In the 1980s I worked in Hong Kong for a multinational corporation intent on benefitting from the opening up of China. We were one of the bees buzzing excitedly around a rapidly growing honeypot. In 1989 the events of Tiananmen Square caused only a brief pause in business. There was a little bid of hand wringing but we soon buzzed back and were doing deals. Coincidentally in the same year the Berlin Wall fell. In Russia as well as China money talked and in both big countries we in the West salivated at the commercial opportunities – we didn’t ask too many awkward questions.
The threats posed by present day China and Russia are of the West’s making. Both changing great powers could see that capitalism works – not least for the fat cats at the top. And they could see that the muted cries in the West that economic change should be accompanied by democratic change could safely be ignored. The Chinese, as ever, could see that time was on their size, as was scale. “China is Very Big” said my Hong Kong Chief Executive back in 1989 – never mind the quality of the regime feels its width, it’s breadth, it’s size and its prospects. Let’s get some of the action.
MultinatIonals like the one I worked for sourced people and money globally and our partners in Peking or Moscow welcomed the global benefits that doing deals with us brought. Two nations traditionally closed became open if there was a buck to be made, which there was. As bridges were built the Chinese and Russians crossed them bringing their newly acquired bucks with them. From football clubs to telecoms it was Russian and, especially, Chinese money that swept up western assets. Apple as well as Huawei rely on an alliance of western demand and Chinese business acumen and labour.
The Chinese and the Russians knew that they needed to protect what they were creating – information is power and they weren’t too bothered about how they obtained it. Were there spies in our business operation in Hong King back in the late 1980s ? Anecdotal evidence suggested that there were. And now? Do you really think the People’s Republic would have moved against Hong Kong recently without insider information that they could get away with it ? The political, commercial and military intelligence operations of the Chinese and Russians are substantial and designed to focus on keeping what they have and building on it.
Hand in hand with the spooks are the greeks bearing gifts. If the Chinese, and more so the Russians, believe that their relative strength is enhanced by weakening the solidarity of the West they’ll happily throw money at the challenge. The Russia Report doesn’t confirm the extent to which Russian money helped achieve Brexit but the evidence is more than anecdotal. A united Europe , especially one with plans for a Defence Force (EDF) , presents a threat to an increasingly militaristic and totalitarian Russia. An EDF without British participation would be weaker. A European Union without British membership weaker then one with us. Go figure.
One of the oldest messages in the political strategy textbook is “Divide and Rule” . And nothing is more divisive than flag-waving nationalism. Trump’s nationalism and that of Britain’s Conservatives were just what the Russians and Chinese ordered – and paid for. In a world where there are just four great powers, and with two of them (China and Russia) a threat to the West, the events of the last four years will have put smiles on the faces in Moscow and Peking. The madman in the White House throwing insults every day at the Chinese won’t worry them one bit. The Great Power that is the United States shooting itself clumsily in the foot every day won’t worry the Russians either. And the fourth undisputed great power – a uniting Europe pursuing ever closer union – has been hugely damaged by Britain petulantly picking up its ball and running away.