We should use Covid to woo China, not demonise it

As can be seen, that’s a mighty powerful alliance of interests, which any prime minister, never mind one as beholden to populist forces as Boris Johnson, would find very hard to resist. While Johnson was laid out on his sick bed, Dominic Raab, acting prime minister, said there needed to be a “deep dive” into China’s handling of coronavirus and warned: “We can’t have business as usual.” Johnson finds himself bulldozed by forces he may be powerless to control.

Yet resist Johnson must. Despite his famous “f— business” remark during the heat of the Brexit debate, the Prime Minister is philosophically very pro-business in his outlook, and though many Remainers might find this hard to believe, he is also a pragmatist.

Both these attributes were on show for what was a very gutsy decision, shortly before Covid hit, to allow Huawei to participate in the 5G roll-out. To have done anything else would admittedly have been very difficult. The train had left the station; it would have cost the big mobile phone operators billions to strip out all the Huawei equipment already installed, and would have set 5G back at least two years.

Even so, Johnson risked quite a bit of political capital with his decision, which felt like a betrayal to many backbenchers, similar in some respects to May allowing continued Chinese participation in new nuclear plant building.

He will have to expend a great deal more getting the Telecoms Security Bill through the Commons this summer in unamended form.

Both these decisions were substantially influenced by senior civil servants, heavily invested as they are in the previous, pro-Chinese policy.

At the height of the Brexit paralysis, Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, organised a Beijing junket for his permanent secretaries; they are said to have felt quite at home among Chinese peers, and not a little jealous of their counterparts’ lack of democratic accountability. They are not called “mandarins” for nothing.

We might mistrust the Chinese, be suspicious of their motives and ambitions, find their disregard for human rights repugnant, and their use of surveillance offensive, but this cannot be allowed to act as a barrier to doing business with them.

If these standards were universally applied, you would end up trading with no one. Do we cease business with Saudi Arabia because it has a petulant and intolerant ruler with murderous underlings to do his bidding? No, we determine what is in our best interests and act accordingly.

However alien we might find the Chinese regime, it is not about to collapse or go away. Ostracising it won’t bring about its demise; it will only make us poorer, and other goals, such as those on climate change, virtually impossible.

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