What does the TikTok ban mean for China-UK ties?
TikTok has been banned from UK government devices following a review by the National Cyber Security Centre, ordered by ministers. It raises questions about the safety of the personal data of British residents, about the security of official secrets, and where Britain’s complex relationship with China is going.
What has the government announced?
Ministers say there is “limited use of TikTok within government and limited need for government staff to use the app on work devices”, and that its ban follows similar moves by the United States, Canada and the European Commission. The junior minister responsible, Oliver Dowden, says the use of other dataextracting apps “will be kept under review”.
“Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is a prudent and proportionate step following advice from our cybersecurity expert,” he said. “TikTok requires users to give permission for the app to access data stored on the device, which is then collected and stored by the company. Allowing such permissions gives the company access to a range of data on the device, including contacts, user content and geolocation data.”
Despite the steady deterioration in relations with Beijing, Britain has yet to provide concrete evidence of surveillance and espionage – though the saga of the Chinese “weather balloons” floating over North America suggests it is perfectly possible that doorbell cameras in Slough are being monitored in Shanghai.
Whatever happened to the ‘golden age’?
It seems a long time ago, but it is barely a decade since David Cameron, George Osborne and Vince Cable led a high-powered team of British officials and business people to the Middle Kingdom to re-establish cordial relations long soured by the occupation of Hong Kong. Visiting in November and thus proudly wearing poppies, the act of remembrance was misunderstood as a diplomatic insult. Still, the bilateral friendship blossomed and, as Osborne candidly put it in 2015, “the world still needs China’s help”. He proclaimed a “golden decade for the UK–China relationship”. It tarnished fairly rapidly.
Is China a threat or a challenge to the UK?
Not so long ago, for Remainers such as Osborne – but even more for Brexiteers – China was the great economic hope; a
huge, dynamic economy growing at 10 per cent per annum, the workshop of the world. Europe, by contrast, was sclerotic, plagued by debt and currency crises, scarred by riots and corruption. Entire nation states were close to bankruptcy in the early and mid-2010s.
China, as well as the US, India, Brazil and the emerging economies of the Pacific, were seen as the future. But just at the moment Britain sought to pivot eastwards and hitch its wagon to these juggernauts of growth, the very same nationalistic impulses in those potential partners made new free trade deals ever more remote possibilities, and matters have only deteriorated since. Hence Global Britain’s apparent loneliness. Of them all, China was the greatest Brexit disappointment in industrial terms. The great irony is that once Britain was on track to leave the EU, it became much less useful to China (as well as Japan and other more traditional inward investors).
As a result of China’s assertiveness, and suspicions that Beijing is stealthily gathering intelligence on Western powers, Cameron’s successors have tacked away from the optimism of the golden age. Theresa May called off plans for China to build a new nuclear power station in Britain, while Boris Johnson banned Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from the 5G network. Johnson also warned against Sinophobia but had no alternative but to impose sanctions after the suppression and disturbances in Hong Kong, and after China placed tokenistic travel bans on MPs such as Iain Duncan Smith who had spoken out about Chinese human rights violations.
Rishi Sunak, perhaps with an eye to keeping trade options open, has refrained from classifying China as a strategic threat, contenting himself with phrases such as “challenging the world order”. China is less equivocal and sees Britain as having no business messing around in the South China Sea with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.
What went wrong?
In one short word, Xi. President Xi Jinping became supreme leader in 2012 and proceeded to accrue more personal power, to
enforce more party control at home, and to assert more Chinese power abroad, particularly in the South China Sea. Hence the eventual crackdowns and abuses of human rights against the Muslim Uyghur people in Xinjiang province, increasingly menacing behaviour towards Taiwan and, most recently, the rapprochement with Putin – part of a loose network of likeminded authoritarians including Trump, Erdogan and Modi. Thus China began to drift away from Western goals.
Most offensive to the British was the unilateral renunciation of the “one nation, two systems” governance of Hong Kong, breaking the treaty with the UK.
Where next for UK-China relations?
It is difficult to see how they can thaw while so many issues remain unresolved – spying, Hong Long, human rights, the Aukus pact, and now Beijing financially supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine. China remains a potentially lucrative market for British businesses and a powerful world player but the postBrexit UK hasn’t that much to offer China. Indeed, in many of the former territories of the old British empire in Africa, Asia and Oceania, it is China that has established itself, via the Belt and Road Initiative, as the neo-colonial power.
What about Grant Shapps’s TikTok videos?
In open defiance of collective responsibility, the publicity-mad energy secretary has said that he will stay on TikTok as a duty of service to the British people. Streetwise as ever, Shapps posted a clip from Wolf of Wall Street in which trader Leonardo DiCaprio declares the “show goes on”. So if the Chinese Politburo are at a loose end, they can continue to watch Shapps’s little movies and possibly read his confidential correspondence about the progress of HS2 for some additional pre-banquet entertainment.
Want your views to be included in The Independent Daily Edition letters page? Email us by tapping here email@example.com. Please include your address
BACK TO TOP