There is no ‘appeasement’ of China

On the 80th anniversary of Dunkirk, we should remember not to dress up today's conflicts in the politics of the past.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics UK World

Britain’s debate about the Covid-19 pandemic has a subterranean aspect that has largely gone unnoticed. It relates to China and the idea of appeasement.

Many accuse Boris Johnson’s government of being unprepared for the virus, and weak in tackling it. And so, partly in response to such criticism, Johnson now wants to show grit by reducing the UK’s dependence on China as a source of important goods – and not just medical ones. In other words, Johnson wants to reorientate UK manufacturing and supply chains away from China. According to one report, he also wants to reduce and ultimately, by 2023, eliminate China’s involvement in UK infrastructure, and especially Huawei’s in 5G telecommunications.

The message from the government is simple: it is saying that it might have been guilty of appeasement of the virus in the past, but it won’t make the same mistake again with another, bigger, longer-term threat – China.

This message is timely, for this week marks the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, in which 338,000 British, French and Allied troops had to be rescued from Nazi forces gathered round, and in the skies above, Dunkirk, on the northern coast of France. The evacuation of Dunkirk was widely seen as the bitter fruit of prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler. So with this anniversary in mind, Johnson, a Churchillian, has had little choice but to fasten upon the myth created around his hero’s opposition to appeasement, and portray himself as an early, principled and courageous opponent of appeasement, in this case of Chinese president Xi Jinping.

There is no shortage of right-wing critics of the seeming appeasement of China. The desire to take steps against Beijing, Tory Lord Patten tells us, now unites ‘both the right and left of the Conservative Party’. An article in the Conservative Woman similarly denounces the ‘appeasement of China that runs through the UK’s political, civil service and security establishments’. For Charles Moore at the Telegraph, Johnson is edging slowly away from Beijing and ‘what some call “authoritarian tech”’.

So should China be quarantined? To get an answer, it’s vital to understand something of what appeasement and Dunkirk were all about.

Not long after British prime minister Neville Chamberlain conceded control of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the Munich Agreement of 1938, the dangers of appeasing mortal adversaries became a staple part of Britain’s national political discourse. In particular, after retreat and rescue at Dunkirk, the fatal consequences of being unprepared for the enemy suggested that appeasement of a foreign menace would always bring disaster in its wake.

Now as James Heartfield has shown, the real, military evacuation of Dunkirk had little in common with the myth of mass civilian heroism promoted by JB Priestley and accepted ever since. To invoke the Dunkirk spirit today, against Covid, is therefore a mistake.

Far less contentious than the myth of the Dunkirk spirit is the view of appeasement put forward in Guilty Men, a bestseller written under the pseudonym ‘Cato’, and published in July 1940 (1). Indicting a rogues’ gallery of politicians, of every stripe, for appeasing Hitler, Guilty Men was put together by Labour Party journalist and left-wing firebrand Michael Foot, as well as by Foot’s Liberal editor at the Evening Standard and a Tory hack on the Daily Express. It opened with the beaches of Dunkirk and the plight of what it described as The Doomed Army there.

From that point on, the book attacked three previous prime ministers: Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and, above all, Chamberlain. The last had taken Hitler at his word, and, on 30 September 1938, had signed a piece of paper at Munich giving away Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. ‘Chamberlain’, wrote the authors of Guilty Men, ‘trusted Hitler’.

‘Ever since Munich, [government ministers] had been assuring the public that they were ready, aye, ready now for the war which was never going to come’, wrote Foot et al. Yet ‘the state of armaments of the British Expeditionary Force stranded on the blood-soaked dunes of Dunkirk’ more than a year later showed that readiness had proved a mirage. Indeed, even after Hitler completed his takeover of the Czech regions of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, the appeasement of Hitler, though dead, ‘still took some 15 days to lie down’. And after that, 16 months had gone by, only for government sloth and inefficiency to deny Britain’s footsore soldiers the tanks and fighter aircraft that could have reversed their fortunes at Dunkirk.

This diatribe against the appeasers had a simple message. Apart from some honourable exceptions, such as Churchill, the Tories, Guilty Men argued, should have armed the nation against Germany earlier, and been more ruthless with Berlin.

Perhaps so. But to cast Johnson as a Chamberlain bungling before the virus, or for acting too slowly against China, for fear of causing offence and a cut-off in PPE supplies, is foolish.

First, it is to draw an inadmissible historical parallel between the domestic repressions and international designs of Beijing today – severe measures in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, serious influence in Africa and elsewhere – and those of Nazi Germany eight decades ago. Such a parallel rules out of the picture the unique historical experience of the Holocaust, and the six million Jews who died in it. We cannot do that, any more than we can pass over the great famine that Mao presided over in the middle of the so-called Great Leap Forward years of 1958-62.

Second, various elite forces in British society invoked appeasement and Munich as grounds for the Falklands War against Argentina’s General Leopoldo Galtieri, and as grounds for the destruction of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in two Gulf wars. In this they have often followed glib, right-wing American narratives about Munich; and even today, in Canada, we find the Conservative leader Andrew Scheer denouncing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for its appeasement of the Chinese regime.

Those who want to boycott China are not just unrealistic, given the clout China has, and the difficulty a heavily globalised economy such as Britain’s is bound to have in disentangling itself from the workshop of the world. The boycotters are bent, too, on pursuing measures that can all too easily escalate from economic to military ones, such as counter-manoeuvres against China’s own manoeuvres in the East and South China Seas, and elsewhere.

A crusade against appeasement soon turns into just that: a crusade. One need not be a fan of the Chinese Communist Party or the Democratic Party in the US to ask: do we really want to join with President Donald Trump in that crusade?

We should refuse that course out of courage, not out of fear of retaliation by Xi Jinping. We should refuse it because, in the 2020s, we will find our own methods of showing solidarity with China’s population. In their reckless historical amnesia about appeasement, Boris and the Tory right would like us to subordinate negotiations with China to their agenda. Nothing good will come of that.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University. He is also editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. Read his blog here.

Picture by: Getty.

(1) Guilty Men, by Cato, Gollancz, 1940

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Question Everythin

27th May 2020 at 7:50 pm

Is the writer missing that tidbit of fairly recent history in which the Chinese government had already discovered a new virus, which then they covered up, just to do it the same again 18 years later? They’ve had their chance they’ve proven themselves to be anything but our friends and allies. I won’t even go into the whole human rights abuses, that’s just icing on the disgusting cake that is the CCP.
There’s no defending the CCP and ANY of their actions in the last 2 decades alone. Although I’ll admit some blame does lie at our feet, our consecutive governments (all parties included), for simply ignoring the ever growing threat of an undemocratic China. The whole idea of bringing China to the global stage to play with the big dogs, was so it produced a democracy, that hasn’t worked it’s failed spectacularly. We should’ve been questioning the actions of China from the very first time they stole intellectual property, we didn’t…now look what we have a global crisis and China’s now willing to hand out money (from god knows where because we cannot believe a thing they tell us, especially about their economic performance, which is oddly the same year in year out, always +6% growth), the problem is such bailouts tie companies with the Chinese government who’s far reaching tentacles run through ANY Chinese company. With their recent move on Hong Kong we should be more than worried and we certainly should drop the doe eyed approached of diplomacy, THE CCP DOES NOT WANT TO PLAY NICE! Not with us, not with Hong Kong, not with America, not with Taiwan, and they’re now even treading on Russia’s toes by declaring Kazakhstan is Chinese territory.
It’s time to stop this nonsense now before we become the generation who acted too late and ultimately cost more lives. Call me anti appeasement, call me pro war, call me what you like, China is THE biggest threat to freedom and democracy since Nazi Germany. We have an obligation to confront them not for us here and now, but for generations to come, just as those fighting on beaches, the trenches, the streets, the battlefields did for us 80 years ago.

In Negative

28th May 2020 at 10:39 am

Good luck with that. I’ll pack you some sandwiches.

michael savell

27th May 2020 at 6:13 pm

It amazes me that people on here can condone China’s belligerence by simply refusing to see that
it will walk all over us within the next few years.Yes,we have to tread very carefully now we have been relegated to the 3rd division and it is going to be difficult to take a neutral line.I think Boris is the right person to do it because he is not easy to read and he is an american at heart.He will be in favour of Trump pursuing his latest tirade against China’s imposition of the Wuhan virus on western society and if you don’t think China is to blame you have to be kidding.What happens next time it feels the west should be taken down a peg or two and lets loose another virus.I see no
sign of repentance this time purely because China has got what it wanted,a much weaker USA.


27th May 2020 at 7:52 pm

China’s actions re. HK are a timely reminder why we need our nuclear shield. We in the west need to tool up and start taking defence seriously again.


27th May 2020 at 3:04 pm

There are matters of national security which the average person leaves to the ‘experts’. That these ‘experts’ treat the country’s medical supplies or technology the same as usual contracts-the cheapest wins. This has led to the present ludicrous and dangerous situation which could be likened to a home owner who is required to ask the permission of his belligerant next-door-neighbour before he could use his own front door.

Mor Vir

27th May 2020 at 10:48 am

Here we go, a majority of Scots want Indy2 by 2025. That is the date to be set for a second independence referendum: by 2025 at the latest. That date has majority support, so it should not be contentious. SNP will very likely win the 2021 Holyrood elections with a clear overall majority and on a platform to hold Indy2 in the coming years.

That will be the time to set a definite date for Indy2. TP is in no position to refuse such a clear democratic consensus in Scotland. Government can only be by consent, not by force. If TP fancies that UK remains legitimate then it should be willing to put that to another consensual vote.

> Scottish independence: 53% of Scots want new vote by 2025

A SECOND Scottish independence referendum should take place within the next five years, according to 53% of Scots.

A new Ipsos MORI poll, carried out between May 14 and 20, also found a third of Scots want to see a new vote within the next two years.

The poll of more than 1000 Scottish adults revealed 34% want to see indyref2 by 2022 and a further 19% want to see another referendum held by 2025.

Beyond that date, a further 10% said there should be a fresh vote after the next five years – meaning a total of 63% of Scots do want to see another referendum held.

Meanwhile 34% of people said there should never be another Scottish independence referendum.

The new poll comes after a Panelbase survey earlier this month revealed half of Scots support independence.

Once “don’t knows” were removed from the results, 50% of Scottish adults backed a Yes vote.

Earlier in the year a poll carried out for the Scot Goes Pop blog and backed by The National found 52% of Scots support independence. Those results came just hours after a Survation study put support for a Yes vote at 50%.

– The National, today

Jim Lawrie

27th May 2020 at 12:13 pm

42% of that poll favoured independence.

Mor Vir

27th May 2020 at 12:32 pm

That is how democracy always works, people who wish to vote, do vote and those who have an opinion express it.

Decisions are decided on votes cast. And those who have not yet made up their minds have impetus and occasion to do so while the campaign proceeds. People who do not have an opinion and do not vote, do not ‘count’ when the votes are tallied.

Likewise Brexit won on votes cast, there was no majority of potential voters but neither needed there be. Same with TP at GE, although that was FPTP. That is normal in democracy.

What is anti-democratic is the attempt to deny the people of Scotland another chance to decide the future of their own country. Such an attempt rests on one’s own determination to enforce one’s own prejudice on Scotland.

Scotland must be free to decide its own future, as often as it likes, and it is not for Westminster or for unionists to stand in the way of that. Democracy is what matters, and democracy must be done, whether unionists like that or not.

It is not about what Westminster or unionists want, it is about what Scotland wants, and it is about the freedom of Scotland to make its own democratic decisions regardless of the desires of unionists.

If a majority of actual voters in Scotland votes for independence then Scotland must be independent. That is how democracy works.

Major Bonkers

27th May 2020 at 10:30 am

The usual ‘Orange Man Bad’ nonsense in this article – I would say that Trump has been triumphantly vindicated in his warnings about China. Like Churchill in 1940, who can gainsay his warnings?

The real historical parallel is not with the twin policies of demanding and taking on one side and appeasement on the other before the Second World War, but the years before the First World War, when Kaiser Bill, suffering from a profound inferiority complex, constantly baited and provoked the French and British. In retrospect, it was inevitable that the German foreign policy (then, as now, useless) would end in a war.

Mor Vir

27th May 2020 at 10:07 am

LOL The Western capitalist states had just fancied that they had nailed a narrative of a repressive China in Hong Kong, and now this. All they needed is mass r iots in USA cities, and more ‘po-po’ repression to spoil that narrative.

> Police in riot gear fire rubber bullets and tear gas at thousands of protesters demanding the arrest of four white Minneapolis cops involved in the death of black man George Floyd

Mor Vir

27th May 2020 at 9:57 am

Economic nationalism will be the biggest threat to a recovery of the global economy. IMF has warned Trump to cut out his beef with China. The lessons of the Great Depression of the 1930s is that a global recovery will demand, i) no protectionism; ii) massive fiscal expansion. So, no trade wars, especially with China, and no austerity; rather, ‘trade, trade, trade’, and ‘spend, spend, spend.’ The TP needs to pull itself together and stop following Trump in his anti-China hostilities. A trade war with China would be the most foolish move at this juncture. And there must be no thought of ‘balancing the books’, which was a failed ideological policy of the last decade that TP was set to abandon anyway.

China now accounts for 30% of all global economic growth, and it has replaced the USA as the ‘locomotive’ that drives economic growth around the world. Chinese growth cannot be limited without damage to other economies including the USA and UK. Trump’s hostile attempt to limit Chinese growth resulted in a broad slowdown of the world economy in 2018/19. The attempt to limit Chinese growth is inconsistent with an outcome of improved USA or UK growth. Trump was trying to make up with China but now he is chucking his toys out the pram again. That can only be bad for China, bad for the world, bad for the USA and bad for UK.

> The head of the International Monetary Fund on Friday signaled a possible downward revision of global economic forecasts, and warned the United States and China against rekindling a trade war that could weaken a recovery from the c oronav irus p andemic.

President Donald Trump has threatened to punish China for its handling of the v irus by imposing new tariffs, and on Friday suggested he could end a Phase 1 U.S.-China trade deal.

Top U.S. and Chinese trade officials on Friday said they would press ahead with implementing the initial trade deal, but some observers say China’s promised purchases of U.S. goods are running far behind the pace needed to meet the first-year goal of a $77 billion increase over 2017 levels.

On Friday, Georgieva warned that a retreat into protectionism could weaken the prospects for a global recovery at a critical juncture.

Asked how concerned she was that rising U.S.-China tensions could jeopardize the global economy, Georgieva said, “It is hugely important for us to resist what may be a natural tendency to retreat behind our borders.”

Reigniting world trade was critical to ensuring a global economic recovery, she said. “Otherwise,” she said, “costs go up, incomes go down, and we will be in a less secure world.” – Global New CA, a few weeks ago

Mor Vir

27th May 2020 at 9:36 am

If the Western states want to vent their angst at their economic and strategic decline in the world by hampering the global economy, then let them get on with it. We can add that to the menage a trois list of factors that f the global and UK economies.

– long-term diminishing productivity growth

– the zombie economy

– the c 19 shutdown

– green policies

– hostility to China.

Why not? The British state is not serious about an improvement in the conditions of life anyway. And it is likely no longer capable of that anyway. At least this way, with a narrative of fear and hostility of China, the British state can find someone else to blame for its decline and failures.

‘It is all China’s fault. Not us with our own failures.’

WWII alone is no longer adequate as a fake reality to be the basis of British state reality, China must be a fake reality too.

They are fake realities in the sense that they are given as a ‘reason’ for actions, policies, that are freely chosen regardless of them. They are further, a distraction, an obscuration of the real factors behind Western reality and decline. They are not a ‘reason’ but a narrative. Their implied causality is fake.

Mor Vir

27th May 2020 at 8:38 am

To orientate UK policy on the basis of the X0/ X5 anniversary of some date in WWII is to live in just another fake reality. WWII has become a fake reality, a falsification of the present. It is not so much ‘living in the past’ as living in a fake reality. It functions like religion used to, as a fake reality. It used to be angels and demons that falsified the present, now it is commemorated battles. The capitalist state has a deep need to falsify reality. Those commemorations means nothing to me, it is just the boring old, self-righteous British state being itself. It begs the question of why the state cannot live in reality. WWII has got absolutely nothing to do with reality beyond what the British state imagines it has. It does not even exist any more. If religions are silly with their imaginary realities then the state is no less silly with its imaginary WWII reality. The British state treats WWII like a religion, as a basis to falsify reality. So, Boris is off to ‘la la land’ as a basis of his foreign policy. How silly. We have a PM who does not even live in reality.

James Hunt

27th May 2020 at 8:36 am

There is nothing remotely bellicose or revolutionary about Donald Trump’s demands of China. These are rather regular demands for many countries to make of America. Trump’s constant desire to whip up anger among his most loyal supporters (by no means the whole of the American right) is really just part of his overall narcissism and his projection of extreme competence and assertiveness to his superfans. There is zero evidence that any of these perceptions have played any role in Trump’s rather pedestrian crusade for greater protectionism. We British people should push our own leaders for a similar China policy.

Stef Steer

27th May 2020 at 8:33 am

This sounds like the same plan that we have been doing for the last 30 years i.e. by letting China get rich they are bound to become more liberal. That has worked really well hasn’t it. I guess it has if you are a lefty professor funded by China.

We in the UK (along with other democracies) need to actually show some principles and tie trade to human rights, freedom of speech and democracy.

Pat Davers

27th May 2020 at 9:59 am

“This sounds like the same plan that we have been doing for the last 30 years i.e. by letting China get rich they are bound to become more liberal.”

Exactly this.

Post-Tiananmen, we were assured that by pivoting towards capitalism a liberal democracy for China would necessarily follow in the wake become in its wake, according to the fashionable “end of history” doctrine of the time.

Thar didn’t happen, did it? Instead, we’ve upgraded a dirt poor repressive totalitarian regime into a moderately wealthy repressive totalitarian regime.

Nice work guys!

Dominic Straiton

27th May 2020 at 6:50 am

There are thousands of different covid pathogens in the bat population of China. Another pandemic like nearly all the others will be along, from there, shortly.

Major Bonkers

27th May 2020 at 10:19 am

Good thing that the Chinese are building another ‘five to seven high-containment laboratories by 2025’ then!

nick hunt

27th May 2020 at 1:32 am

The Chinese communists are being widely condemned for their oppressive dictatorship, extreme racism, militarism and expansionism, religious persecution and destruction of churches, mosques and temples, their ongoing, violent suppression of democracy, human rights and free speech in HK, their continual military threats against Taiwan, their concentration camps with 1.5m Muslim and Tibetan victims subject to slave labour, torture, enforced sterilisation, organ harvesting, exploitation through indebtedness of many African nations, their corruption and control of UN institutions such as the WHO, their obvious involvement in collecting and studying deadly pathogens, and much much else. The Chinese communists clearly resemble Hitler’s Germany more than any nation ever has. But smart, caring leftists know that Orange Man Bad is the real threat, not Yellow Man Good.

Tracy Jones

27th May 2020 at 9:35 am

Agreed. Hitler was allowed to encroach and occupy regions and countries which he claimed were part of Germany, nothing was done to stop him or to punish him for these early acts, as a result he became enboldened, the rest of the world did nothing which resulted in world war 2, if intervention had taken place at an early stage things would have turned out very differently.
Here we are again, A country ruled by a one party and leader state is using this time of chaos that it has created to do as Hitler did and start to encroach on other countries, Taiwan, namely. To start to crack down on regions it wants to control , Hong Kong. And to commence strategic military build up in parts of the world, south China sea. Again nothing is being done to check this behaviour by the rest of the world, another Hitler another world conflict beckons due to the belief that if we place nice with them, of course they will too play nice. It didn’t work with Hitler, It didn’t work with Pol Pot. Thatcher and Regan saw what Saddam Hussein did to Kuwait and they stamped on it right away and put the monster back in his box. I fear we are too late with the Chinese and there is no Thatcher or Reagan anymore

Tracy Jones

27th May 2020 at 9:42 am

Apologies it was Bush 1 and Thatcher


27th May 2020 at 7:55 pm

Good post but the US effectively told Saddam it was OK to invade Kuwait:

The New York Times on September 23, 1990 quotes [April] Glaspie as saying, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.

The US ambassador effectively told Saddam that the US would not intervene in any dispute with Kuwait.

Your basic point stands, however. It is imperative that we resist Chinese aggression before it is too late. They are in the process of absorbing HK and will wait build up forces before taking Taiwan, which of course could lead to a global conflict.

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