Cameron, China And Confucius. It's Complicated

Britain’s “golden era” of ties with Beijing may look naive in retrospect, but hawkishness still needs to be balanced with pragmatism.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>David Cameron, UK foreign secretary, departs following a meeting of cabinet ministers at 10 Downing Street in London, UK, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.</p></div>
David Cameron, UK foreign secretary, departs following a meeting of cabinet ministers at 10 Downing Street in London, UK, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023.

David Cameron, who as prime minister proclaimed a “golden era” of relations with China, again has a leading hand in shaping British policy toward the world’s second-largest economy. His unexpected return to government as foreign secretary has antagonized China hawks in parliament and sent a few tremors through academic circles. That’s a reflection of how the UK is still struggling to recalibrate its approach to a country that has become as much a security threat as a trade and investment partner.

It’s also a marker of just how quickly and radically the world has changed. Pore over the images of President Xi Jinping’s 2015 visit to Britain — supping beer with Cameron in a rural pub, smiling sphinxlike while sharing a selfie with Manchester City soccer star Sergio Aguero — and they look like something from another century, rather than a mere eight years ago. Since then, Xi has crushed Hong Kong’s autonomy, intensified militarization of the South China Sea, declared a “no limits” partnership with Vladimir Putin just before Russia invaded Ukraine, and signaled an intention to refashion the global system in Beijing’s favor. Looking back, the sunny optimism of “peak China” in Britain seems hopelessly naive.

In reality, China isn’t likely to occupy much of Cameron’s time in the near term at least, with the far more pressing concerns of the wars in Gaza and Ukraine dominating diplomatic attention. And it’s unlikely to have played any part in his appointment, which looks to be a product entirely of domestic political factors. Nonetheless, the reappearance of a former leader with a history of dovishness on China reopens the debate over how the UK should aim to interact with an autocratic superpower that has become more openly hostile to the liberal values underpinning the global order — and yet remains an important export market and manufacturing supplier.

“I don’t think you can hold it against anybody that in the past they thought developing a positive relationship with China wasn’t a bad thing,” James Cunningham, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and consul general in Hong Kong in the mid-2000s, told me. “There were very many of us.”

Cunningham was in London for the launch this week of a report into Chinese funding of British universities by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, which he chairs. The foundation, like several similar advocacy groups, is itself a manifestation of how the political environment has shifted, having been formed in response to the post-2020 suppression of Hong Kong’s liberties. The report, compiled by the London-based think tank Civitas, showed that UK universities received between £122 million and £156 million ($152 million and $194 million) from Chinese sources between 2017 and mid-2023.  (1)

The report’s most surprising, and potentially alarming, statistic is the proportion of money that has come from Chinese military-linked entities — as much as one-third, in Civitas’ estimation. Huawei Technologies Co., which was banned from the UK’s 5G mobile networks in 2020, is the largest contributor, putting in as much as £38 million or close to a quarter of the total. 

The financing of UK universities might appear only tangentially connected to the cause of freedom in Hong Kong. The wider theme here is how the tentacles of an authoritarian state can reach into an open society and foster a financial dependency that is, or potentially could be, used to stifle academic freedom and shape narratives in a direction more conducive to Beijing’s geopolitical objectives.

There’s no avoiding the complexities raised by this issue. The Western security-establishment view of China, which intelligence agencies have become more vocal about recently, is of a unitary state that is thoroughly permeated with the ideology of the ruling Communist Party and engaged in a whole-of-society drive to return the nation to its pre-eminent place in the world by whatever means necessary. In that light, no organ of the Chinese government or its agencies is above suspicion, no matter how independent or innocuous it might appear: The system is a many-headed hydra.

The accuracy of this characterization can be debated, but it is certainly truer than it used to be — in the pre-Xi era of reform and opening up, when the party generally receded from people’s daily lives. The question is what to do about it.

Bans and restrictions may be effective in walling off society from malign external influences. They are also likely to come with adverse and unintended consequences. Take Confucius Institutes. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in campaigning for the Conservative Party leadership in 2022, pledged to shut down all the 30-odd Beijing-controlled language and cultural learning centers in Britain, only to reverse course this year.

In the US, the number of Confucius Institutes has dropped to fewer than five from more than 100. They were squeezed out after Congress passed laws that effectively forced universities to choose between hosting one of the centers or continuing to receive US government funding. Yet a bipartisan committee found no evidence of espionage, intellectual property theft or any other illegal activity by the Confucius Institutes, according to an October report by the Government Accountability Office. The FBI also said it hadn’t found enough evidence of malign influence to prioritize the institutes as a national security concern. While the programs have been linked to some abuses, and China academics remain divided on the subject, there are reasons to think Britain made the better decision here.

The fundamental objection is one of principle. The UK may be hosting thousands of politically indoctrinated mainland Chinese students. But they’re also susceptible to the influence of the more liberal environment they currently inhabit. If the democratic world is confident in its values and way of life, it should welcome the presence of those with different beliefs (provided they don’t seek to shut down academic debate or intimidate fellow students). Greater vigilance may be wise, and more transparency is necessary, but the presumption should always be in favor of openness, which unavoidably means accepting a certain level of vulnerability.

There’s also a pragmatic reason, expressed succinctly by Michael Corleone in : Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Why root out every vestige of the party-state in Britain when we can study it instead? Confucius, or David Cameron, might hesitate to embrace the concept. Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who’s credited by some with originating the phrase, surely would. 

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(1) The true figure may be higher, as freedom of information requests were rejected by some institutions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Brooker is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business and infrastructure. Formerly, he was an editor for Bloomberg News and the South China Morning Post.

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