Our differences with China should not preclude cooperation

4 May 23

China doesn’t operate in Western ways, so don’t see its actions through Western eyes, writes Malcolm Gardner.


There’s a lot we can learn from China, but we can only achieve that by understanding how its society works from the perspective of its own people.

I’ve been a regular visitor, thanks to family commitments. I get to see China from the perspective of a citizen. In many ways, it is similar to the UK. From that viewpoint, differences are more subtle than you would imagine. Whereas we have democracy and human rights, China has a social contract. Some of the things I hear and read about the country through UK media are not the things I recognise when I am there.

China is now completely connected in a way that the UK is not. You must have a Chinese bank account. For online purchasing, it has to be an Alibaba account (the Chinese version of Amazon) and for social media, it is a WeChat account (imagine blogging, twitter and Facebook all rolled into one). It’s all monitored by the state, but you forget about this over time. In the same way as we forget about CCTV cameras and our relationship with the state in the UK while we get on with our daily lives. Much of this integration we are seeing slowly emerging in the UK as robotic automated processes.

In China, they have social credit scoring, which rates citizens and organisations according to how good a citizen they are. For example, giving to the community results in rewards like priority health services. It may not be not perfect but it is an example of how China works.

The Chinese government has some ideas that are worth UK considering, especially at the moment. For example, ordinary people in China are committed to the social contract. As a result, China sees high productivity, and citizens enjoy reasonably good standards of living. That said, concerns are justified; China doesn’t understand Western democracy very well. No-one should look at the country through rose-tinted spectacles. But, equally, you couldn’t put a Western democracy in China – it would never work.

The UK, Europe and the US are all thinking about their ties with China in different ways.

Our links with China are quite considerable, and its investments into UK establishments and businesses have come under criticism. It is not about agendas but structural change and how the business relationship is interpreted.

We have been very quick to talk about distancing our dependence on China. But we need to look at our relationship, as well as our history. If we were in China’s position, would we expect our government to behave any differently?

We haven’t yet worked out how to do it on a more equal footing. It seems like we haven’t stepped away from an approach to our relationship that resulted in the Opium Wars – and neither have they.

China needs technology and we need investment, so there’s clear need on both sides. But the negotiating mechanism needs some work, especially around trust. We need to build on the things that bind us and not focus on the things we believe to be differences.

What will be the impact of this shift by the UK government? It’s like when former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution. His response: “Too early to say.”

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