Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?

Dragon and Big Ben collage.jpg

Antar Dayal/Illustration Works/Corbis

“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to go to great lengths to say they were standing up for human rights in China. Now, trade ties with Beijing are so lucrative that Western leaders no longer need to lie: China is what it is.

A fundamental shift has appeared in British rhetoric in the twenty-four years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In the autumn of 1991, then-Prime Minister John Major became the first Western leader to visit China after the Tiananmen killings. I was part of the press group on that trip, and on the plane going to China, I gave Major a list of several hundred political prisoners in Chinese jails given to me by Amnesty International. After his meeting with Chinese Premier Li Peng, Major told us that he had handed the list to the Chinese leader and spoken forcefully about political freedom. Dazzled, I hurried to file a long story for my newspaper on Britain’s moral courage. In fact, as I learned later from an official who had been in the room, no list was handed over and political freedom was never mentioned. Major’s lie, I was told—repeated by his Foreign Secretary Hurd, who was also in Beijing—was intended to influence how we reported the trip.

Contrast that with the statements by Osborne and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who accompanied him, during and after their trip to China last week. The trip, which involved no meetings with senior officials, was aimed solely at doing business with some of China’s largest companies. In their enthusiastic deal-making, they were at pains to explain why they needed to avoid any moral concerns. “We’ve got to start by understanding that China is an ancient civilization with a long and proud history,” Osborne said. That the Chinese Communist Party has turned its back on that ancient culture appears unknown to the chancellor; in any event, Syria and Iran, with equally long histories, are not treated with respect by the British.

Nor did Osborne and Johnson seem troubled by leaving Britain increasingly at the economic mercy of a huge and powerful neo-communist power. If the deals made by Osborne and Johnson are carried out, before long Chinese companies will own a controlling interest in Britain’s nuclear power industry. On national security grounds alone, this is alarming. The Chinese government has been known to use whatever leverage it has to express its displeasure with foreign governments; following Prime Minister David Cameron’s and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s informal half-hour encounter with the Dalai Lama last year in St. Paul’s crypt, Beijing enforced a year-long freeze on ministerial visits. With British nuclear power in Beijing’s hands, just wait until a British spokesman regrets an attack on Taiwan or China’s warships firing on Japanese vessels in the South China Sea. Will the British like reading in the dark?

Meanwhile, Britain is welcoming the technological expertise of Chinese IT giant Huawei, whose reputation for hacking has frightened security experts all over the world. What Huawei will do in the UK is unclear, but those who worry about the British government’s American-style surveillance of all communications may find Huawei even more intrusive. And while Britain vigorously helps China’s renminbi become the world’s new reserve currency, there is also the possibility, raised by Osborne, that Chinese banks might operate in London beyond the reach of British laws and rules. That sounds like a reverse of the nineteenth-century “extraterritoriality” that allowed foreigners living and working in Imperial China not to be subject to Chinese laws.

Osborne said one true thing: “China is not a sweatshop on the Pearl River.” Nor is it a Maoist hell, he might have added, but that would be tricky while the Great Helmsman’s giant portrait still gazes down on Tiananmen Square. And anyone who has been bumped off the Bond Street pavement by stylishly dressed young Chinese carrying Vuitton bags knows there are plenty of Chinese with plenty of money. It is also true that many Chinese can speak among themselves on the country’s humming Internet about things they dislike about their government, and even the tens of thousands Internet police can’t keep up or catch them all.

But China is the only country in the world that keeps its only Nobel Peace Prize winner in jail. He is Liu Xiaobo, now serving out eleven years for “counter-revolution and subversion,” only the latest of his many sentences since Tiananmen in May 1989, just before the massacre, when I saw him telling thousands of young protestors that what they should be demanding was democracy. His real crime was organizing with others to publish their views on free speech and democracy, a serious crime in China. When Oslo held a ceremony for Liu in absentia, the Chinese government wrote to all the foreign ambassadors to Norway not to attend; seventeen obeyed and didn’t show up. Dozens of lawyers who defended dissidents like Liu, other dissidents, many of them unknown to most of us, also languish behind bars.


During their trip, Osborne and Johnson never set foot in the Chinese countryside, where almost half of the population lives and whose income gap with their urban counterparts is one of the greatest in the world. Nor would the British officials have seen any of the 200 million rural migrants who, with no legal rights to education or health, are unofficially crammed into China’s coastal cities, where they produce much of the country’s GDP.

But what is really important is this: to what kind of foreign elite are the chancellor and the mayor selling off chunks of Britain? As David Shambaugh, an American authority on the Chinese government has recently written,

Chinese diplomats and media go to extraordinary lengths to stage-manage its leaders’ and officials’ foreign interactions. They make great efforts to try to maximize the formality and grandeur in which foreign leaders are received abroad and minimize (to zero) the possibility of their being embarrassed by public protests in their presence or openly aired disputes with foreign leaders.

The Chinese regime has neither friends nor allies. It deals with other countries only on the level of its own interests and is always ready to take offense and then punish, as it did with Britain over the Dalai Lama. How gratifying it must have been to Chinese officials when Cameron recently said, “I have no plans to see the Dalai Lama,” a statement Osborne took care to repeat. What really concerns Beijing are Tibet and Taiwan, and Taiwan’s claims in the South and East China Seas.

The British government has taken note and will not be asking China’s leaders any embarrassing questions. As Osborne put it, “of course you are not going to get people criticizing the president of China, because it’s not a democracy.” He ignores Chinese like Liu Xiaobo, who have done exactly that and are now behind bars.

Can Britain now be so poor and abject that it permits China to gain considerable control of its energy, banking, and communications sectors, let alone cede to it the construction of its newest buildings? If Osborne and Johnson are any indication, the British government is falling silent about precisely the things that have made Britain great: freedom, democracy, and above all, speaking truth to power.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in