John Ross: Brexit explains why Britain has played such a provocative role in Hong Kong


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John Ross: Brexit explains why Britain has played such a provocative role in Hong Kong


By John Ross    Source:   Published: 2019-7-24

On Tuesday Britain announced that Boris Johnson became its new Prime Minister. This event has significant implications for China - including for Hong Kong and for Huawei. Johnson’s project is to turn Britain into the equivalent of the 51st state of the US – but without the right to vote! Because some Chinese media wrongly believe that Brexit is a domestic British issue, without major implications for China, or wrongly treated Boris Johnson as some sort of amiable fool, it is necessary to correct this and see clearly what is taking place and its consequences for China. In particular the international forces involved make clear why Britain has played such a provocative role in recent events in Hong Kong.

Britain’s role in Hong Kong

A specific feature of the present provocations in Hong Kong is clearly the role played by Britain – which has made a series of statements attempting to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, in contradiction to the 1997 ending of Britain’s colonial rule and return of Hong Kong to China. The Chinese Ambassador in London, and the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing, have strongly replied to these. It is clear a certain division of labour has been created in attacks on China with the US concentrating on the trade war and Britain playing a particularly provocative role in relation to Hong Kong. But, as will be seen, this façade conceals the reality. Britain’s provocative policy is carried out by forces increasingly aligned with the US – it is not a difference in substance but merely a technical division of labour.

This present provocative role by Britain is particularly striking because it forms a sharp contrast to the situation only a few years ago of the ‘golden period’ of China-UK relations when Cameron was British prime minister. Britain at that time became the first G7 country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) despite US opposition. Xi Jinping made a highly successful visit to Britain. At that time Britain, in line with the 1997 settlement, largely refrained from provocative intervention in Hong Kong. What therefore explains the change, and how is this related to Boris Johnson becoming British Prime Minister?

The answer to this question lies in the international and social dynamic behind Brexit – which is not at all a purely domestic British issue and has significant implications for China. Cameron’s development of the ‘golden period’ of British-China relations was directly tied to the fact that he represented that wing of British business which strongly supported Britain’s membership of the EU and he was a fierce opponent of Brexit – Cameron campaigned entirely against Brexit in the 2016 referendum and resigned because of his defeat in the referendum. Within that framework Cameron developed what was a highly rational strategy from the viewpoint of both Britain’s population and British capitalism of positioning Britain as the key gateway for China into the EU.

Cameron’s strategy for attracting China’s investment to Britain

Britain had great advantages in pursuing Cameron’s strategy. The City of London is Europe’s most important financial centre. It is the world’s largest centre for foreign exchange dealing, ahead of New York, and has already established a position as the largest market for RMB trading outside China. English is also the first foreign language most Chinese citizens learn and therefore Britain is much easier for many Chinese firms to operate in than Germany or France. Britain is a very important telecommunications centre and Cameron could ensure Huawei was able to participate in this important British market.

During the eight years I was in charge of London’s economic policy, from 2000-2008, I had numerous meetings with the financial companies of London and therefore knew personally how centrally they saw relations with China. A single anecdote sums this up - it was a joke among business circles of the City of London that it was very unfortunate that the Chinese Spring Festival was so close in time to the European Xmas, as after attending many dinners to mark Xmas they then had to attend many more to celebrate the Spring Festival and therefore it was impossible to control weight at that time of the year!

Cameron’s strategy was, therefore, extremely economically rational for British capitalism and Britain’s economic development. With many Chinese companies expanding abroad they saw Britain as a very suitable point of entry into the EU. Britain could gain from Chinese investment in addition to its already strong position as the financial centre of the EU - a real ‘win-win’ outcome for both Britain and China.

But to pursue such a strategy Cameron evidently needed calm and objective relations with China. This is the explanation of why during the ‘golden period’ Cameron therefore clearly tried to avoid becoming involved in provocations in Hong Kong.

The US against Cameron

But Cameron’s economic policy was totally unacceptable to those in the US who wanted to block China’s development. The days when Britain ruled the greatest Empire in the history of the world were, of course, long gone. But nevertheless, Britain remains a significant global economy – the sixth largest GDP in the world, with a high technological level and, in London, the most important international financial centre in the world outside the US.  For Britain to be pursuing a ‘win-win’ relation with China, which although it benefitted Britain also benefitted China, was therefore unacceptable for anti-China circles in the US – which is why the US so strongly opposed Britain joining the AIIB. The US opportunity to comprehensively disrupt Britain’s good relations with China came with Brexit - and the key role of Boris Johnson within this which has culminated in him becoming Prime Minister.

The historical position of the US in regard to Britain’s membership of the EU had been  to support this – as Britain was seen as a reliable US ally to influence EU policy. But Trump reversed this policy to instead favour disrupting the EU, therefore arguing for Britain to withdraw from the EU, and he forged close personal links with anti-EU forces in Britain.

This change in US policy to the EU necessarily followed from Trump overall international strategy. The policy of Obama and Hilary Clinton had been to seek to form a broad ‘anti-China alliance’ – to achieve which the US had to make concessions to its allies, which included good relations with the EU. Trump, however, considered the US could not afford such concessions and that instead allies should be forced to increase the resources they supplied to the US - so that the US would be strengthened in its confrontation with China. Because Germany was unwilling to transfer its resources to the US, through increased defence spending and acceptance of US tariffs, and Germany dominated the EU, therefore Trump concluded that Brexit must be pursued to weaken the EU. Support for Brexit was therefore integrally linked to Trump’s strategy to attack on China. To pursue  this strategy Trump created close relations with Brexit supporters in Britain – the first British politician to meet Trump after his election as President was not from the governing Conservative Party but Nigel Farage who is now leader of the Brexit Party.

Boris Johnson links to the US

Boris Johnson fitted perfectly into Trump’s strategy. Johnson was born in the US and was a US citizen,  as well as British citizen, until 2016 - although Johnson pursued his political career in Britain. Johnson’s policy was of strong subordination to the US – being, for example, a firm supporter of the invasion of Iraq.

Johnson was also ultra-derogatory about Chinese civilization writing: ‘high Chinese culture and art are almost all imitative of western forms: Chinese concert pianists are technically brilliant, but brilliant at Schubert and Rachmaninov. Chinese ballerinas dance to the scores of Diaghilev. The number of Chinese Nobel prizes won on home turf is zero, though there are of course legions of bright Chinese trying to escape to Stanford and Caltech.

‘There are Chinatowns and takeaways all over the world, but in Britain the culinary impact of China is dwarfed by the [Indian] subcontinent…. It is hard to think of a single Chinese sport at the Olympics, compared with the umpteen invented by Britain, including ping-pong [table tennis], I'll have you know, which originated at [British] upper-class dinner tables…

‘The Chinese have a script so fiendishly complicated that they cannot produce a proper keyboard for it…

‘As for military might – hard power – our fears are again overdone. The Chinese may have 2.5 million men in uniform, but of the long-range missiles you need to be a global power Beijing can wield only 20, which would make for a pretty brief fireworks display.’

Someone who was firm supporter of the US, and was derogatory about China, was, of course, an ideal candidate for Trump – who therefore duly went out of his way to publicly praise Johnson.

The fight over Brexit

Immediately after the referendum vote for Brexit in 2016 an intense fight broke out between the pro-EU and pro-US sections of British capital – it is merely a naïve illusion to believe that such an important issue was to be decided by a ‘democratic vote’ and that the powerful economic forces which lost the referendum would simply accept the result.

Cameron himself resigned as Prime Minister but his successor Theresa May had campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Her strategy was to take Britain out of the political structures of the EU but to open up the way for the more important issue of it remaining within the EUs economic structures – the EU custom’s union. She was supported in this by key figures in the government such as finance minister Hammond. May therefore successfully negotiated an agreement with the EU to embody this strategy. Technically this was embodied in a ‘backstop’ in which Britain guaranteed there would not be an economic border between the British part of Ireland in the North, and the independent part of Ireland in the South. But to avoid this necessarily either there would have to be a customs border within the UK itself between the north of Ireland and the rest of Britain, which no British government would ever agree to, or Britain as a whole would have to remain within the EU customs union – which was the real aim of May’s agreement.

This policy was entirely unacceptable to Trump for whom the most important thing was precisely that Britain should leave the economic structures of the EU, that is its customs union, and enter into a trade agreement dictated by the US. As long as Britain was within the EU customs union it would remain within an economic structure controlled by Germany and had no right to sign a separate trade agreement with the US - which would subordinate Britain to the US economy.

Trump therefore supported pro-US forces within the Conservative Party, and Brexit Party leader Farage outside it, in refusing to support May’s deal with the EU. In line with that strategy Johnson also resigned from the May government, where he had held the position of foreign minister. Because of this pro-Trump Tory opposition, and its support with the Conservative Party, May was unable to pass her deal with the EU through Parliament despite the government majority within it. Simultaneously, in close contact with Trump, Farage began to build the pro-Trump Brexit Party to electorally threaten the Conservatives – imposing severe defeat on them in the May 2019 elections to the European parliament. Faced with simultaneous revolt inside the Tory Party, and the electoral threat from Farage outside it, after a three-year fight inside the Conservative Party May was forced to resign.

But because what was in fact taking place was a fierce struggle between pro-EU and pro-US sections of British capitalism this process necessarily had significant implications for Britain’s relations with China – which could be seen very clearly not only in relation to Hong Kong but also in relation to Huawei.

Developments with Huawei

As part of his strategy for the ‘golden age’ of relations with the China the pro-EU Cameron allowed Huawei to strongly participate in the building of Britain’s telecommunications system – thereby getting the advantage of Huawei’s technical expertise and competitive prices. Ren Zhenfei, Huawei’s CEO, was invited as a guest to the Prime Minister’s office and residence at 10 Downing Street –  shown in the photo. This policy, of course, aided not only Huawei but also strengthened the British economy as it gave access to the most technologically advanced and price competitive solutions for its telecommunications infrastructure.

With the offensive by pro-Trump forces May abandoned the approach of Cameron’s ‘golden period’ of relations with China but nevertheless still sought to maintain some of the advantages for the British economy of Huawei’s involvement in the British telecommunications system. Therefore May’s government cut back on Huawei’s participation in British telecommunications, by saying that Huawei could not participate in ‘core’ parts of the new 5G system, but nevertheless it decided Huawei could participate in ‘non-core’ aspects. This, however, did not go nearly far enough for Trump/the US, which wanted Huawei excluded from the British 5G system altogether – in line with the total ban on Huawei participation in telecommunications infrastructure in the US.

In line with this US demand pro-US forces within May’s government therefore set about sabotaging Huawei’s participation in Britain’s 5G system. In a particularly notorious episode information was leaked from a meeting of Britain’s National Security Council to attempt to discredit Huawei – the first time in history a leak had occurred from what is necessarily an ultra-secret body. Britain’s defence minister was dismissed over this unprecedented leak.

Having secured a partial victory, in excluding Huawei from the core parts of Britain’s 5G system, the US therefore began to step up pressure to cut Huawei out the British 5G telecommunications system altogether. A key weapon to achieve this is that if Britain withdraws from the EU customs union it can then enter into a trade agreement with the US – securing a key goal of the Trump administration. As the British Sunday Telegraph noted, to which details on the trade negotiations with the US had been leaked: ‘Donald Trump’s negotiators have signalled that the next prime minister’s hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States rest on his willingness to fall in line with tough American policies against the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.

‘Whitehall correspondence seen by The Sunday Telegraph reveals that British officials close to transatlantic trade talks believe allowing Huawei to ­provide equipment for new 5G mobile networks could be a deal-breaker.’

This increasingly anti-Huawei position, with the advance of pro-US pro-Brexit forces, precisely paralleled in time the transition from Britain respecting the terms of the agreement on 1997 with China about Hong Kong to its new provocative attempts to interfere in Hong Kong. The reason for this parallel development on the two issues in an anti-China direction was, of course, because they embodied the same social forces – the growing weight of anti-China pro-US pro-Brexit forces, all of which entirely rejected Cameron’s ‘golden period’ of relations with China and supported the replacement of Theresa May by Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

Therefore it may be seen it was a major misunderstanding in the Chinese media to see Brexit as a purely British domestic issue unconnected with its relations with China and issues such as Hong Kong. On the contrary, Britain’s provocative attitude in Hong Kong, and the growth of attacks on Huawei, was integrally related to the fight taking place around Brexit.

Johnson’s strategy is to subordinate Britain to the US

Given the forces which Johnson rests on his policy is of even greater subordination of Britain to the US. His policy might be summarised as that Britain should be reduced from that of pet poodle to the US to that of pure lap dog, or that Britain should act like the equivalent of the 51st state of the US  except that it would not have the right to vote in US elections! As the Daily Telegraph, the key British newspaper campaigning for Johnson as Prime Minister, noted under the self-explanatory headline ‘Boris Johnson to seek Trump trade deal in first move as leader’: ‘Boris Johnson wants to make resetting relations with President Trump one of his first acts in Downing Street by travelling to the United States to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal.

‘The former foreign secretary is ready to fly there as soon as possible if he wins the leadership contest to try to secure a limited agreement in time for his “do or die” deadline of October 31.

“The key to the whole thing is the US…”an ally of Mr Johnson said.’

Johnson’s orientation was illustrated graphically during the recent enforced resignation of the British Ambassador to the US Kim Darroch. This event illustrated once more the sabotage carried out of May’s government by pro-Trump pro-US forces. The British Ambassador in Washington, in line with his official duties, had sent to the British government his evaluation of the functioning of the Trump administration. These concluded that the administration was ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘inept’. Because of their ultra-sensitive nature such Ambassador’s reports are regarded as a state secret and are circulated only to a high-level officials. However, they were leaked to the British press – clearly by a pro-Trump high level British source.

Almost all British politicians reacted regarding this issue by emphasising the danger to British state functioning of leaks of such top-secret information. But Boris Johnson, on the contrary, concentrated on public defence of Trump – thereby forcing the resignation of the Ambassador. As one British journalist aptly put it on Twitter, the Ambassador was: ‘In effect, sacked by Johnson on the orders of Trump.’ As the Daily Telegraph accurately put it in an article headline, ‘The Kim Darroch row is a message to Theresa May's successor - Get Brexit right or face Donald Trump's wrath.’ The analysis, which the paper thoroughly supported, was entirely clear and accurate:

‘Donald Trump’s evisceration of Sir Kim Darroch was more than a political execution by Twitter.

‘It was a warning to the next prime minister to deliver Brexit, and quickly, or themselves face the considerable wrath of the US president…

‘His message was clear. The next prime minister, and their next "man or woman in Washington," must be a true Brexiteer.’

In line with his previous praise of Johnson Trump on 19 July Trump declared: ‘I like him. I spoke to him yesterday. I think we’re going to have a great relationship.’ Leaving no doubt as to his intentions Trump declared May had ‘done a very bad job with Brexit’ and that ‘I think Boris will straighten it out.’ Trump thereby also revealed that he was already coordinating with Johnson during the Tory leadership campaign before Johnson became Prime Minister.

Given this orientation Johnson as Prime Minister may be expected to follow an even more pro-US orientation than May on issues such as Hong Kong.

The clash of British political forces and China

It is clear from the above that the advance of the pro-Trump pro-US Boris Johnson forces are linked to Brexit and are against the interests of China - and would be expected to lead to even more anti-China positions on Hong Kong, Huawei and other issues. But it is important to understand that the final outcome of this fight is not at all yet decided because the issue of Brexit is not yet settled. Neither side in that fight has paid anything that purely lip service to the referendum and the positions they put forward in it. May’s policy was characterised as BRINO (Brexit in Name Only) because it would have ended in Britain remaining within the economic structures of the EU. Johnson’s pro-US supporters of Brexit now propose that Britain should leave the EU without any economic agreement at all with the EU, a ‘No Deal Brexit’, despite having claimed during the referendum that they wanted an agreement with the EU and that it would be extremely easy to achieve this. While both sides held up the banner of ‘democracy’ and the ‘referendum’ they were in fact fighting viciously over much more fundamental economic and geopolitical issues. This illustrates graphically that any idea that such an important issue is simply settled because there has been a vote on it is merely naïve. Within that fight the pro-Trump Boris Johnson forces have won an important victory in forcing May out of office, but they have been unable so far to settle what is for Trump the key question - what will be the economic relation of Britain with the EU and US?

The problem for Johnson, despite his success in removing May, is that his pro-Trump pro-US policy is against the interests of the British economy and against the interests of the British population. Refusal to allow Huawei to operate in Britain’s 5G telecommunications infrastructure, with the extra cost and delay this involves for Britain, is only one part of a wider economic irrationality. The proportion of Britain’s exports going to the EU is 42% compared to only 18% to the US – it therefore makes no economic sense to withdraw from the customs union with the EU to join a free trade deal with the US. It is true that some parts of British capitalism, hedge funds and similar financial operators, would not lose from leaving the EU’s economic structures but almost all of manufacturing, the car industry, pharmaceuticals and large part of financial services would lose greatly. Furthermore, the British population would suffer significant loses of jobs and in living standards as a result.

The result of this is that the fight against Boris Johnson started even before he came to office. One of the plans being actively explored by Johnson was that to overcome opposition to Brexit he would, after taking office, suspend Parliament until after the 31st of October, the date on which Britain is supposed to leave the EU. This would, in essence, be a ‘soft’ coup d’etat. This, however, was then blocked by Parliament voting by as majority to make this illegal – with more than 40 MPs from Johnson’s own Conservative Party rebelling to support this position.

Johnson is therefore determined, in line with the interests of the US, to attempt to take Britain out not only of the political structures of the EU on 31st October but also out of the customs union with the EU – know technically as a ‘No Deal Brexit’. But, now that a proposal to suspend Parliament has been blocked, it is completely unclear if Johnson has a majority in Parliament to achieve this. In the autumn there will therefore be an intense political crisis over this issue - the most serious in Britain since World War II. For the reasons already given the outcome of this fight will determine not only Brexit but will significantly affect Britain’s position on Hong Kong, Huawei and other issue affecting China.

China’s foreign policy, in line with international rules, does not allow it to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries – a rule Britain is blatantly violating over Hong Kong. But this does not mean that China is not affected by what happens in other countries, sometimes by links that are not at all obvious on the surface, but which are connected by the fundamental development of social forces. China’s media has clearly noted the aggressive attitude taken by Britain in the recent provocations in Hong Kong. It has also noted the long development of the crisis around Brexit in Britain. But quite insufficient attention has been given to the connection between the two.

It is clear for the reasons given above that in the coming months Britain faces a fundamental attack from pro-Trump US forces that wish to subordinate Britain even more firmly to the US. The victory of these forces would be a setback for Britain, but it would also be a setback for China – including in relation to the provocations in Hong Kong. China will not intervene but it is worth noting carefully and clearly understanding the unfolding of events.

John Ross is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.