China

Britain’s rules-based system is under threat

BY Tom Tugendhat   /  8 November 2019

Not all lost civilisations are destroyed. Many simply fade away as their economies falter and the goods they’re built on no longer matter until, Ozymandias-like, there is nothing left.

The UK is not built on the raw exploitation of natural resources but on the sale of a different product – good order, the ability to create structure out of the chaos of the every day and give confidence for the future. Built on a reliable justice system, it extends through standard setting in accountancy, finance and even education.

British standards and rules underpin the UK economic model and our global influence. That’s why defending those rules is essential to defending the UK and why the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee hurried to publish our final enquiry before Parliament was dissolved for the election. As our report makes clear, we must urgently recognise the threats we face.

Around the world, the rules-based system is under threat. For many states there’s a danger that their access to markets will suffer as the rule of law is replaced by the only alternative – the rule of force – but for the UK the danger is more fundamental. We are the rules-based system, and our government must act accordingly. Imposing sanctions on human rights abusers and money launderers, exposing criminal networks and the regimes that let them thrive, defending democratic norms and the rule of law, are not an extra, they are who we are. But the powers that allow the government to respond are too often unused. We asked why.

We started at home.

Britain’s universities are an amazing export success. But their world-beating reputation and openness leaves them exposed to influence from autocratic states. It’s also a reminder that foreign policy isn’t about foreigners, it’s about us. How we choose to engage with the world and shape our place has a direct impact on our own society.

Of the 450,000 foreign students now enrolled in UK universities, a quarter are Chinese. That’s good for our universities but gives Beijing leverage. By controlling the number of students, whose fees support more than their own learning, and research funding, the Communist state has the power to influence studies that will shape our country for decades to come.

This isn’t just about stealing technology and protecting intellectual property.  It’s about learning. Do we study Tiananmen Square or Xinjiang? Do we learn about the Dalai Lama, Tibet and Taiwan? China tries to silence these issues to promote only the official, Communist Party view of history. That’s more than a threat to free speech, it closes minds and threatens true understanding of the world around us.

In London, the Chinese embassy has pressed at least two university vice chancellors to cancel events on Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile an outfit called the Chinese Students and Scholars Association monitors the activities of any dissident students on British campuses. It reports back to the embassy which in turn informs Beijing. State officials have been reported to then harass the students’ relatives back home in China. Under such pressure the families push the students to kowtow.

China’s problem is clear. It craves the ends (western innovation) but not the means – freedom of thought. Beijing has this wrong. The two are indivisible. Free speech is the oxygen of academic life, without it our universities could not produce ideas that lead to innovative, ground-breaking research. Just as civil rights and commercial rights are both connected expressions of freedom. In Hong Kong we see the Chinese Communist Party struggling to reconcile its need for control with a liberal economy’s need for liberty, democracy and the rule of law.

China is not alone. Many regimes try to censor and channel ideas. Since our report came out, I have heard how a patron from one Middle Eastern country put pressure on a British university to drop a degree course in the language of a rival state, apparently successfully. Sadly, I’m sure they’re not alone.

Some academics are speaking out, but universities are less willing to raise concerns than needed. Competition for foreign students and their dependence on financial collaboration with overseas institutions means that, understandably, none of them gain from being first to confront the issue. The government must step in.

For the UK, defending the rules isn’t just about seeing exporters prosper, it’s about defending our core purpose. We wrote the operating system of the ideas economy. This is a position of huge strength. We don’t bully or compel compliance, we offer solutions and services on which others can build their success, but we can only do that so long as people know what we offer can be relied on. Autocratic interference in our markets, as we showed in our report Moscow’s Gold, threatens us more deeply than others. That’s why the Foreign Office must lead.

Working with others who share our values, such as the Commonwealth and the United States, we need to build partnerships that can resist the short-term autocratic pressures and learn from countries like Australia and universities like those in California, which have already done so much to combat malign foreign influence on campus.

Education is just one example of where we face a threat. Across the UK, in financial markets, the law and property we need to do so much more if we are to defend what matters to us and the world.

Tom Tugendhat is a Conservative candidate and has been MP for Tonbridge and Malling since May 2015. Since 2017 he has served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.


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