Monday, 23 June 2014

The China Syndrome

Last week David Cameron met his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang again, in London, following his own visit to China last autumn. On their agenda was Chinese interest in investing in the UK nuclear industry via two state-owned Chinese nuclear companies and the Chinese State investment bank.

 The key passage in the agreement reads: "The UK Government welcomes investment and participation from Chinese companies in the Hinkley Point C project and progressive involvement more generally in the UK's new build nuclear energy programme. This could include leading the development of other nuclear power station site(s) in the UK and the potential deployment of Chinese reactor technology in the UK, subject to meeting the stringent requirements of the UK's independent nuclear regulators."

 Before he went to China, in Prime Minister’s question time on 30 October last year, David Cameron kept up his consistent position on the energy security merits of the Hinkley Point C nuclear deal, telling a Labour MP:

 in terms of energy security .. he backed a Government who in 13 years never built a single nuclear power station. Oh, they talked about it—boy, did they talk about it—but they never actually got it done. In terms of Chinese and French investment, I think we should welcome foreign investment into our country, building these important utilities so that we can use our firepower for the schools, the hospitals, the roads and the railways we need.”

 But Will Hutton, formerly a stockbroker economics journalist and Observer editor, now Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, was excoriating in his appraisal of the deal done with Chinese companies to support Hinkley C. In an Observer column titled “George Osborne in China – wide-eyed, innocent and deeply ignorant”- published on 20 October last year  - he argued that Britain must be an open trading nation, welcoming inward investment just as it seeks to invest in others. But prostituting one's security and economic interests to a country whose values, practices and interests, he went on “are wholly at odds with one's own is not openness but recklessness.”

He went on to argue that the most eye-catching deal - on nuclear power, with the agreement that the Chinese nuclear industry will be able to build and own nuclear power stations in Britain-  is like  gift to the Chinese Communist party, “offering its state-owned nuclear power companies price and profit-margin guarantees that privatisation and liberalisation, wholly unrealistically in such a long-term business, were supposed to have left behind for ever.” (

 The doyenne of the environmental press, Geoffrey Lean, who has covered nuclear issues for forty years -  reported in some more detail in his Daily Telegraph column, saying

 How’s this for a turn-up for the books? A Conservative Chancellor, promoter of free markets and defender of national sovereignty, is boasting of “allowing” (a euphemism, it seems, for “begging”) a totalitarian Communist country to build nuclear power stations in Britain.

 So, much of Britain’s highly sensitive nuclear industry – which sprang from the atomic bomb programme – is effectively to be owned by two foreign powers, one the country’s oldest traditional enemy, the other a bitter Cold War opponent. Few other nations, and certainly not China, would dream of permitting anything of the kind. Doesn’t Mr Osborne see that this could be a bit radioactive, shall we say?

 How should we view the Chinese as long-term future both investors in, and constructors of, new nuclear power plants in the UK? I will leave it up to other more qualified experts to  technically appraise China’s nuclear technology competence and expertise.

Here is what one top Chinese official, Wang Yiren, vice-chairman of the China Atomic Energy Authority, said a year ago in remarks at the International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century, held in St Petersburg. “The fear and panic associated with nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster seem to have dissipated. Countries are now taking a more objective and rational approach toward nuclear energy… Over the past four years, nuclear energy development across the world has experienced many twists and turns. But the situation has greatly changed."


Some might say in respect of Fukushima at least, that is a somewhat premature evaluation.

We know the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and DECC ministers all deem China excellent  partners to develop new nuclear in  the UK.

But not all departments have such sanguine assessments of China’s political governance. Here is part of what the Foreign Office annual human rights report says of China, in May 2013.

“Journalists, bloggers and intellectuals continue to be harassed or detained for exercising their right to free speech. Many high-profile activists, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, are serving long prison sentences for speaking out about political freedom and human rights.”

But it also does state:

 Large-scale public protests continued in 2012, although reliable estimates of the number of such “mass incidents” are hard to obtain. They frequently centred on local issues, such as environmental issues.”

 “The use of unlawful and arbitrary measures to target human rights defenders continued during 2012. These included enforced disappearance, house arrest, restrictions on freedom of movement, communication and association, extrajudicial detention (including “re-education through labour” (RTL), “black jails” and involuntary psychiatric committal) and harassment of family members. Human rights defenders also continued to be subjected to criminal charges and procedurally flawed trials, often involving the poorly defined category of offences encompassing “endangering state security”.”

In March, the National People’s Congress passed the first major revision for 15 years to China’s Criminal Procedure Law…Broadly speaking, access to justice remains limited in China, and the rule of law is weak. There is no presumption of innocence. Although the constitution guarantees the independence of the courts, in practice the law is subordinate to the interests of the party and social stability.”

 “In 2012, China almost certainly continued to execute the highest number of people in the world in absolute terms. There are still 55 capital offences on the statute books, including many non-violent crimes…”

 “Chinese law prohibits torture, physical abuse and the insulting of prisoners’ dignity. However, there were widespread reports in 2012 of abuse, mistreatment and torture. Human rights defenders were particularly at risk. Reports detailed the use of methods of abuse and torture, including sleep deprivation, the use of stress positions, beatings and electric shocks.”

 Despite their growth in number, both domestic and foreign NGOs continue to face extensive legislative, operational and policy barriers. NGOs involved in advocacy, legal aid or politically sensitive work frequently face particular difficulties and are regularly subjected to official harassment, interference and forced cancellation of their activities. There were reports of the suppression of labour NGOs in Shenzhen throughout the latter half of 2012.”

 The demolition of traditional Uighur neighbourhoods in cities such as Kashgar, the confiscation of Uighurs’ farmland for development projects and continuing resentment over the harsh treatment of Uighurs during previous outbreaks of ethnic unrest all contributed to continuing ethnic tensions in the region.”


 On 20 June, Left Labour MP Paul Flynn, whose Newport West constituency is threatened by radioactive fallout from a serious accident at Hinkley Point across the Bristol Channel in north Somerset,  tabled an early day motion (Number 155) highlighting the deal, concluding “in light of appalling human rights violations, that accepting money from the Chinese State Investment Bank to invest in UK new nuclear is accepting money tainted with blood; and calls on the Government to cancel all such arrangements”  (
The latest edition ion of the FCO's annual Human rights and Democracy global report, quietly released in April, is as damning this year as last on China's human rights abuses. Instead of cheerleading for more  Sino-British trade deals, as  he did last week, Business secretary Dr Cable should take some time out to read this report.

 "China and the UK stand united in our plans for more collaborative working that will help to achieve long lasting energy security in our own countries," observed Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey, Dr Cable's  Lib Dem Cabinet colleague, after the signing of the Sino-British nuclear deal.

 It is unclear to me how giving a hugely preferential trade and investment deal to Chinese State–owned economic partners in the UK nuclear energy industry enhances the UK’s energy security, or can possibly be ethically justified with such a poor record towards civil society adopted by China.

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