When it comes to internal hand-wringing about how to deal with Beijing, New Zealand is far from alone. Former British diplomat Charlie Parton spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the state of the China debate in the UK, how to distinguish between influence and interference, and what to do about Huawei.
When you talk about China’s changes over the decades, Charlie Parton has more first-hand experience than most.
Parton spent nearly two-thirds of his 37-year diplomatic career working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and describes the China of the past and the country as it is now as “two different worlds”.
“Everything has changed: that’s true physically, in terms of the freedoms of the people, in wealth.”
There is one thing that hasn’t changed, he says – the politics.
Some China-watchers once believed that the country’s economic liberalisation would bleed into its political system, but Parton says he was under no illusions when he returned to a Beijing posting in 2011, with the tightening of the political regime starting well before Xi Jinping’s rise to power.
He is unconvinced that China’s current governance model will allow it to develop into the dominant power of the 21st century, citing the restrictions on media, the judiciary, businesses and civil society.
“China is too big and too complex to rule in a top-down fashion where you have to inspect everything and decisions are made at the top.”
The country needs some form of political accountability, he says: not necessarily New Zealand’s system or the UK’s, but something to keep politicians in check and stop corruption from rising.
Influence vs interference
While New Zealand has been hotly debating China’s influence within the country, Parton says the debate in the UK has barely got off the ground – a state of affairs related to, but not solely because of, the distraction that is Brexit.
“Even within the China debate, there’s still a hangover from the golden era,” he says, with politicians keen to focus on the benefits of trade rather than the more knotty issues related to national security.
Stirring up debate was the main reason why he wrote a paper for the Royal United Services Institute think tank, focusing on China-UK relations and China’s overseas activities.
As Parton notes, distinguishing between legitimate “influence” efforts and nefarious “interference” activities is no straightforward task; the paper refers to US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s test for obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
“You actually have to look at individual sectors or actions and make a decision there as to whether that is playing by the rules or whether it is unacceptable.”
Also relevant is whether the interference is actually having an impact, or simply ineffective: Parton argues that opposition to China’s activities should be practical rather than ideological.
“I learnt Chinese using Maoist texts and the People’s Daily, and I’m not impressed by either, so I think we can accept that risk [from Confucius Institutes] for the greater good of trying to fill that knowledge deficit on China.”
Interestingly, he is unworried about the threat posed by Confucius Institutes – Chinese-funded language and culture schools subject to criticism from some – provided there is transparency around their funding and contracts, and separation from a university’s independent Chinese studies programme.
“It’s not ideal, but I always say that I learnt Chinese using Maoist texts and the People’s Daily, and I’m not impressed by either, so I think we can accept that risk for the greater good of trying to fill that knowledge deficit on China.”
At the other end of the scale, Parton cites espionage as the most obvious form of interference, with Chinese spying happening on a larger scale than from other countries.
Following closely behind is the potential threat posed by Chinese companies’ involvement in critical national infrastructure – such as Huawei’s bid to be involved in Spark’s 5G network.
“We need to shift back towards long-term advantage as opposed to the short term, where people simply consider the bottom line,” Parton says.
Arguments that Huawei is outside the control of the Chinese government are “naive”, he says, pointing to the detention of Canadian citizens in China after Huawei’s chief financial officer was arrested in Canada at the request of the US.
“The way the Chinese state mobilised in hostage diplomacy, if nothing else, shows the link between the state and the company is extremely intimate.”
That hostage diplomacy is personal: among those detained in China is former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who Parton counts among his friends. What does that close connection make him feel?
“Outrage, despair, immense sympathy for poor old Michael – it sounds very British, doesn’t it, but it’s just not the way to behave.”
He feels China’s behaviour will prove counterproductive, exposing the harsher side of Beijing’s political tactics to those who were previously unaware.
While some argue that American hands are far from clear when it comes to spying on other nations, Parton says there is a “massive difference” between the values and political systems of the US and those of China.
“Ultimately, who would you trust: the Americans, who are our allies and have been for a long time, or the Chinese, who have no allies except one, North Korea?”
As for the suggestion that it is fear of China’s technological supremacy, rather than any genuine security issues, driving opposition to Huawei, he says it is “in nobody’s interests to try to keep China’s rise down”.
At its heart, the debate is not technical in nature but political, Parton says.
“Whether or not we’re going to have to choose between our country or your country, between China and the United States, I think ultimately there will be some hard choices to make.”
“This is laying down a foundation, an infrastructure for 5G that will control much much more than 4G does in terms of the Internet of Things, a far greater effect on our security.
“Are you prepared to trust China over the next 20 years not to put back doors in or threaten to mess around in some way?”
In his paper, Parton called on the British government to arrange a major conference with its Five Eyes partners and “key European allies” to discuss Chinese interference.
“China’s policy has always been divide and rule – it’s quite good at it – so there’s strength in sharing experiences and working together to defend those interests and values.”
He wants to avoid being dragged into an “ideological war” at the behest of the US, saying countries should be willing to accept their differences and work on the areas where they agree.
That does not mean that maintaining an independent foreign policy, as Jacinda Ardern has often spoken about, will be easy for New Zealand or other countries.
“Whether or not we’re going to have to choose between our country or your country, between China and the United States, I think ultimately there will be some hard choices to make, but that’s in the context where we share same sort of political systems and values and economic systems.”