As UK-China ties continue to deteriorate, in this exclusive interview with the Chinese and English editions of Global Times, Martin Jacques shares his perspective on the UK decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network, its harsh stance on the national security law for Hong Kong, and the escalating tensions between the US and China.
GT: In your latest tweet, you described the Huawei ban as “an exercise in national suicide.” Could you elaborate further? What would the Huawei ban mean for the UK in a technological, geopolitical, and economic sense respectively?
Jacques: This is the context: Britain is leaving the European Union. This is to be finalised on January 1, 2021. And the European Union was by far Britain’s biggest trading partner. So suddenly, there’s a big hole as a result of that. Now Britain has decided to end the relationship with Huawei and remove all Huawei equipment, and not have any Huawei 5G equipment. Inevitably, this affects in a very negative way the economic and trading relationship between Britain and China.
So you’ve got a situation where Britain is rejecting Europe and rejecting China at the same time, in a situation where the British economy, as we know, historically has been in long term decline.
This is the worst period in British economic history since before the Industrial Revolution. Seems to me, it leaves Britain in an extremely bad situation. And really what it’s also doing at the same time is to try and compensate for this situation of rejecting Europe, rejecting China, by embracing the US and the Trump administration in the United States and its position. But this isn’t really going to help Britain very much because it so happens that the trading and the economic relationship between the US and the UK is not that important to the UK.
If they reach, as they will I think, some kind of US-UK trade agreement, it will add very, very small amount to British GDP. It needs to have a much broader view of its relationship with the world.
In strategic terms, the decisive country in this context is China. First of all, because China is a huge economy and growing all the time, and will soon have the biggest market in the world. Secondly, because China is, as we can all see now, really moving dramatically on the technological front. So in a way, what’s happened is Britain is choosing a sort of cul de sac away from the key dynamics of the global economy.
GT: Can a balance be found in Europe between confronting negative views of the US on Huawei and embracing the high technology growth of China?
Jacques: With the US, the same sort of problem is developing in the UK of an increasing negative attitude toward China. And this is essentially a political position which is expressed in the form of security concerns about China.
And what’s happening is a very serious regression in the mentality in the UK toward China.
It reminds me very much of the Cold War. In fact, the thinking is Cold War thinking: China is just the evil enemy that has to be rejected. The right wing reduces China to the communist regime, the communist threat, and the whole Chinese history is lost in the process. So they have no understanding whatsoever of China really. They’ve just got this extraordinary backward view of China, which is just, frankly, plain ignorant. But it’s making the running.
The reason for this is that the US-China relationship which was benign, very positive for a long historical period from 1972 to 2016, has broken down in a very profound way, because America had two essential propositions that underpinned its attitude toward China during that period.
The first one was that China would never be an economic threat to the US. That was inconceivable. In 1980, the Chinese economy was only 5 percent of the American economy.
Secondly, China’s rise was unsustainable, because its political system was unsustainable, including the role of CPC and so on. China would not be able to sustain it unless it adopted the Western-style system. That was the American position.
The moment that historically began to crumble was the financial crisis in 2008. That crisis didn’t happen in China as they predicted, but in the US. I think at that moment the American elite opinion began to shift and see China as a threat. Unless they did something to stop China’s rise, America´s hegemonic role in the world would be undermined.
GT: What about the shifting mentality of Britain toward the US?
Jacques: Britain is aping the US, because basically that has been the British way since 1945. By the end of World War II, Britain was in great debt to US. It decided, finally, to recognise that it could not compete with the US anymore. It would have to accept a sort of partnership with the US in which it was the junior player in that situation.
Ever since then, it’s very, very rare for the British ever to disagree with the Americans. There isn’t another country in Europe that has that kind of relationship. There is no other country that is so supine to the US.
Now, the problem is if you tie your fortunes to a country like the United States, which is very powerful though it is actually in steep decline, then where do you go geopolitically? You’re tying yourself to a declining part of the world. You’re cutting yourself off from very important new innovations, development, technological progress, and so on, which is exactly what’s happening now.
GT: Do you think it’s time for the UK to sometimes say “no” to the US as the geopolitical balance is changing?
Jacques: Yes, absolutely. A large part of the British elite and population don’t understand really what’s happening globally. They are still operating with a sense of the world as it was, not as it is becoming. So they’re still playing the game as it was, by the old rules when the basic parameters of the world have changed very profoundly. It’s very difficult for countries like Britain and the United States to let go of what was but no longer is.
One of the reasons is Britain never really has been able to adapt to the fact that it is no longer a great power. Part of the reason for the Brexit vote was sort of “we haven’t been doing well over the last few decades, what’s the reason? It must be Europe’s fault.”
China had a very similar problem in the 19th century. China could not understand what was happening in Europe. The Emperor Qianlong rejected the idea that Britain had anything to offer in terms of manufactures. In a famous letter in 1793, he wrote to King George, “China has no need of your manufactures.” That was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and China spent the next 150 years largely ignoring its consequences and believing that the world had not really changed. Those kinds of changes are very difficult to make.
GT: As tensions between the US and China increase, what would be the worst consequences and are we already in the Cold War?
Jacques: The ultimate consequence, which would be appalling, would be military confrontation. I think we’re either entering or we’ve already entered a new Cold War. If we use the term Cold War, we need to be clear that it’s not simply a re-run of the Cold War between Soviet Union and the US, because there are fundamental differences in the relationship between China and the US compared with the US and Soviet Union.
What is common is a desire to separate. The US wants to separate itself from China; if it could, it would now like to excise China from the global economy.
On the other hand, one of the key aspects of the last Cold War was military confrontation. If there was one thing that defined the relationship between Soviet Union and the US, it was this bitter military rivalry, arms race, and so on. It led to fear across the world. And that’s not true of the relationship so far between China and the US.
I think we really have Deng Xiaoping to thank for this. He understood it would be absolute folly for China to engage in an arms race with the US when it was so poor and so weak. The Soviet Union never had that enlightened attitude. It could not afford the arms race but still pursued it.
Now I think it’s very important for China, as it becomes an increasingly great power, not to make the mistake of Soviet Union, not to allow itself to engage in military competition with the US.
GT: What does that mean?
Jacques: It means essentially China shouldn’t engage in huge levels of military expenditure, but pursue the same kind of approach it has so far, with clear limits to spending. It’s obviously a fundamental interest for China to prevent American intrusion on its southern border in the South China Sea. The measures China has taken are understandable and necessary.
GT: How do you see changes in the US-China relations under the presidency of Donald Trump?
Jacques: Donald Trump is a most unusual political figure even in the West. We’ve never had an American president like this. China, like everyone else, finds it difficult to deal with him. It also coincided with China beginning to acquire some of the characteristics of a great power, beginning to express itself.
Historically, these two things coincided, collided. It became more and more irreconcilable because the two countries were travelling in different directions.
I think it’s very important for China to avoid at all costs getting anywhere near the gutter with Donald Trump. At the very early phase of becoming a great power, China must always handle itself with great dignity, honesty, openness, humility. In other words, it sets a great example to the world. I think China always has to think of its audiences; it’s not Donald Trump, but the world. It should avoid at all costs getting into that kind of tit-for-tat. That’s beneath China’s dignity.
GT: So how should China respond to growing hostility from other countries like the UK?
Jacques: In the case of UK, I think China should avoid getting into a tit-for-tat situation with UK. I think China’s got to think of the long game, which is, at some point, the UK will need to come back to China and be more open toward a relationship with China as it was five years ago, because China’s on the rise.
The forces which are positive towards China are in a weak situation, but they have not gone away. Those kinds of ideas are still there. But they have retreated. We need to create the best circumstances for them to begin to renew themselves, regenerate and rise.
GT: Regarding Hong Kong, the British government and some officials like former governor Chris Patten have constantly criticized China. What’s your take on such reaction from the UK?
Jacques: UK´s response is entirely predictable. The roots of the problem are that, in a way, Britain’s thinking toward Hong Kong is still very influenced by the colonial relationship it had with Hong Kong for 155 years.
I think Britain’s interpretation of “one country, two systems” was “one system is the Chinese system, the other is the British system.” So, ever since the handover in 1997, Britain has never really respected China’s sovereignty and Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong. It’s always been criticising it. The classic example of this is Chris Patten, the former governor who was a leading Conservative politician.
So it was predictable. The British response to Hong Kong was to support the demonstrations in 2014, and again in 2019.
And when it got violent, the British media made no distinction at all between the big peaceful demonstration and the riots. They never, ever criticised the rioters, who were regarded as heroes, anti-Chinese heroes.
GT: So what are the challenges for the mainland and Hong Kong to fix this problem?
Jacques: I recognised that the situation was so out of hand that the mainland had to introduce the national security legislation, but it needs to win hearts and minds in Hong Kong at the end of day. There’s no substitute for that.
I think the most important challenge is the 155 years of British colonial rule. That has had a profound effect on the Hong Kong population. Hong Kong’s population doesn’t think like the mainland Chinese. Although British never introduced any semblance of democracy in Hong Kong, they are attached to their relatively successful economy, a robust free media, rights to demonstrate, etc. I think this has shaped the way the Hong Kong Chinese think.
Now the mainland is in a much freer position to get on with things, it really has to deliver a socio-economic programme that can transform the prospects of Hong Kong.
Another thing that China has to learn, and it’s not good at, is how to speak to public opinion in Western-style societies.
Security legislation will not do that. It will prevent the separatists and rioters, but it doesn’t mean you’ve won over the population.
So the big question is: can China win over the population? I think they can, if they have really serious reforms. But at the moment, no one talks about that. As far as I can see, there’s no sign of it.
GT: What is your suggestion for better handling of the Hong Kong matter?
Jacques: The thing is that the difficulty is not just a colonial-style economy, but a colonial-style administration. There isn’t really a political leadership in Hong Kong but an administrative leadership. What the mainland needs to do is to build a new kind of political leadership. I mean something organic to the society. So it has a voice in the communities, in the different parts of Hong Kong.
For example, let’s say the reform in education. I assume basically the curriculum is still the old British curriculum. And they’re still learning history from the colonial period about the country.
GT: Do you think Hong Kong will remain a geopolitical battleground between China and US or maybe the West in the coming years? And do you think in 2047, we will still have “one country, two systems” for Hong Kong?
Jacques: I think that it will remain a battleground for the foreseeable future. I think the extent to which it is a battleground will depend crucially on how well China handles the situation from now on. If it carries through very successful and popular reforms in the city and wins hearts and minds, then it become less a battleground. Because basically, the Western position depends on an echo chamber.
The echo chamber is those in Hong Kong who disagree with what the Chinese do, the Chinese role and so on. The greater the extent to which the population embraces China in this new era, the less it will be a battleground. Because that would make it much more difficult for the West to gain support in Hong Kong.
“One country, two systems” is a great challenge for China. It was a brilliant idea. It comes out of the Chinese tradition of a civilisation state rather than the nation state.
It’s a very interesting challenge in two senses. One is the very big sense and the other is a smaller sense. The smaller sense is the question of the lost territories and restoring them back to China. The bigger challenge, in my view, is whether China can successfully transform and offer a new kind of perspective for a place which is Chinese but does not come in any contemporary sense from the Chinese tradition.
This is a big challenge because if China can accomplish a successful transition in Hong Kong, then that speaks well for the ability of China to be able to speak to lots of peoples around the world.
And it needs imagination. It needs flexibility. It needs creativity. It requires non-dogmatic thinking, and requires new thinking.
GT: Back to the UK-China relationship. Many people think the Golden Age between the two countries has come into an end amid growing confrontation. What is your take on that?
Jacques: Can we talk about the Golden Age when they’ve done what they’ve done to Huawei? How can it [be the Golden Age] when they renounce a firm that has invested so much in Britain and which has been so important for British Telecom and Vodafone. You can’t, and it’s over.
But how long is it over for? And that is what the Chinese have got to think about. How long will this phase last? At what point will the situation begin to change again? Will a different president in the US make a difference? What happens when Britain begins the expense of taking out Huawei stuff and putting in some new stuff? Is that going to be successful?
There’s still a lot of uncertainty attaching to this situation.
I think it’s very important that China keeps its lines of communication absolutely open with these people. It’s not over till the fat lady sings.
I don’t mean that China shouldn’t find a way to make it clear to Britain that it’s not happy about the actions of the British government.
GT: So what kind of response?
Jacques: I would just say a restrained response. China is absolutely right to be extremely angry about what the British have done. But always think of the long game, not the short game. So don’t burn your bridges.
Also, it’s much more important what Germany decides to do on 5G. Germany is much more important than the UK.
GT: You said in your Tweet that UK has no future without China. But if the tensions between China and US continue to escalate, then other countries may have to pick sides. Why do you think the alliance with the US is enough or not enough for UK’s future? How will UK face the situation if one day it has to pick sides?
Jacques: It has already picked sides. For the time being, the UK has picked the US.
The US relationship with Europe is significantly weaker than it was previously. It means that Europe feels less inclined to identify with the US, feels less comfortable with the US, and feels alienated by the US. This is very important.
What you have got is the beginnings of the breakdown of the West as a concept, as a reality, the relationship is fragmenting. This is a very important development. And Germany is the most important expression of it, because Germany is the most important country in Europe.
In 2008, the financial crisis led to a major shift in the balance of power between the US and China. We can now see that was not just economically, but in a much wider way.
And Covid-19 is going to lead, in my view, to a much bigger shift away from the US towards China than happened after 2008 because China’s handled the coronavirus so much better than the US, which has handled it absolutely disastrously. And it’ll take it a long time for the US to recover economically from it.
Moreover, unlike the financial crisis, the pandemic is about state competence. And China’s shown immense state competence. And the US has revealed absolute state incompetence.
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