British Foreign Policy re China: Short-sightedness disguised as “pragmatism”

Photo Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

COVID is an alarm saying economics actually depends on human rights

In his 1941 State of Union address, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined the Four Fundamental Freedoms that every person in the world is entitled to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four principles would later serve as the foundation upon which the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formed, bringing in a new era in which the human rights violations of states are a matter of concern that permeate far beyond its own sovereign territories. 

The end of Cold War also curtailed, to a significant extent, the precedence of ideological battle in human rights diplomacy over the value of our fundamental freedoms for the sake of it. Our post-Cold War world lacks such kind of predictability and hence more uncertainty with regards to the international order (1) especially now that Pax Americana is done. In a COVID world and with Trump’s America, the traditional advocators of human rights are now MIA. Brexit adds up as a double whammy to Western unity and influence, with some more concerned about the economic damage that COVID will bring if we do not appease to Xi Jinping’s China, citing realpolitik as a justification. 

But that clearly misses the point of why we are facing what we are facing with COVID. China’s repression of the fundamental freedoms of its own scientists and academics is undeniably the root origin of the crisis we are facing today. There has never been a more urgent time to stress on the significance of human rights than in this time of COVID, because the purpose of human rights upon its universal declaration is based on the premise that our quality of lives can only flourish at best when we respect our fundamental freedoms. It is not to disregard China’s ability to be one of the most powerful economies in the world without civil and political liberation as illegitimate. But the staggering boom of China’s economy over the past couple of decades simultaneously rendered enormous amounts of inequalities, more than excessive environmental pollution and abuse. This environmental abuse also notably serves one of the main root causes of the start of COVID. Even with these factors aside, the political economies of our free societies are not designed for state capitalism. 

Britain’s rather blasé attitude towards the Hong Kong crisis for the sake of placing preference over not jeopardising its bilateral trade relations with China is a grave mistake. Our economic crisis as triggered by COVID is the outcome of China’s disrespect for media freedom, academic freedom and freedom of speech – which form as some of the most basic components of human rights. The solution to that clearly cannot lie within our fear of letting repressive regimes pose a threat to our wealth because this crisis is a reminder that they already do. If we cannot advocate for the universal respect of our fundamental freedoms, economic repercussions like which we have been experiencing as the aftermath of COVID will no doubt be a recurring theme in the near future. This is a time where tighter relations with the West and its Eastern allies should be formed, and no worse time than for Europe to be this disorganised. 

Yet China’s new national security legislation for Hong Kong might just mark as the beginning to an end of Hong Kong as we know it. Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, lamented that the “UK must be standing up to Beijing rather than kowtow”, which I could not agree more. This new legislation is more of a distraction from his own mishandlings of COVID in China itself, which has evidently hurt his standing amongst the elites of his own party. ‘Pragmatists’ who claim justify the incentive for us to appease President Xi to safeguard the financial repercussions of Brexit and of COVID are in the danger of being too short-sighted. Those who are truly pragmatic will consider the long term implications of our free societies and our very own public health and economic welfare if we do not make our foreign policies towards China more sophisticated, within which we should cease treating human rights as a ‘minor inconvenience’. We have seen the excruciatingly relentless resistance of the people of Hong Kong against the Chinese state – the CCP hence lacks territorial legitimacy. So if we keep ignoring Hong Kong, at some point this is bound to produce refugee flows. Is Britain ready for that? The ‘not-in-my-backyard’ attitude only goes so far. Nevertheless I also want to stress that this definitely includes not starting a Cold War with China. The real pragmatic solutions should lie somewhere in between. There should be more craftsmanship put into our foreign policies.

Yet we are still obsessed with not exacerbating the status quo economic jeopardy, when clearly, we would not have arrived here in the first place if we had been standing up against Beijing’s disrespect for fundamental human rights, the ramifications of which emanate deeply and profoundly far beyond its sovereign territories. In short, if China had respected the basic liberties of its own scientists and academics, we would not be in the midst of this public health and economic crisis. This is a fact. The effects of the negligence of our basic human rights tend to accumulate silently until it detonates to irreversibly cause damage on a global scale, but as the end of the Second World War dims further behind in history, we have grown too complacent to realise this. If we cannot stand up to our own values on an international level, how will we be able to maintain our own free societies? Surely bargaining our fundamental freedoms for the sake of what is likely to end up as imbalanced trade relations with authoritarians clearly is not what our forefathers have lost their lives for. The ball is in our court still and we still get to call the shots though to a lesser extent without the leverage of the EU. But the fact that we are already stifling ourselves now is a stark reminder that we can be our own oppressors before China or any other authoritarian regime. 

1. Müllerson, R. (1997). “Human Rights Diplomacy.” Routledge. 

Published by Anna Tan (陈丽安)

Anna is a neuroscientist (by training) who is passionate about International Affairs. She describes herself as an East-West hybrid, well-versed with life as a third culture kid that was raised in South East Asia. Anna also enjoys museums, theatres and her morning coffees. She also likes her Kaya Toast and Mohinga (on separate occasions). She is currently based at King’s College London, at the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy. You can follow her on Twitter: @AnnaTanGTW.

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