Nick Tyrone

Why is Vince Cable so liberal towards Chinese illiberalism?

Why is Vince Cable so liberal towards Chinese illiberalism?
GB News
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On Monday, Vince Cable appeared on Nigel Farage’s 'talking pints' segment on GB News. This, if you haven’t seen it, is where Farage places a guest in front of a pint of beer while having his own and the two figures talk politics for a quarter of an hour. Really, it’s like any other political segment on a British news channel, only with Farage and alcohol involved.

It started off well for Vince. Farage asked him about the coalition, and unlike most Lib Dem politicians who would have unveiled a litany of apologies for that government having ever come into existence, Cable staunchly defended it. ‘As a government, it worked well. We didn’t necessarily like each other politically, but we were grown-ups and we worked well together.’ This sort of thing is not heard from Lib Dem figures enough and was refreshing.

However, there was a spectre looming throughout the interview, that being the thorny subject of China. Vince has become something of a Sinophile or really more accurately, a Chinese Communist party-ophile in recent years. In 2020, the former business secretary tweeted:

You don’t need to be a Communist or even a Socialist to recognise the positives as well as the evils in Lenin’s rule. Not least, his New Economic Policy established pragmatic market socialism which eventually succeeded in Deng’s #China

A defence of New Economic Policy, the Bolsheviks’ staple policy in the 1920s, and praise for the man who executed the Tiananmen Square Massacre in less than 200 characters is pretty impressive. Not terribly liberal, however, which meant there was understandable wincing from several quarters as soon as Farage inevitably moved onto the topic of China and its government.

Nigel Farage handled it well with his first question on China, pointing out that there is ‘no pretence of freedom of speech or democracy in that country’. The former Ukip and Brexit party leader then expressed surprise that someone like Vince Cable, a man who self-declares as a liberal and has spent much of his political life standing up for human rights and civil liberties, could ‘seem to be something of an apologist for the Chinese Communist party’.

Cable denied this accusation saying he was simply a ‘realist’. He pointed out that when he was in government he didn’t like the Saudi regime, but that he had to deal with them, just as ‘global Britain’ needs to deal with what may well be the largest economy in the world in a few years’ time. This is fair enough — to a point. Farage then brought up the fact that China had reneged on its pledge to let Hong Kong be politically autonomous until 2047. What did Vince have to say to that?

This is where Cable’s CCP apologist shtick began in earnest. He said that the British government did the right thing in allowing those in Hong Kong who didn’t want their basic rights curtailed to come to Britain — which is entirely beside the point and sounded evasive as a result. Couldn’t Vince decry this basic assault not just on an international agreement — a common argument used by Remainers against Boris and the NI protocol — but liberal democracy?

No, he couldn’t. Cable basically said it was all the fault of the pesky people in Hong Kong since the terms of the agreement state there has to be ‘order’ in the city, and what you had in Hong Kong now was ‘people throwing petrol bombs’. This is classic CCP and indeed, generalised communist regime apologia — of course people must have freedom of speech and assembly, just so long as it doesn’t go too far, you know. Apparently, in the 1980s the CCP warned they would crack down if they didn’t like things in Hong Kong after 1997, so hey, they did give everyone fair warning.

Finally, we came to the Uighurs and their inconvenient genocide. ‘I think the use of the word genocide is not the right word here,’ Vince said before getting knee-deep into whataboutism. ‘There is terrible human rights abuse in many countries and China is one of them’. I never thought I’d hear a former leader of the Liberal Democrats use the Putin-esque language of: ‘Sure that’s bad but everyone’s bad really, so what can you do?’ But there you have it.

What's chilling is that it’s a man who has called himself a liberal all his life saying these things. Someone who left the Labour party because it wasn’t liberal enough is now making excuses for Xi Jinping? I agree we need to be realists when it comes to China but that doesn’t mean we need to accept their brand of authoritarianism as liberal democracy with benefits. We might well face a choice in the coming years between defending liberal democracy or giving in to the Chinese model. 

Which side of that argument would Vince Cable be on? After Monday night, I’m not really sure.

Written byNick Tyrone

Nick Tyrone is a former director of CentreForum, described as 'the closest thing the Liberal Democrats have had to a think tank'. He is author of several books including 'Politics is Murder'