Kerry Brown on Brexit, Trade Deal, Hong Kong and Royal Family

Kerry Brown, a former diplomat, is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. He is an Associate of the Asia Pacific Program at Chatham House, London. Brown is the author of The New Emperors a book on the leadership of modern China.

Could you start by sharing some of your observations of the situation on the ground in the United Kingdom in the middle of Brexit?

Brown: In the last three and a half years, Brexit has produced significant instability in the United Kingdom. We’ve had three elections, and we’ve had three Prime Ministers in a short period of time. I think the process has been divisive. Half the country wants to leave the European Union (EU) and half the country wants to stay. The issue is that whatever happens, half the country will feel alienated and let down. Our politicians seem to have worked to divide us, not bring us together.

On the other hand, the U.K. is still quite stable. There are a lot of protests, but they are not out of hand. We have had people march twice in London, but with no or very few arrests. It’s not like Hong Kong where there is quite a lot of unrest and violence by police and others. In Britain, it is mostly people feeling frustrated, divided, and angry in the U.K.

The election held in early December resolved one issue by coming out, under the current rules, with a mandate for the Conservative Party to proceed as it wishes.  As I said before, Britain, domestically, is quite divided and, internationally, is becoming a more limited player and more in danger of becoming quite a small player if it does not work with its allies, like the EU and others. With partners, it can be more significant and influential than it could be on its own.

The US-China has reached “phrase one” deal on trade.  Amidst the U.S.-China trade dispute, what are the opportunities or challenges faced by Europe?

Brown: China and the US seem to have reached a first stage deal. But the devil, as ever, will be in the detail of how this gets implemented. And in many ways it is merely the introit to a much more massive issue – how the US deals with a world where the largest economy may be China, despite remaining so politically different to it. The EU is trying to sit on a wall— it has a huge relationship with America in the context of trade and investment, but it also has a huge relationship with China –it doesn’t want to be forced into making a choice between them, because at the moment, the two relationships are similar by volume, and the relationship with China might be slightly larger. With issues like the trade war and tariffs on steel, the EU tries to take sides with the U.S., such as saying that China needs to open up its domestic finance sector and other parts of its economy more, but it’s also got to side with China in not seeming like its America’s servant.

Last year, there was an attempt by Li Keqiang in Brussels to have a summit to agree to work more closely together, but it’s difficult for the EU to side with China because its security partnerships are with the U.S. It’s a balancing act that’s getting more difficult to balance, particularly surrounding problems like Huawei where the EU shares common ground with the U.S.

To what extent will the recent passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act affect talks for a trade deal?

Brown: I don’t think the bill will have a huge impact on the trade talks. For the U.S. it’s a symbolic issue, and I think the Chinese government knows that this is politicians in America doing what politicians in America do. To the Chinese, their self-interest is more about maintaining certain links, and, despite the very difficult current political situation, China needs certain things from America. It won’t allow Hong Kong, Congress, or others to stop it benefitting from its interests.

In other words, it’s all symbolism— it’s part of a rising argument between China and the U.S. and it’s a symptom of the fact the U.S. and China are deeply unaligned with each other. The two are experiencing a period of deep contention, such as over the issues of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The Chinese know this is typical of America and hope that Trump isn’t elected next year because maybe the next President won’t be as brutal as him.

Some analysts are forecasting that Hong Kong is on a downward path. What do you see as the future of the city? Will Hong Kong become a prolonged challenge to Beijing like Taiwan is today?

Brown: I don’t think it will be a challenge to Beijing because its status is so different than that of Taiwan. Taiwan has de facto independence such that it can determine a lot of its own behavior. Hong Kong is, on every level, part of the People’s Republic of China.

Hong Kong is a tragic issue because you see a city in decline, and no one in particular is to blame because everyone is to blame.

First, Beijing has done a poor job. It doesn’t really believe in the ‘One Country Two Systems’ agreement other than as a road to 2047 when Hong Kong becomes completely part of China. Beijing believes Hong Kong’s finance helps China, so it has some specific interest, but it’s not trusting of the politics in Hong Kong, and believes Hong Kong is very different in terms of its identity relative to other parts of China and maybe a bit contaminated in this sense because of its status as a previous colonial post.

Second, I think the leadership of Hong Kong under Carrie Lam and others has been poor, because they haven’t had the power to deal with the issues necessary, and they don’t have the credibility or the power that is, instead, in Beijing.

Third, the demonstrators are very mixed. There is no real consensus, and I think they have also not been pragmatic. You cannot protest forever, and it’s sad to see universities pulled into this big fight.

And I think the outside world has not done a great job, because the outside world has either politicized this issue to attack China, like this Congressional act, or they’re looking at their business interests and not looking at how they can positively help. There is not a lot of trust.

Hong Kong is a tragedy because everyone is to blame. No one seems willing to sort this issue out.

The only optimism is the local elections late last month which showed that the public consensus is to support the democrats, and I think that must have calmed things down because now we know that most people voting supported the pro-democratic parties. This means that somehow a framework must be in place to accommodate these people.

However, Hong Kong looks more and more troubled, and it’s not even the place I knew 20 years ago, and that’s sad.

What is your assessment of China’s Belt and Road Initiative so far?

Brown: I think the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) ideals are inevitable because China needs to have a story by which it relates to the world around it. China is now a big investor—it has investments in 180 countries—it’s also a huge geopolitical player and will soon be the world’s biggest economy. It can’t just live within its borders—the BRI is an attempt to say what China’s global role is, and it’s an attempt to stop the perception that its global role is to dominate everything. Inevitably it gets lots of criticism, but it’s necessary for China to speak to what its global role is.

The BRI is very vague. Lots of people have different ideas about what it is— at some point, it’s got to get much more specific. Since the first BRI forum in 2017, there has been another that has tried to explain what the BRI is. In the next few years, we will see the BRI become more specific, and the more specific it becomes, the more problems it will have. Debt and labor are issues people are already starting to talk about, but at the moment, there aren’t a huge number of high-profile projects that people can point to. However, critical voices will become more numerous, and China will face the same issues as a great power like the U.S. or others in the past— the bigger it gets, the more people will like to attack it.

You’ve extensively researched President Xi Jinping. How do you think China’s foreign policy has changed under his leadership?

Brown: It’s become more communicative, in some ways clearer, more openly ambitious, more coherent, more centralized and more problematic because of all those things. It would never have been easy for China to speak easily to the rest of the world because of its political system. Two things have made this process difficult- the rapid speed of China’s change and growing prominence, and the changing world- the rise of populists around the world, Trump in the U.S. The world seems much more confused and China seems much more certain. People see China as strong and clear, making it even more vulnerable to inevitable criticisms and arguments stemming from its different political system.

There are many discussions in the United States that the past engagement policy to China has failed. How do you view this policy?

Brown: I guess engagement in 1980s onwards between the U.S., Europe, and China was always a gamble- that political change would come with economic change. Under Xi, we see that this isn’t the case. We’re in a post-engagement era- we no longer engage with China with the desire to make China like U.S. politically. Whatever happens, China’s change will be complex. Today’s engagement with China is more pragmatic, with more self-interest from U.S. and Europe, and more hard-nosed. Rather than aiding China’s rise, the U.S. and Europe are trying to manage it.

You once said in a TED talk that China and the U.S. have two different systems of values. How did you reach this conclusion? Looking forward, do you see a path of converging values or co-existence?

Brown: It’s clear that between the U.S. and China, the issue of values is really tough. They don’t share human rights, religious, or political values. There may be some common interests on trade and economic concerns, but American and Chinese perspectives are clearly different in most areas. China acknowledges that it has different values. We must respect the fact that there are two huge powers with separate values. I don’t think it’s possible for the U.S. and China to agree today, unless they try by force to make each other agree, which would be disastrous. Agreement may come in fifty years or more, but it’s not on the horizon. The other way to handle disagreements would be to have a system that keeps the different value sets under management and control and prevents clashes. That means a bipolar order where the U.S. acknowledges there’s a Chinese value space and vice versa. You acknowledge that and live with it until the day it could be solved.

In both the United States and China, people are obsessed with the British royal family. How do you view the royal family’s role in promoting Britain’s soft power?

Brown: To be honest, the less the royal family can be involved, the better. There are two ways the royal family are involved- through fictional media and as real people. As real people, the royals bring two problems when it comes to engagement with China.  Firstly, they promote an old-fashioned view of Britain, which we don’t want, especially in China. Secondly, as people, I don’t imagine members of the royal family are very relatable. It’s useful to have the royals as a story that Chinese people are interested in, but I’ve never thought this aspect of Britain was that helpful in my many years of work with China.