Making social science accessible

20 Jul 2023

UK in the world

Kerry Brown evaluates the UK Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on China, published last week.

In recent years, the assessment of various kinds of threats from China has become a popular task globally. The British parliament, through its members and its various committees, has been busy contributing to this phenomenon. The 222 page report issued in July by the UK Intelligence and Security Committee is the latest effort.

Perhaps it is the nature of reports like this to come across like they had the conclusions to their questions before even starting their enquiry. The overall framing statement of the threat from China, conveyed at the start of the report, is symptomatic of how where you start dictates where you end up. The assertion that the priority of the current regime in Beijing is to preserve the ruling party in power is fair enough. Pretty much any observer in the last half century or so would have agreed with that. But their next move is to state that this also drives Beijing’s international efforts. It is, they state, seeking to influence the current global order to deliver a world that works, not just in its interests (and here the argument makes a massive shift) but for it. It is not utility China is after, but dominance.

This is a strong assertion. And the problem is that there is nothing so self-evident about a statement like this that it can just be asserted with nothing to back it up. It attributes a high level of intentionality and specificity to what China wants without even acknowledging that this is an interpretation, not a statement of fact.  The report does refer to Chinese domestic priorities being important for its overseas work – but it shows little interest in at least alluding to how challenging and beset by fears of instability the country is. China in this report, figures as a mighty, all-conquering behemoth, with a uniform message, enviable cohesion, and the ability to prey on western fears and vulnerabilities. The UK comes across very much in victim mode in this framing. Whatever else it aims to achieve, this report has to figure as a further peon of praise to Xi Jinping’s government and its ability to deeply get under the skin of the outside world.

The report is laudable in its desire to supply clear sight, and to be specific about the nature of Chinese threats. But it needed to be far deeper in its analysis, have a longer historic framework to operate in, and contain a far broader range of voices. Lord Patten, one of the distinguished witnesses has very well-known views which, while representative of parts of the spectrum, are hardly ones that could be said to cover the whole range of possibilities. The committee did not clearly desire to hear alternative views. The claims about Chinese influence over academic study of the country in Britain are serious, and yet the evidence base presented here is largely anecdotal, and mentions only a very small number of institutes. Something so serious should have been examined in much greater detail than it is here to really hold water.

This lack of depth is shown best when the report authors declare at the start of their deliberations that the UK’s interests were to promote ‘good governance, transparency, and good economic management’. The lack of recognition of Britain’s experiences in the past decade or so, after the multiple changes of political leadership in Westminster, after the extremely poor economic performance, and a host of other very well-known issues is, in fact, part of the problem.

The report also nowhere spells out the fact that one of the UK’s greatest vulnerabilities – perhaps our single worst one – is the parlous lack of knowledge and understanding of China (including very poor language abilities), and an assumption of greater UK agency and power than we truly have. Anyone – not just China – could pick apart an opponent who lacks self-knowledge and does not understand themselves, let alone the entity they are trying to take on.

Lurking close to the surface of much of the broader points of this report is the question of what a UK China strategy is. The UK and China have never trusted each other, so there is nothing novel or strange about the situation we currently find ourselves. The interesting question is why we have only now started to wake up to remedying issues that were abundantly apparent a decade or so ago. It is also odd that no mention is made of massive issues like global warming, amongst the most pressing on which we have no choice but to collaborate. On technology, too, the ISC has an odd notion that it is China with the deficit in terms of knowledge and know how – a situation which is rapidly transforming before our eyes.

That in 2023 the UK has no coherent policy towards China is hardly surprising. Its policy for the last four hundred years of engagement has been to pursue its own self-interest commercially and materially, while occasionally agonising over values and other more complex issues. How strange it is therefore when presented with a China which now precisely duplicates these habits, Britain should be finding it so difficult. We are, after all, dealing with a power that is paying us the ultimate compliment – copying our behaviour. There are serious challenges and problems dealing with a strong China raises. They are given only partial, and incomplete coverage, in this report. The worrying fact is not that China is engaged in acts that promote and further its interests: what is far worse is that conceptually the UK is so ill prepared, that in 2023 a report like this stands as the result of the best efforts of a body meant to more effectively define and further its security interests.

By Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.

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