Opinion | IPAC: Neocolonialists offer nothing to Global Britain
By Grenville Cross
The Spectator magazine describes the author Lawrence James as "the doyen of English historians". In his latest book, The Lion and the Dragon, published on Aug 3, he charts the rise and fall of the British Empire, and considers the humiliation of China in the 19th century, and its subsequent rise. He places the two Sino-British opium wars in their overall context, and describes how Britain justified its global aggression in terms of its "civilizing mission".
In the 19th century, British merchants, notably the Jardine Matheson company, sold Indian opium to China on an industrial scale. While they made vast profits, the consequences were horrific. By 1840, there were an estimated 10 million Chinese opium addicts, largely sustained by British imports, and the opium trade resulted not only in social misery but also in economic dislocation. When the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) tried to suppress the trade, Britain responded with gunboats, determined to protect the interests of its drug traffickers.
This, however, was not how things were portrayed at home. As James explains, "Evangelical Christians, liberals and radicals cherished a vision of Britain as a godly nation dedicated to the uprooting of evil and injustice throughout the world." A popular Sunday-school song of the time instructed young Britons that the UK's "rule of empire is to save. She gives the Bible, and she frees the slave".
Although many Britons accepted this narrative, their government's China policy was, as wiser heads like William Ewart Gladstone, the Liberal statesman, recognized, unethical in nature and brutal in implementation. Its focus was China's humiliation, based on the seizure of land, the enforced opening of ports, and the making of profits by whatever means.
In the First Opium War, the British government pursued what James calls a policy of "systematically applied terror". Its war machine deployed the latest technology, including steam power and state-of-the-art weaponry, and China never stood a chance. A report submitted to the British government in 1847 estimated that Chinese casualties (including deaths) numbered between 18,000 and 20,000, whereas British casualties amounted to 69 killed and 451 wounded.
Although the "century of humiliation" is now a distant memory, and China has assumed its rightful place on the world stage, colonial mindsets are still alive and well in modern Britain. Those who resent China's rise are as determined as their colonial forebears to demean the country, frustrate its progress, and harm its interests. As before, this is being done in the name of a "civilizing mission", by which they mean demonizing China.
There is no better example of this than the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). It was founded in 2020 by Hong Kong Watch, the anti-China propaganda outfit operated in the UK by the serial fantasist Benedict Rogers (currently an IPAC "adviser"), and it recruits politicians who subscribe to its Sinophobic agenda. Like cancer, it has spread to parliaments around the world, and is now represented in 27 legislatures and the European Parliament, including Japan's and those of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. It is desperate to maintain America's global hegemony, and its messaging is invariably of the "yellow peril" variety.
In 2020, when Rogers appointed his lieutenant, Luke de Pulford, as Hong Kong Watch's policy director, he was tasked with creating IPAC, of which he is now the executive director. He has since recruited assorted ideologues as IPAC co-chairs, including the British politicians Sir Iain Duncan Smith (notorious for his slanders against the Hong Kong judiciary) and Baroness (Helena) Kennedy (a Hong Kong Watch patron), both of whom were sanctioned by Beijing for their anti-China activities in 2021.
De Pulford, moreover, has his fingers in various pies. In 2021, the High Court in Hong Kong was informed of his links not only to the media magnate Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, currently facing national security charges, but also of his involvement with Stand with Hong Kong, the subversive group that supported the insurrection of 2019-20 and sought to harm Hong Kong interests in foreign parts.
With de Pulford positioned at IPAC's heart, Rogers has been able to use it to further Hong Kong Watch's global strategy. This, apart from maligning China at every opportunity, has included seeking Magnitsky-style sanctions against Chinese officials and stoking fears over wider engagements with Beijing. Like Hong Kong Watch, its parent, IPAC specializes in crude propaganda, and wants to see the West decoupled from China, as its latest campaign highlights.
In 2020, Hong Kong Watch was supportive of the US efforts to ban Huawei from the UK's 5G technology program, supposedly on security grounds. In 2023, IPAC's Duncan Smith led the demands for Chinese-made surveillance equipment to be removed from British government departments, also for security reasons. By building on these and similar initiatives, IPAC is now trying to take things to a new level by targeting China's car exports.
Although Germany is currently the largest supplier of cars in the UK, China is now in second place, and could soon become the prime supplier. As the UK's car companies are facing quotas for zero-emissions sales from 2024, before a ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles comes into force in 2030, China is expected to dominate the British market with its electric cars. Although China's electric vehicles will help the UK to achieve its net zero targets, the "reds under the beds" brigade is apoplectic over what it claims, for want of a better excuse, are the security implications.
However nonsensical, IPAC has decided to milk those concerns for all they are worth. Earlier this month, it declared that the UK was "sleepwalking" into being "catastrophically undercut" by China's electric vehicles. It claimed it was "absolutely wrong to allow control of such a key industry to be handed to authoritarian Beijing". And then, in an effort to clothe its scaremongering with legitimacy, it called on the British government to "explain what assessment has been made of the security risks".
Although it is true that cellular modules can be installed in vehicles for covert activities, the idea they would be installed in millions of cars intended for the general population is the stuff of fantasy. In any event, the British government, through its Procurement Bill, is giving itself powers to bar Chinese companies from sensitive areas, including providing government cars. A government spokesman has also explained that "We've developed requirements for all car manufacturers to mitigate against cyber threats in their designs and monitor the risk through the life of their vehicles."
Although China is committed to free trade and the development of technological solutions to global challenges, IPAC's neocolonials are trapped in a time warp. Instead of making the most of Global Britain and engaging with the world's second-largest economy, Duncan Smith, Kennedy and Rogers want Britain to show as much hostility toward China as it did in the 19th century, although there are some big differences.
Whereas their predecessors were able to act with impunity as they abused China and harmed its people, those days are gone. China is now able to look after itself, and those who seek to harm it will face the consequences. Although China was isolated in the 19th century, it now has partners around the world, not least in the Global South. It has greatly assisted many countries, including those still suffering from the imperial legacy and struggling with neocolonial exploitation, and its efforts are greatly appreciated in many places, including Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
If the UK harkens to the likes of IPAC, it will be shooting itself in the foot. It will not only be placing itself on the wrong side of history, but betraying the future well-being of its people. IPAC and its allies have nothing to offer Britain, and the UK-China partnership must be prioritized if the Global Britain policy is ever to succeed.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.
The article was first published in China Daily.