Dr Johnson said that if anyone truly wanted to understand themselves, they should listen to what their enemies say about them. And whilst China is not an enemy of the EU, it is certainly highly critical of it. Why then did China's President Xi Jinping wade into the Brexit debate and call on Britain to stay put? What would possibly make him support something that criticises his country on human rights, trade issues and market access?
One reason is simply because, for all their differences with western democracies, Chinese leaders and policy makers are very pragmatic. They view Europe predominantly as an economic actor, not a security one. And as a single market with common rules, protocols and regulations, the EU matters to them. Last year alone it accounted for 600 billion dollars in two-way trade between the two entities. Brexit is undesirable for many Chinese because it risks disrupting and weakening that unified market by removing one of the main players in finance, services and high tech. It will mean that Chinese investors and business people who have often viewed the English speaking UK as a stepping stone into the greater European market will have to start looking elsewhere.
Beyond economic reasons, there are two other angles to the Chinese government's opposition to Brexit. The first is about sovereignty. China is a country that often grows splenetic over any attempt by others to challenge its autonomy. It is striking therefore that it has taken a position on Brexit, cautioning against it, rather than remaining studiously neutral. Because China is so dogmatic on the sovereignty issue, its views about a matter like this are worth taking seriously. For a country that evidently still profoundly believes in the importance of self-determination, China’s assessment is that the UK still gets more from being in the EU than out of it, and that this is worth making a compromise over sovereignty for.
This, to come to the second point, is because China believes in belonging to networks that further national interest, even if there are implications for sovereignty. Since the 1970s and the nadir of Maoism, China has increasingly emerged from diplomatic and economic isolation. It has joined the United Nations, and is part of the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, and a host of other entities. It has even taken the lead in creating some of these itself – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for instance. China has done this, not because it believes these organisations are particularly good, but for the very pragmatic reason that it has figured out, after its own searing experience of being cut off from the rest of the world, that it is better to be inside than outside such systems. At least in that way, their agendas can be influenced and you can have some say in shaping and changing them.
For that reason alone, Chinese leaders are probably bewildered by how the UK could consider leaving the EU for issues over abstract principles and the hunt for ideal outcomes that are most likely never going to happen. In forty years, China’s practice has been to get involved with every trade, diplomatic, and political network it can, so that its influence can spread. When it looks at a country contemplating leaving the world’s largest single market, and disrupting its links with one of the most developed, wealthy zones on the planet, with no obvious security or economic benefit in return, then it is genuinely bewildered.
So should we listen to China's views on Brexit? It's certainly worthwhile pausing and reflecting on the simple fact that one of the most ruthlessly pragmatic, but highly successful political and economic actors of the modern era, one that truly understands the importance of defence of national integrity and sovereignty, regards the UK's potential choice to leave the EU as ill considered, self-destructive, and unwise.
Professor Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London and the author of CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping