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Neil O’Brien: I can laugh off China sanctioning me, but we can’t shrug off the threat it poses

Screen Shot 2021 01 11 at 08.01.54

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

Typical, isn’t it?  You’re trying to get the kids off to school and nursery, running late as you hunt around for your son’s snuggly giraffe. You have a busy day planned, meeting the local paper and a café owner threatened with eviction.

The next thing you know, a communist superpower declares war on you personally.

I’m one of nine people sanctioned by China. It’s tempting to laugh it off. After all, seizing my assets in China will leave the Communists no richer. And after they kidnapped two prominent Canadians, I wasn’t planning to go there anyway.

The next morning, the Chinese embassy still sent me their regular propaganda email to MPs, which began: “Dear friends…”  It seems joined-up government is impossible – even under dictatorship.

But it’s no laughing matter. The goal isn’t really to intimidate me or the other MPs, but business people, academics, and others. To create uncertainty, fear and self-censorship – memorably described as the “Anaconda in the chandelier” strategy.

More and more businesses are having to grapple with it: Beijing’s currently threatening to destroy Nike and H&M in China for raising concerns about slave labour.

It’s now coming up on a year since we launched the China Research Group.  Over the last 12 months, things have changed in lots of ways.

First, there’s growing global awareness of China’s human rights abuses: particularly against the Uighur people, but also in Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and across China as a whole. Human Rights Watch says it’s the worst period for human rights since Tiananmen.

The brutal crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s decision to tear up the Sino-British declaration and end “one country, two systems” showed how much Beijing will sacrifice to keep absolute control. All leading pro-democracy activists there are now in exile, in jail or on trial.

At least the world has started to notice and act.  Indeed, we were targeted by Beijing in response to coordinated sanctions on human rights abusers in Xinjiang, recently put in place by 30 democratic countries.

MPs around Europe and MEPs from all the European Parliament’s main political groups were sanctioned along with us, with various US politicians already sanctioned last year.

So we’re all in it together, and it was great to get strong support from the Prime Minister – and through him the US President – and also from friends around Europe.

The sanctions aren’t like-for-like of course. MPs like me are being sanctioned simply for writing articles like this. By contrast, the democracies are sanctioning Xinjiang officials for presiding over a regime forcing sterilisation of Uighur women on an industrial scale; using rape as a weapon to break dissenters in its vast network of detention camps; rolling out an AI-powered surveillance state that to identify and control minority groups; and physically erasing the Uighur culture and religion from the face of the earth.

Our sanctions are to protest against human rights abuses. Theirs to silence such protests.

What Beijing’s doing is at least as bad as Apartheid South Africa.  But by comparison, the international response has been more muted so far. Partly because China makes it hard for reporters to get access. But also because China is more powerful than South Africa was.

International pressure on South Africa grew over decades and became a huge cultural movement. It loomed large in the pop music of my 80s childhood: “Free Nelson Mandela”, “Something Inside So Strong”, “Silver and Gold”, “Gimme hope Jo’anna” were all hits.

These days Hollywood studios make sure that their films have the thumbs up from Beijing: they think it’s too big a market to risk losing.

I’ve written about China’s growing global censorship. Nonetheless, the truth is seeping out, and the global criticism getting louder.

That points to a second positive change over the year: new opportunities for democracies to coordinate in the Biden era.

Coodination is essential: China’s economic and political strategy relies on divide and rule.  Each free country fears losing out if it alone stands up to Beijing.

The communist regime singles out countries who challenge it like Australia, Sweden and Canada. Like all bullies, they are really trying to teach others to keep their heads down.

But while Trump had scratchy relations with other leaders, Biden’s election makes cooperation much easier.

It’s not just that we need to get the band back together again, and make the G7 work (though that’s important), but bringing together a wider group of democracies including India, South Korea, Australia and South Africa. The Prime Minister is right to push the “D11” concept.

The third big change is changing western attitudes on economic policy regarding China.

The single best thing about the recent Integrated Review was the clear-eyed understanding of the competition for technological advantage now underway between nations.

In the sunny utopianism of the 1990s, the world was going to be flat, borderless, and competition was between companies not countries. Technology was cool, but not a national issue: the UK could just specialise in professional services. Awesome new global supply chains meant you didn’t need to worry about where your supplies were coming from, whether it was vaccines; ventilators, PPE, silicon chips or telecoms equipment.

Beijing has a very different vision, and its rise means we must change our thinking  It promotes “Civil-military fusion”, and its imports have slowed dramatically as its import substitution policies develop.

Xi Jinping says he is “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.” He explains that China must “enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”

The US has woken up to this, and in Washington as well as Beijing there’s a shared understanding that the two superpowers are fighting to dominate the technologies of the future. Joe Biden talks about “winning the future”.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have long seen tech competition as a shared national endeavour, and have policies to match.  No wonder: meeting politicians from these countries through the China Research Group, I’ve come to understand the level of constant threat they have to live under.

We too must adapt to this more national world.

First, we need to build a powerful innovation system. During the 1960s and 1970s the US and UK invested similar amounts in R&D.  But Reagan grew federal support while we let it wither, and we have been operating on different levels since.  I’ve banged on before about how to make government funding do more for our economy.

Second, we need to protect ourselves from the Beijing’s hoovering up of technology.  More help for business to resist cyberattack from the National Cyber Force.  Somewhere to get advice on not losing your intellectual property if you do business in China.

And as well as the very welcome National Security and Investment Bill we need to make sure that the new Investment Security Unit has the same resourcing and input from the security services that CFIUS enjoys in the US – and we need to be prepared to use the new powers.

Likewise, Jo Johnson’s recent report highlights the risks to our universities from poorly-thought-through partnerships with China. Investigations by Civitas and the Daily Telegraph revealed that UK universities are actually helping Beijing with new weapons technologies. We must get a firm grip of all such partnerships and where universities’ money is coming from.

Over the last year we’ve learned a lot.  The UK and governments across the west have started to act.  But we’re still just starting to figure out how to respond to a more aggressive China.

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