08 MAY 2019

Speech on China

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

I will make a brief contribution. When I was appointed as the Prime Minister's trade envoy to Nigeria, I was called in by the Department for International Trade and told that I would have to develop my own personal policy in relation to China, as I was going to come into contact with the Chinese all the time. Nothing was more exact than that. They are everywhere; they are bidding for all the major infrastructure projects, and doing so in a largely transparent way. That provides an enormous opportunity for us if we can get the terms of the deals right.

It was made clear that it was up to me how that should be handled. Should I see the Chinese as the enemy, as opponents or as potential friends and allies? Because I am that sort of person, I wanted to see them as potential allies. However, doing so means identifying the areas in which we can establish projects with them where we can, effectively, be subcontractors to them.

Sir Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con)

Does it strike my hon. Friend as a little strange that he was given that advice?

John Howell

I do not find it strange in the slightest. It was absolutely accurate. To echo my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), it is an example of a practical approach to dealing with the Chinese on the ground in an overseas country.

Sir Oliver Letwin

But does it not strike my hon. Friend as a little strange that a country that for 4,000 years was half the world's GDP, and that as our hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) pointed out is reasserting its position now as a quarter of the world's GDP and, by some standards, as the world's largest economy, is one in relation to which our Department for International Trade believes it has to subcontract policy to a trade envoy?

John Howell

No, I do not find that strange at all. It gives me the flexibility I need as the trade envoy to Nigeria to deal with the Chinese in the way that best suits the opportunities that are available. That is certainly what I have done.

As I was saying, I am a friendly sort of individual, and I would like to see relationships built with the Chinese. However, doing that is difficult for a number of reasons. First, I quickly found that, whatever the product is, it is often quite shoddy. Do we want to be ​associated with that? Secondly, I found that no projects can be changed without a reference back to Beijing. That makes it difficult to deal with the projects on the ground as flexibly as I would like. Nobody on the ground has the ability to make the decision.

The last thing that I found, which is by far the most important, is that the Chinese leave nothing behind. When they come over to do a project, they bring an army of people to do it. They do not involve the local community or leave behind anything in the way of knowledge transfer or anything tangible. That is so different from the approach of British companies. For example, Unilever, which I know is a hybrid company, has taken on board the modern slavery agenda, and has largely eradicated these problems from not only the company itself but its supply chain. I have met some of the individual non-governmental organisations that have been involved with that.

My overall feeling is that we should treat the Chinese with caution, and examine the details of projects carefully to ensure that we can add value to the local community. Otherwise, there is no point doing them. There is no point helping to develop a country if we cannot involve people in the project itself.

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