The powerful group and its chairman Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles try to persuade British they face poverty if they do not stop criticizing Beijing on human rights.
by Ruth Ingram
Either remain “pure but poor,” or strike deals with human rights violators. This is the moral ultimatum facing companies engaged with international trade, according to the chief of a 500-strong China/UK business consortium.
But for those who “grow up” and are “adult” in their dealings with China there are rich pickings, according to Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Chairman of the China Britain Business Council, speaking at a webinar organized by the China Research Group, who dodged human rights concerns, and advocated engagement rather than conflict with the superpower. Despite hinting that some “extreme circumstances” might necessitate decoupling and disengaging with nations that flouted internationally accepted moral standards, it was clear that China was not on his list.
Representing the interests of economic power houses such as JCB, Jaguar, Land Rover, Burberry, BP, Rolls Royce, Rio Tinto, Pepper Pig and the Premier Football League, to name but a few, the Middle Kingdom admirer is well known for his strong anti-decoupling views. Speaking to his own members last year he described the idea of the West disengaging with China as “utterly crazy.” “It’s not only crazy, it’s dangerous,” he said, advocating instead Xi Jinping’s “win-win” way forward of benefits for both sides.
Wowing an audience of China watchers and international journalists at the webinar, with a catalogue of statistics and strings of noughts, chronicling the giant’s rise to international prominence since joining the WTO, Sir Sherard’s breath-taking run-down of trade figures was calculated to impress. “Last year its economy grew by about the size of Nigeria’s,” he said. “This year it will grow by the size of Spain’s.”
Evidence-based strategy that puts the UK first should trump emotional arguments, he said, to pave the way for “sensible and balanced,” deals with China’s emerging middle class of 800 million people. “Our policy should be based on a clear-eyed calculation of what is in the British national interest and no one else’s,” he stressed.
His message was clear. Despite admitting the need to alert CBBC members to forced labor and human rights concerns, there were fat profits to be had through dealing with China, and he was afraid to see the UK miss the boat. Clearly disappointed over the British government’s back-track over Huawei, he admitted there were human rights challenges, but urged against disengagement. “It’s engagement with our eyes open that we need,” adding from his own diplomatic experience with Saudi Arabia that human rights issues were not unique to China. “The difference with China is the scale of everything.”
China is galloping ahead in technology, with state-of-the-art batteries, high speed rail, fintech, autonomous mobility, and mobile payments, he said, adding that British engineers were learning more from Chinese counterparts whose advanced techniques in road and bridge building were streets ahead of those used in the UK.
He was not naive about China, but neither did he advocate being “persistent China bears.” “We should have the confidence to engage on our own terms and always in our own terms,” he stressed, concerned that big American banks were making significant progress in the China market, and UK banks should be up there too. “We need balanced engagement that is vigilant but also seizes advantages for the working people of Britain,” he said.
Passing the buck on Hong Kong, forced labor, and atrocities coming out of Xinjiang, Sir Sherard preferred to let the government call the shots on policy and business protocols. In his opinion, trade should not be insulated by a dialogue on human rights, or dominated by it. When asked whether he would advocate breaking off relations with China over human rights concerns, he simply replied there should be an awareness of hot issues but would not be drawn on red lines for his members unless they were laid down in law. “These are all questions for those who set policy,” he stressed. “My job is to represent my members and not to have an overall policy on China. It’s my job to make sure members can export where they can, attract investment, students, tourists where they can; but subject to guidelines set down by the government and ministers.”
Xi Jinping’s made his own trade terms crystal clear at the World Trade Forum in Davos recently, when he declared that “abandoning ideological prejudice” was a pre-requisite to jointly following a path of “peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.”
A Japanese ambassador has remarked that “when China says win-win, it means China wins twice,” as the world has watched Beijing’s Belt and Road maneuvering to entrap the third world in debt, muzzle dissenting voices, and remake global rules in its favor. UN censuring mechanisms have been crushed through China’s power of veto, and the recent WHO investigation in Wuhan has shown the world who in fact calls the shots.
Advocates of the Genocide Amendment to the Trade Bill doing the rounds in the Lords and Commons of the UK parliament, who are pushing the ban on deals with genocidal states, claim that business as usual with states that commit atrocities, might reap short term profits, but in the words of Baroness Altmann, “In the long run it will damage us all,” she said. “Trade cannot take preference over Genocide.” She urged the government to consider the long-term implications of turning a blind eye to genocide.
Sir Sherard was convinced that among the CCP’s 90 million members there are many pragmatists who evade the tentacles of the Party, ignore the rules, fly under the radar of allegiance and control, and whose priority is to get on and make money. “It is the experience of CBBC members that it is possible to do business very successfully in China on our terms,” he had found, “and Britain is doing exceptionally well in China at the moment,” he concluded.
But this does not wash with David Alton and his many supporters flying the flag for prioritizing rights over trade and stamping a new moral compass on the UK’s brave new Brexit world.
He was shocked to hear before the debate that Conservative ministers were arguing in letters to the Lords that his amendment might be “economically disadvantageous.” “Economically Disadvantageous?!?!” He retorted on his Twitter feed after the debate. “We’re talking about genocide here!”
Beijing’s long trail of hurt feelings and affront whenever it is called out for misbehavior on the world stage is surely a sign to Sir Gerard that the fire he is playing with is not so easily extinguished by trade deals and keeping our mouths shut. The giant is waking from its slumber and gaining courage. Punishments and threats are coming thick and fast for those who dare to speak out about atrocities in Xinjiang. Sovereign states are rendered quiet as lambs in the face of ruinous bullying.
The editor of the Global Times this week decided to “Expose the hysterical, insane British politician trying to thwart the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
The hapless Liberal Democrat had simply called for an Olympic Games 2022 boycott and was met with equally hysterical invective. Not only would China “seriously sanction any country that follows such a call,” but “people across the world will support China to punish the evil forces who turn the Olympics into a geopolitical stage.”
Is this the reasonable state with which Sir Gerard and his band of 500 companies can do business with on their own terms? China is showing increasingly clearly that the only terms on which it agrees to do business are its own…or else.