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The Gloomy Investor’s Chinese Lessons for Britain

importing from china
Written by Hugo de Burgh

The author of Mrs Zhu’s Chicken here argues that what’s going on in China is a wake-up call for the British.

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Just before the pandemic, a senior executive of China General Nuclear in the UK lamented to me that the manufacturing industries he sought to subcontract or invest no longer exist. ‘You have sold off or undermined them all’ he said. ‘You should have a manufacturing industry, otherwise you are dependent upon other countries for everything!’[1]

Whether he is right or not, his gloom was, I believe, quite genuine.  Working with educated Chinese over 15 years, people who know only too well the defects of communism, I have often found admiration for our polity and our enterprise, and sometimes, born of their experiences here as students, affection. There is a widespread perception that, because we have failed to revive our industrial economy and are dependent for so much on others, our significance, as ‘model’, is weakened.

Another message I got, again and again, is that we Brits now believe in ourselves less than they do. In typically Chinese style, I am treated to a historical analogy: Chinese of the 19th century, challenged by Western superiority, lost faith in their own civilisation and that this led to a collapse of morale and, in time, sell-out to communism. The implication my interlocutors wanted me to draw was that we British need to hold fast to our values and their institutional expressions, and demonstrate that they are, especially to people less fortunate in their political arrangements than we, as exemplary today as ever.

A century ago, China – once as much the apogee of civilisation as the British Empire – had been overtaken in economy, military technology and organisation by foreigners who used their power to wrest concessions from the Chinese empire and, step by step, weaken and exploit it. A former workshop of the world, China was in debt, spending well beyond its revenues and with a chronic imbalance of payments; its best assets were being bought up by foreigners, minorities were disaffected and its identity undermined by ideologies that repudiated the inheritance and eroded self-respect. China could only fight its wars if others bore the brunt.

Sounds familiar? So were the responses. From the late 19th century up to the Communist conquest, patriotic intellectuals and think tanks[2] produced reams of proposals. Many studied us[3] and came up with plans for a constitutional monarchy and other political reforms, an Anglicised legal system, industrial re-development, reduction of foreign involvement in the infrastructure, rejection of imported ideologies. They wanted to retain the best of a system that had been most advanced for nearly 2000 years, learning from us in order to adapt it to modern exigencies and discoveries.

Alas, by the 1930s, many young patriots were sickened by inequality, lack of opportunity and the relative decline of their country. They became impatient at the slowness of the think tanks and their inability to influence politicians who were obsessed with their own careers or enrichment. As did many Europeans at that time, they allowed themselves to be seduced by totalitarians who called out ‘the guilty’ and promised utopia. By the 1950s those totalitarians had taken power and begun, initially under Soviet guidance, to smash the civilisation, wreck its economy and liquidate its educated and enterprising people.

Learn from China?

We, today, might ponder those Chinese patriots. It seems that, like China a hundred years ago, Britain is at risk of falling for a new iteration of totalitarianism, though seemingly less violent. Woke tunnels away at our identity, gains adherence to a fatuous set of supernatural beliefs and imposes a divisive moral hierarchy[4].

Meanwhile, until Woke takes over, here are three possible routes for the country that has left the EU but not yet found a role.

If we simply continue to decline, fail to address our economic problems and imbalances, we may become politically unstable as more and more people in the ‘left behind’ resent their impoverishment and compete for the public trough. No longer of use as an ally to either the US or EU, we turn into an offshore financial centre, outwith the mainstream of humanity, our lucky ones employed as concierges to the global elite. In this case, our values and the contribution we might make to tackling such global problems as climate change, get ignored.

Second, bereft of ideas as to how to generate our own revival, our politicians opt for total servility to one of the great powers, in return for benefits, becoming panders au Blair. Most likely, we double down on our subservience to the USA, our glorious role being to provide a fig leaf of international cooperation for its attempts to shore up its hegemony or evangelise.

There is a third possibility. At home, we refuse to bend the knee to the creeping Woke ideology, which would stymie our revival, or meekly to accept a subordinate role in US foreign policy, which risks our becoming collateral damage in a US-China war[5]. Instead, we start to stand up for and strengthen our own defining qualities and restore ourselves in our own eyes and that of the world, so that we can be seen to have the moral authority of the most beneficent polity. This requires affirmation of our identity as the inventor of freedom but, also, that we see ourselves as a developing economy, not a declining one. As Larry Elliott puts it, we should emulate Taiwan[6].

The whole agenda of politicians needs to change, from cossetting lobbies and minorities to economic revival, from taking off the cuff decisions about important issues out of political expediency to the reduction of dependence, import substitution and curtailing debt. Parties should be vying to produce better ideas on raising GDP (sustainably) rather than to expose each other’s peccadillos.

Most of all, we should stand by and rejuvenate the institutions that our forebears built over many centuries, knowledge of which has transformed expectations everywhere: freedom of speech, the right to differ, the rule of law, accountability of leaders, participation, and devolution of decision-making. Britain was and is the world’s thought leader, the Empire having been its temporary vehicle for enlightenment.

As long as Mrs Zhu and multitudes like her know, thanks to fading memories of British management of Hong Kong and the immediacy of social media, that an open society exists and believes in itself, they can hope. We should not kid ourselves that the Zhus want to convert to be Anglos, but we can be confident that they want their country to go down the path towards an open society.

We should take a lesson from the crisis that China faced a hundred odd years ago and affirm Britain, morally and materially, for the sake of all humanity, if not for ourselves.


Hugo ‘Huge’ de Burgh is a Professor of Journalism and the Director of China UK Creative Industries CIC, based at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.

[1] He was exaggerating, but then so is Jeremy Hunt when he says everything is hunky-dory.

[2] I use the modern expression, ‘think tank’ but the contemporary term was ‘salon’.

[3] The most prominent are Yan Fu and Hu Shih, both intellectual giants and interpreters of Western philosophy. The fact that these names mean nothing even to educated Britons is a measure of our ignorance of China and misunderstanding of its modernisation.

[4] For the best analysis of Woke in the UK, see Williams, Joanna (2022) How woke won London: Spiked


[5] To an extent Boris Johnson started to do that. He moved faster on the Ukrainian War than our allies, the USA and EU.

[6] accessed 221122. Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson  predicted the downward spiral of the economy ten or more years ago, in The Gods that Failed, Going South and Fantasy Island.

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About the author

Hugo de Burgh