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Getting Tough: Labour’s Role in Shaping UK China Policy

Labour has a vital role to play in ensuring the UK takes its place in a growing alliance of Western democracies willing to act and defend the international rules-based system in the face of China’s authoritarian challenge.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown delivers a speech during a UK-China business summit in 2009. Courtesy of PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In the last two years, the UK’s relationship with China has shifted substantially from the Cameron government’s ‘Golden Era’ of relations. Unnoticed by many, the Labour Party has played a significant role in shaping this new approach to UK–China policy, which is underpinned by human rights, is opposed to Chinese state investment in key sectors of the UK economy, and manifests growing concern over the increasingly authoritarian behaviour of the Chinese government.

Yet, with the appointment of a new shadow cabinet and David Lammy MP taking over as shadow foreign secretary from Lisa Nandy MP, it remains to be seen whether Labour will mirror its sister parties in the US, Australia and the European Parliament and work to solidify an emerging parliamentary consensus on UK–China policy.

Of course, like the Conservatives, Labour’s attitude towards the Chinese Communist Party was not always so overtly hostile. After all, the softening of the UK’s approach to China started under the last Labour government, with Gordon Brown signing bilateral agreements for increased Chinese investment in the UK, ministers attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics and criticising the UK press for its coverage, and Labour being responsible for the UK recognising China’s direct rule over Tibet.

Similarly, it is easy to forget that the Cameron government’s ‘Golden Era’ of relations had many admirers and supporters on the Labour opposition benches in Parliament, including the former Labour minister and EU Commissioner Lord Mandelson, who argued at the time that there was ‘a broad cross-party consensus on the importance of expanding and deepening relations’. Despite self-proclaimed credentials as an advocate for human rights, even Jeremy Corbyn MP as Labour leader was happy to attend the state banquet and meet with President Xi Jinping in October 2015.

Consumed by Brexit and opposition to Donald Trump, Labour’s thinking on UK–China policy under Corbyn was noted by many as limited and lacklustre. This was reflected in the party’s response to the large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, which brought with them daily scenes of police brutality. Labour’s response to the largest pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong’s history was to simply call for the government to press China to uphold the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Like the rest of the UK public, Labour’s positioning on China has been altered significantly by the increasingly belligerent behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party. Whether it is the Chinese government’s active cover-up of the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, ensuring that a local epidemic turned into a full-blown pandemic; the launching of trade wars against Australia and Lithuania; the sanctioning of UK parliamentarians, lawyers and academics; the destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomy; or the increasingly graphic reports of gross human rights violations taking place against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, negative perceptions of China in the West are at an all-time high.

Labour’s positioning on China has been altered significantly by the increasingly belligerent behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party

The former shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy MP, and Stephen Kinnock MP, the former shadow minister for Asia, are the two individuals who have much to be credited for in transforming Labour’s China policy. A formidable team, Nandy and Kinnock pushed the government to prevent Chinese state-owned enterprises from participating in the UK’s energy sector; championed a cross-party motion labelling the treatment of the Uyghurs as ‘genocide’; called for UK judges to leave Hong Kong in response to the human rights crisis; and ensured that the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer MP, was one of the first to call for the sanctioning of Chinese officials responsible for the incarceration and enslavement of over a million Uyghurs.

The emergence of this tougher approach has allowed Labour to exploit the growing incoherence and ‘cakeism’ in the government’s China policy, which is split between a Treasury keen to continue the ‘Golden Era’ and deepen investment and trade links post-Brexit, and a Foreign Office balancing a tougher line on human rights with a desire to ensure China’s cooperation when it comes to tackling climate change. To bypass this incoherence, Labour has called for the government to undertake an audit of the UK–China relationship and create a unified cross-departmental strategy, and Stephen Kinnock MP has privately lobbied Labour colleagues to institute a shadow committee to coordinate China policy.

As with its sister parties in the US, Australia and the European Parliament, Labour’s approach to China transcends traditional party politics. Foreign Office ministers in the past have found themselves flummoxed in parliamentary debates by the extent to which Labour shadow ministers and prominent Conservative backbenchers including the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, and the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith MP, have found common cause in criticising the government’s China policy.

The Labour frontbench has demonstrated flexibility and an openness to backing Conservative rebellions on issues relating to China, in particular giving its active support to Conservative rebels who sought to introduce the ‘Genocide Amendment’ to the Trade Bill, which would have blocked a future Free Trade Agreement with China; supporting cross-party calls for the UK to diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics; and recently backing a rebel amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would extend the British National (Overseas) Visa Scheme to Hong Kongers born after 1997.

Such pragmatism reflects Labour’s wider strategy, which seeks to demonstrate to the UK public that it is a credible government-in-waiting and willing to support the government when it comes to issues related to public health and national security. This was the case when it came to the formation of the AUKUS defence pact between the UK, the US and Australia. Labour offered its support to the fledgling defence pact while at the same time criticising the exclusion of European allies. This cautious support for AUKUS came in the face of opposition from the party membership, which overwhelmingly passed a motion at party conference criticising its formation.

Labour’s shifting China policy extends beyond its frontbench. Much is made of the emergence of the Conservative China Research Group and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which appear to direct debate within the House of Commons. What is often ignored is the fact that the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance boasts 17 Labour MPs within its ranks.

Similarly, little consideration is given to the unity on UK–China policy displayed across all wings of the Labour Party, bringing together strange bedfellows ranging from the left-wing former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP, to the soft left represented by figures like Lisa Nandy MP, to unrepentant Blairites like the former government minister Lord Adonis. The emergence of a supposedly ‘left-wing’ fringe movement opposing a ‘new Cold War’ and reflecting pro-Beijing sentiments is notable only for its lack of support from Labour MPs.

The Labour frontbench has demonstrated flexibility and an openness to backing Conservative rebellions on issues relating to China

Rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the continued crackdown in Hong Kong, China’s economic decoupling from the West, and the increasing use of economic coercion by Beijing all run the risk of heightening tensions between the West and Xi Jinping’s China.

Despite the emergence of opposition to China’s increasing authoritarianism in the EU Parliamentmovements to block Chinese takeovers of strategic industries by the Draghi government in Rome, and the election of new governments in the Czech Republic and Germany – the latter led by the Social Democratic Party – who appear willing to take a harder line, many EU officials and some EU leaders are still wedded to the pursuit of ‘strategic autonomy’ and remaining an ‘active hedger’. Whether or not it is realistic, this strategy has gained support from Xi Jinping as it draws a false equivalence between the behaviour of the US and China and plays into his attempts to drive a wedge between the EU and the US.

Some in Labour may be attracted by this approach, which would emulate the government’s own ‘cakeism’ and allow the party to support deeper economic and investment ties, human rights and climate cooperation, and ‘oppose great power struggle’, without any assessment of the policy trade-offs engagement with Xi Jinping’s China requires. However, such an approach would be ruinous for Labour, staking a position against an electorate and press increasingly sceptical of the Chinese government and alienating some of the UK’s closest allies.

As Labour’s new shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy MP would be better served working with colleagues in Labour’s sister parties in the US, Australia and the European Parliament where parliamentary consensuses on China policy have already emerged, as well as fostering links with those in government in Germany and Italy who are recalibrating their respective foreign policies towards China.

Building upon the solid foundation created in the last two years, Labour has a vital role to play in moving UK–China policy to ensure the UK takes its place in a growing alliance of Western democracies willing to act and defend the international rules-based system in the face of an authoritarian China which seeks to undermine human rights, global trade rules, and internationally recognised maritime and land boundaries.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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