More helpfully, he reminds us that we are “not dealing with a proselytising country” as we were with the USSR, and that China has a history of making concessions under pressure, so perhaps now wouldn’t be a bad time to push for that trade deal (take note, Global Britain) However he also demonstrates a disturbing willingness to broadcast the approved CCP narrative: his analysis of the great COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is: “the problem was China, I guess, and the solution is China.” (Note to self, check funding of the Lau China Institute)

We will probably have to tolerate the Professor Browns for now, while taking what we can from their obvious love and understanding of Chinese culture and history. But it is encouraging that the Overton window is shifting to include the Latika Bourkes and the Alicia Kearns’.

But aren’t we entitled to at least hear from the conscious decouplers too? If we really are resetting relations it makes sense to listen to all perspectives; the government’s questionable COVID response has taught us the hard lessons of listening to too narrow a base of expert opinion. Besides, the Japanese are at it. The Americans are considering it. If we’re being asked, my recommendation for a commentator at CP’s next summit on dealing with the CCP would be Stephen K. Bannon.

After all, supertanker fuel contains a touch of sulphur.

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