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Cambridge Union debates whether China is 'more a threat than an opportunity'

On Thursday, February 18, the Cambridge Union hosted a virtual debate on the motion ‘This House believes China is more a threat than an opportunity’.

Great Wall of China at the Jinshanling section. Picture: iStock
Great Wall of China at the Jinshanling section. Picture: iStock

The debate was chaired by Freddie Fisk, Union president for Lent 2021. It was held on Zoom and live streamed on the Union’s YouTube channel, free for all to attend.

The first speaker for the proposition was Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Malling and a former lieutenant colonel in the British Army. He is the chairman of the Foreign Select Committee and of the recently formed China Research Group.

He began by stating that China’s attempt to shift from a system “based on ideas of privacy”, “individual rights” and “concepts of property and ownership” poses a “fundamental change to the way the world works”.

China’s breaching of human rights, he said, such as mass sterilisation, abuses of the Uyghur Muslims and the silencing of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong are fundamentally opposed to PC Chang’s vision of the “universal citizen with universal human rights”, and that what modern China offers is “the state as provider, enabler, guarantor” and “owner of the citizen”.

Mr Tugendhat was rebutted by Richard Graham, MP for Gloucester and chair of the All Party Parliamentary China Group. He commented that “threats to our values” come from “all directions” and referenced the storming of the US Capital in January 2021.

He noted that China has more installed capacity in renewables than Brazil, the US and Canada combined, and that with China’s full cooperation we have an opportunity to “grasp something and make a difference”.

We must “reach out” and “woo them to become a critical part of our world”, he said, in order to tackle global issues such as climate change.

Dr Kun-Chin Lin, a Cambridge University lecturer and former director of the Centre for Geopolitics, began by stating that our foreign policy approach to China should start with a “threat assessment”.

He said that in the long run, our “concessions to Beijing’s ways in the name of cooperation” will result in an “inverted end of history”, in which there will be no more distinction between "right or wrong”, “best and worst” or “truth and fake news”.

He concluded that for “the sake of the UK’s national interest and resilience” we must “get a grip on the threat of a dominating China” to prevent it from “exporting its problems around the world”.

The second speaker for the opposition was Harriet Moynihan, a senior research fellow in the International Law Programme, and former legal advisor to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She began by highlighting the danger of retreating to a “threat narrative”, which ultimately risks escalating conflict.

She referenced China’s participation in the Paris Agreement, arguing that they had become a “leader in climate change diplomacy”, and noted how they have set aside a quarter of their land mass for the promotion of conservation.

China. Picture: iStock
China. Picture: iStock

Tobias Ellwood, MP for Bournemouth East and current chair of the Defence Select Committee, began by stating that the current state of our relations with China, if left unchecked, are on a trajectorial path towards “a new Cold War”.

He argued that China’s “incredible rise” has been matched by the “demise of the West”, and that we need to recognise that they are “not going to mature into something that the West considers a democracy”. China is pursuing a “very different geopolitical agenda” that is firmly on a “collision course” with ours.

“We require a turning point”, he stated. We have arrived at a place where we “need to stop the pretence that things are going to smooth out”.

Rounding off the debate was the final speaker for the opposition, Professor Rana Mitter. He is the Deutsche Bank director of the Dickson Poon China Centre, professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University and was the president of the Cambridge Union in Easter 1991.

He began by stating that there is “no other country in the world” that puts forward China’s combination of characteristics as an “extraordinary economic success story”.

The UK needs to “learn from other countries who aren’t like us”, and whose “systems we don’t necessarily share” in order to progress, he said.

For example, a huge amount of China’s technological advancement is to do with it spending 2.12 per cent of its GDP on research and development. If we want to get serious about our own 5g capacity, and quantum computing, he said, “we need to do that”.

The Cambridge Union
The Cambridge Union

He also highlighted that the UK currently has more than 120,000 Chinese students in our education system. This, he argued, gives us a “tremendous advantage in our conversation with China”, whose scientific knowledge is some of the best in the world.

In the end the ayes won 58 votes, the noes 288, and there were four abstentions. This House does not believe, therefore, that China is more a threat than an opportunity.

For more on the Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.

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