It is funny to think that 10 months ago as we faced the most serious pandemic for decades, the West fell out about what its name should be. Exemplifying our misplaced energies, headlines were briefly dominated by whether terms like ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ were racist.
Almost a year later ‘Covid-19’ or more simply ‘the coronavirus’ are the accepted terms, while the more cumbersome ‘SARS-CoV-2’ for the virus has fallen away. But controversy over how we deal with China looks less likely to disappear, as Nigel Farage has latched onto the country as his next big project.
Farage will be remembered for his greatest hits of making Ukip a potent force in British politics (despite rarely winning any seats); forcing David Cameron to call a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership; claiming much of the credit for winning that vote; and harassing the Conservatives further by winning the European elections with the new Brexit Party.
People have wondered what Farage will do next, with many hoping the answer would be to retire. King Kipper has proved so divisive that Dominic Cummings deliberately excluded him from the Vote Leave campaign so as to not scare off potential middle class leave voters.
As might be expected, the new year began with Farage releasing a video congratulating himself for making Brexit happen. As might not be expected, the caption read, “Stopping China is the next big battle to fight.”
When Farage’s Reform party was originally announced from the corpse of the Brexit Party, its original focus was on opposing the lockdown, as detailed in a sympathetic Telegraph article. This tapped into an existing overlap that some had spotted between leave-voters and lockdown sceptics, an example of package-deal politics.
To my eye one of Farage’s main strategies in taking Euroscepticism from a fringe constitutional concern to mainstream politics was to connect it to immigration: a far more tangible challenge to people’s lives and identities. Lockdown requires even less of a leap, as we’ve all been living with it for almost a year.
The Chinese pivot makes less sense to me. Although Farage’s former ally Paul O’Flynn said the new focus could threaten the Tories, I am sceptical. For most Britons China is a distant concern: geographically remote, culturally inaccessible, and tangible only through the ubiquitous ‘Made in China’ labels on consumer goods.
Farage warned that China is “in some ways […] an even bigger challenge than the European Union was, a bigger threat to our independence, our way of life, our liberty.” The country is doing its “absolute best to take over the world”, he added.
They’re throttling democracy in Hong Kong and they’ll do their best to do it elsewhere. They’ve taken over many of the resources in Africa. This Chinese Communist Party pose a massive threat to the world, threat to our freedoms, threat to our way of life.
As a result of these conclusions, Farage’s focus this year will be to alert Britons to the this threat More ambitiously, he wants to “make sure we are no longer dependent on China.”
Foreign policy wonks have been asking for a while what China’s intentions are in terms of global politics. The conclusion is rarely that the country is bent on world domination, although China has been securing its position in its near abroad, notably building islands to claim sovereignty in the South China Sea and pushing forward the Belt and Road Initiative.
For a Western liberal China poses a threat to the post-war order championed by the United States and founded on things like human rights and democracy. Yet people like Farage are not outspoken supporters of these things, preferring more national control and less global co-ordination. On this China seems to agree with them, so long as China is doing the controlling.
Farage will have to be intellectually flexible to oppose lockdown measures as heavy-handed while chastising Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party for its mismanagement of the initial Covid-19 outbreak. But I suspect he can do it.
What seems less doable is maintaining this pressure as post-pandemic life sets in. As mentioned above, China is a long way from Britons’ lives even as it is deeply embedded in global supply chains and international finance. Although attitudes to China worsened during the pandemic, I suspect our feelings will soften as life goes back to normal.
Eliminating any dependence on China is also all-but impossible. Disconnecting from China would entail disconnecting from the global economy, and ripping up those post-Brexit trade deals Farage lauds. For the old Kipper this may be one scheme too far.