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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

To engage with those we disagree with or not? Britain, China, and Burma.

The world doesn't stop even for a global pandemic. Last week I posted a small item about current political issues within Europe. This piece looks at The Far East and at China and Myanmar (Burma).

Any discussion of political flashpoints in The Far East has of necessity to begin with China, the largest country, the largest population, and the largest military power. Internally China has shown little understanding of the world's criticisms of its repressive policies, especially towards Hong Kong and The Uighurs.

The issue of Hong Kong directly affects Britain, as we were co-signatories to the 'One country, two systems' policy adopted when Hong Kong was handed back to China. China's current crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has drawn criticism from around the world. Last June China passed the National Security Law which makes it a criminal offence to argue for secession, to act subversively, and to collude with a foreign power. This law carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Children as young as six are now required to be taught that this law is right and necessary for the future development of Hong Kong. Moreover, teachers are required to report any children showing support for the pro democracy movement - very Orwellian.

Britain has granted the right of any Hong Ong citizen holding a British National Overseas Passport the right to a visa for entry to Britain. The Chinese have responded by not recognising the British National Overseas Passport, but so far have held back from stopping people applying for visas and leaving. The situation remains volatile. There are thought to be 300,000 Hong Kongers with the British National Overseas Passport. 7,000 Hong Kong citizens have already come to Britain.

The other human rights issue The West and others have with China is its suppression of the Uighur Moslem ethnic community in North West China, in the province of Xinjiang, formerly known as Chinese Turkmenistan - the Uighurs are a Turkic peoples. It is thought that one million of them are held in what China calls 're-education camps' and the rest of the world calls 'internment camps'. Little news filters out from this remote region of the world.

Both of these issues raises the old question of how can you have a state which is politically authoritarian Marxist alongside the same state having a capitalist economic system? No one knows when that particular circle will be squared.

This question has now become a live issue in post Brexit Global Britain. When should we not engage in trade with a country abusing human rights? In short, when do political and moral views trump economic ones? At present the debate is around who decides the answer to the question of whether the human rights abuses are at such a level as to preclude trade? Some favour the High Court being the judge, but lawyers, supported by The Foreign Secretary, vociferously argue that it should be Parliament. Watch this space!

Thus, as my title to this piece asks, should we engage with those who think differently to us in order to give ourselves the chance of at least ameliorating their views and actions or do we walk away tutting, and turn that state into a pariah nation, with a chip on its shoulder?

China remains in the news of The Far East as a player in 'The New Great Game' of global politics. For a number of years now China has flexed its military muscle in The East and South China Seas, and in doing so has raised alarm bells from Washington to Tokyo and even to Canberra and all points in between. China has expanded its fleet exponentially and has fortified certain small disputed islets in the region.

Tensions have increased this year as President Biden has adopted a far more aggressive stance in these waters, In May of this year there is even a planned joint military and naval exercise off of Japan involving The States, Japan, and, interestingly, France.

However, the most recent move in this saga has been the announcement from Beijing that China intends to build a port city on the coast of southern Papua New Guinea, only 90 miles across the Torres Straits from the nearest Australian mainland. However, there remain tensions between Papua New Guinea and Australia over certain island and fishing rights in the Straits. A new potential world flashpoint?

The second Far Eastern country in the news at the moment is Myanmar (Burma). Again, as a former colonial possession of Britain's, an area in which we have interests, not least continuing trade interests.

As an Oxford contemporary of Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now under arrest once more, I thought of her as the greatest Oxonian of my generation. She stood firm against military rule, separated from her family, and suffered house imprisonment for almost 15 years. On release she won the elections and became State Counsellor and Foreign Secretary from 2016 to this year. She was deservedly awarded The Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Yet in Office she 'allowed' the Army to conduct a genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. She turned from being a hero of democratic resistance, almost overnight, into being a person attracting contempt and loathing.

A hero with feet of clay. Is this true? Now placed back under arrest by the latest military coup in Myanmar we need to re-analyse Aung San Suu Kyi's role in the Rohingya massacres. Did she simply go along with them, secretly agree with them, or did she still hope that her presence in Government could ameliorate them? To engage with the undemocratic authoritarian Army and seek change from within or to withdraw? That question once again. One day we may find out the truth, but for now I am prepared to give her the benefit of doubt - which is not to say she did the right thing, but rather that her intentions remained honourable and not dishonourable. At least I fervently hope that will be the case because the opposite conclusion is too dreadful to contemplate.

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