4 June 2020

While Hong Kong suffers, a section of the British left carries on cheering China


It’s exactly 31 years since Chinese military forces crushed a peaceful weeks-long protest in Tiananmen Square. Certainly hundreds and possibly several thousands of students and others were killed in this infamous massacre. The anniversary would have been marked today, with especial poignancy, by protesters in Hong Kong, but for the coronavirus. While the murderous gerontocracy that ordered the massacre has long since passed into history, the current generation of Chinese leaders are intent on subordinating Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy by establishing a new security law that would make it a crime to undermine the authority of Beijing. 

You’d have thought the response in Britain would be bipartisan. And fortunately Labour as well as the Government has recognised the threatening nature of China’s policy. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, has said it “represents a challenge to our values”, and urged an extension of visa rights for Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas passports. It’s as basic an issue of liberal principle as, say, support for the constitutional government in Spain resisting Franco’s coup in 1936 was for an earlier generation. 

Yet not everyone on the left sees it that way, and it’s worth highlighting that division of opinion in order to widen it still further. Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who chairs the Common Foreign Affairs Committee, ironically congratulated Labour’s front bench this week on the Hong Kong issue for “standing up to communist tyranny” and thereby evincing a “noticeably different attitude” from the party’s recent history. It was a mischievous but fair dig at Jeremy Corbyn’s political record.

There was a time when China’s revolutionary ferment was a fashionable cause in the West. In her fine recent book Maoism: A Global History, Julia Lovell notes: “From the late 1960s, a surprising range of individuals across Western Europe and North America ran a Maoist fever.” These included the broadcaster Andrew Marr, who in 1970 wrote to the Chinese embassy and asked for materials to circulate to his comrades. The embassy obliged, sending him a consignment of Mao’s Little Red Book, presumably with high hopes of building a revolutionary cell. Marr omitted to explain that he was 11 years old. 

Yet others, older but without conspicuous wisdom, were also swayed. Noam Chomsky, the theoretical linguist and political activist, said in 1967: “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable… I do think that China is an important example of a new society in which very interesting positive things happened at the local level, in which a great deal of the collectivization and communization was really based on mass participation and took place after a level of understanding had been reached in the peasantry that led to this next step.”

To this day, Chomsky is touted by his admirers as a fearless critic of power. Here, he was a lauding a tyranny that had lately unleashed a ferocious campaign of repression, violence and the suppression of learning. 

Tony Benn was widely regarded as a man of principle and a national treasure in his later years. Not by me, he wasn’t. Benn recorded in his diary on 6 June 1996: “Had a long talk to the Chinese First Secretary at the embassy – a very charming man called Liao Dong – and said how much I admired Mao Tse tung, or Zedong, the greatest man of the twentieth century.” According to the historian Frank Dikötter, Mao set an official quota of one person per thousand in the population to be murdered in the early years of the revolution. Violence was not a by-product of Chinese communism, but a deliberate policy. 

In the years between the Tiananmen Square massacre and the current threats to Hong Kong, it’s been hard even for radicals as credulous as Benn to see a spark of idealism. The system remains autocratic, though at a much lower level of violence than under Mao, while its embrace of global commerce and recycling of a huge surplus of savings in Western capital markets are hardly the stuff of revolutionary dreams.

Yet to a determined section of the British left, it is a guiding principle that perfidy of the United States and its allies is the main cause of trouble in the world. A preposterous film by John Pilger, The Coming War on China (2016), argues this case at length. It imagines that US military aid to Japan and South Korea is a strategy of confrontation with China, rather than acknowledging that these democratic states might have some reason to be apprehensive of Beijing’s policies.

Take also an editorial in The Morning Star this week. It alleges that “a violent fringe of [Hong Kong] protesters has been moving to open adoption of terrorist methods”. This line of argument replicates the baseless propaganda of Chinese state media. And the Star warns darkly: “By making a humanitarian cause of Hong Kong, Labour’s right-wingers can rehabilitate an Atlanticist outlook comfortable with Britain’s role as junior partner to the United States and committed to supporting US aggression abroad.”

Why should this crude propaganda sheet matter? Well, it has been for years a forum for the writings of Corbyn, the man who was leader, in title if little else, of the Labour Party from 2015 until this year, and who Labour seriously proposed as a potential prime minister. That lamentable period in the party’s history is, fortunately, now gone.

The Star is a least correct in noting that the Atlantic alliance, which has been attacked and undermined by the Trump administration, has long enjoyed Labour’s support. It was Clement Attlee’s postwar government, and especially the foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, that realised the urgency of ensuring that the US did not retreat into isolation after the Second World War. It’s also true that the policies pursued by the US currently, especially its tariffs against China, are awesomely self-defeating. But in the basic matter of principle of defending liberty internationally against attacks by autocratic states, there should be no tempering or equivocation.

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Oliver Kamm is a columnist and leader writer for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.