‘China is far weaker than people think’

Lee Jones on what’s really behind the great uncoupling from China.


Topics Politics UK USA World

This week the government announced that telecoms companies would be banned from buying new Huawei 5G kit and that all of Huawei’s equipment would be stripped from mobile networks by 2027. Back in 2015, the Conservative government hailed a ‘Golden Age’ of Sino-British relations, but the Huawei ban signals a significant chilling of relations. Questions are also being asked about China’s involvement in British nuclear-power projects. The US under President Trump has been waging a trade war against China. Following the emergence of the novel coronavirus in China, the war of words between the two superpowers has intensified even further. Lee Jones is a reader in international politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. spiked caught up with him to find out more.

spiked: Some of the things China is accused of, such as human-rights abuses and intellectual-property theft, have been known about for some time. Why is it now that they are more in the spotlight?

Lee Jones: There are a number of different factors, but a huge part of it is the stance that President Trump has taken since his election, in launching the trade war with China. That has galvanised a lot of people and led them to bring up grievances that have been around for a long time. The idea that China is an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people is not a new one, but those arguments used to be silenced in the interest of doing business with China.

The question is, what has changed? Two things have. One is that the Chinese government has become more authoritarian in recent years. The rise of Xi Jinping means there is much more centralisation, dissent is much more rigidly policed, ideological control is a lot stiffer and there is a growing sense of paranoia about the CCP’s regime security. That is real, and is definitely happening. As a result we see a much tougher line in Hong Kong, and in Xinjiang.

The other change relates to what is happening on the side of the West. The interests of big capital are starting to be challenged in a serious way by China. Intellectual-property rights are something really fundamental to the profits of the most powerful companies in the United States.

Look at Apple, for example. We all know that iPhones are built in China, but does that mean China gets all the money from exporting iPhones? Absolutely not. It gets between one and two per cent of the final retail price of an iPhone. The rest goes to a host of intermediaries, some of which build the components that get assembled in China. But the lion’s share – about 57 per cent – goes to Apple. Apple does not manufacture anything. That is all done by Foxconn. But Apple can control the intellectual property. That is where its colossal wealth comes from.

China is stealing more and more IP and trying to manufacture its own indigenous capacity – the so-called Made in China 2025 agenda – to climb up the value-added chain. That is a really serious threat to the long-term profitability of these giant tech companies, which are essentially in a rent-seeking position. They have invented something and want to keep extracting profit from it indefinitely. The way they do that is by monopolising IP rights, and China is just not playing by the rules of that game.

A crunch point has come in the compatibility between the American growth model and the Chinese growth model. Those two things have come into conflict after being relatively compatible for a long time, in terms of the interests of capital on both sides (it has not always been in the interests of workers on both sides, to say the least). These are the big, grinding tectonic plates that are now bashing against each other and causing these volcanic eruptions.

spiked: Western politicians rarely say any of that out loud. Instead, they say we have to take a tough line over human rights or security. What do you make of this increasingly belligerent rhetoric towards China?

Jones: It is potentially dangerous. It is clear that some politicians want to launch a new Cold War with China. In this country, the cheerleader-in-chief for a new Cold War is Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He has really spearheaded this approach and has done various inquiries. If you read the reports, for example about Chinese influence in Britain, it is pretty thin gruel. There is not a lot of solid evidence. That is not to say we should not investigate it or be wary of it. But so far, I am yet to be convinced that China’s tentacles are, say, reaching into our universities and fundamentally corrupting them. I think they are corrupted by all kinds of things that are mostly domestic to the UK.

There are certain people who are trying to make their careers out of this, trying to develop an image and a stance for themselves. There are others who are ideological true believers, who really do not like what China is doing, and that is entirely fair enough. The CCP regime is pretty horrible, and people can object to it for all kinds of reasons.

But China is a major power. It is a member of the UN Security Council. It is a nuclear power. It is a dominant military power in East Asia. The question is, is it better to have constructive and cooperative relations with a country like that, or is it best to be belligerent? My line has always been that we should approach China without illusions. China is not a friend of human rights. China is not a friend of the working people. China is not anything to be admired and it is not progressive – we should be clear about that.

But I also do not think it is a monolithic entity that is bent on world domination. It is actually a lot weaker than people think, and a lot more fragmented and internally disorganised. There is a risk of responding to it as if it is much more powerful, threatening and belligerent than it really is, which then draws us into escalating conflict between major powers, which is not good for the international system.

spiked: China has faced a lot of criticism for its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, and has been accused of a cover-up. What do you think about its response to the virus?

Jones: It is important to disaggregate China. When looking at it from the outside, it seems to be this very tightly controlled and unified authoritarian regime. If some Chinese official does something, we conclude it is because the Chinese leadership wants them to do it. But that is often not the case. At the beginning of the pandemic, before it was clear what was really going on, there were different agencies operating at cross purposes. Medics were trying to blow the whistle and say something needed to be done about the virus, while the Public Security Bureau, which is mostly concerned with internal stability and regime security, was trying to hush it up. Some doctors were arrested. That represents the way that different agencies operate in ways that can clash with one another

But as soon as the Chinese leadership really understood what was going on, there was a decision taken by the Politburo, and then the full force of the central state bore down. You can see online how the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection descended on these areas and really lambasted local officials for covering up, lying, exaggerating positive news, and for bureaucratisation. It is clear that there were problems at the beginning, but then there was a central crackdown. Then things moved in a more powerfully containing direction.

There were also some weaknesses in cooperation with the World Health Organisation, which again shows the internal disorganisation. There were some laboratories that basically sequenced the genome ahead of the central-government laboratory. The central-government laboratory refused to allow these other labs to release the details because they wanted to take the credit and get additional research funding and so on. There was this competition between different parts of the state that delayed information being released.

But in the grand scheme of things, we are talking about a delay of days or weeks. It is very, very different to the SARS outbreak in 2003, when the Chinese government took a decision to try to conceal it for months. This time there was some local fragmentation and bad behaviour, but then the central government got wind of it and quickly cracked down on it. By and large, that is a very different response to 2003, which reflects changes in the party state since then.

The other thing is that people like to blame China, because it distracts attention from their own shortcomings and weaknesses, and that is obviously most apparent in the United States. But I think it could become apparent in the UK too, if we were to say it is all China’s fault and that they released a virus on the world. Why would you hold the despotic government of a developing country responsible for the health and wellbeing of your own domestic population? That is ridiculous. If Western healthcare systems were better prepared and more accountable in the first place, then this virus would not have wreaked the havoc that it has. There is some scapegoating going on here. It is not like China is totally blameless. But there is an attempt to externalise responsibility taking place.

Lee Jones was talking to Fraser Myers for the spiked podcast. Listen to the full episode below:.

Picture by: Getty.

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19th July 2020 at 4:20 pm

A newspaper item over the weekend said the reason Britain went into lockdown was because President Macron threatened he would stop food coming from Europe if we didn’t. In other words our European friends threatened us with food shortage. If true and we had been a bit tougher and called their bluff many people would still have their jobs and it wouldn’t have affected mortality rates ( in fact fewer people would have died of cancer etc ) Now the country is in a desperate financial state and there was the strange sight of the Chinese Embassador to UK on Andrew Marr Show issuing threats (for example over the Huawei contract ) , which as so many universities and schools rely on Chinese students and other firms for Chinese money the loss will have serious results for the economy so why is Britain deciding to take this stand now when it seems to have been courting the Chinese for years ?. As the various protest groups like BLM seem not to care about Chinese human rights and Biden has said if he wins the election he wants America to have closer ties with China than under Trump , China can just continue making cheap versions of things the world wishes to buy which is to their advantage.


18th July 2020 at 3:53 am

don’t know what this guy is trying to say, are you proposing some sort of appeasement policy?Clinton/Bush/early Obama ‘s 20 yrs policy of ‘engagement’ towards China allowed the communist to manipulative economic/ diplomatic policies/ power to undermine freedom, civic society, economy, security of the world. You must be aware how China’s “sharp power” is muting whatever criticism from academics in Australia, Britain, Canada, Europe. In face of a backlash towards PRC on COVID-19 and a wobbling internal economy has resulted in Xi’s authoritarian drift, a more open split with the west marked by abrasive language, threats of retaliation, clampdown on freedom in Hong Kong, threats to south china sea, dispute with india, military threats of Taiwan etc. China is far weaker than people think? It is exactly its weakness that driving CCCP back to its Stalinist origin. The world has to choose between liberty and dishonor.

Mor Vir

18th July 2020 at 12:57 am

China is following the same usual path as other countries, including USA, in shifting from IP acquisition to creation as it develops. USA developed by acquiring British tech, and it wants to kick away the ladder now that it is at the top. IP protection laws tend to reflect the stage of development of the material base.


China’s Record on Intellectual Property Rights Is Getting Better and Better


The country is making the transition from net importer of ideas to net innovator, and as it does, it is finding that good patent laws matter.

But history tells us to be cautious; Washington’s demands are unrealistic. Countries do not enact strong IP rights systems until their ability to innovate at home displaces reliance on outside knowledge. The United States’ own centurylong drift toward strong protections is a case in point.

From 21st-century America’s perspective at the technological vanguard, it appears natural that China should be pressured to adhere to higher standards. But there are lessons to be gleaned from America’s own humble (and not so innocent) beginnings.

Its own IP rights system began with the Copyright Act of 1790, which explicitly did not grant any protections to foreign works, stating, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books written, printed or published by any person not a citizen of the United States.” During the early days of its industrialization, the United States was a world leader in IP rights violations, a fact often overlooked in the current discourse. Most notably, the businessman Francis Cabot Lowell helped launch the United States’ industrial revolution by copying and adapting the British power loom, one of the most impactful inventions of the 19th century. Not until 1891, thirty years into the golden age of the independent American inventor and a full century into the history of U.S. IP law, did the passage of the Chace Act finally extend protections to foreigners.

What prompted the change? Throughout the 19th century, imitation played a vital role in the United States’ ascent up the value chain, a process that was deliberately aided by relatively weak protections for IP. As the country’s own innovative capacity grew, however, domestic stakeholders began to clamor for strengthening U.S. laws. During this phase, the country transitioned from a net acquirer of IP to a net innovator, which tipped the scales in favor of increased protection.

The United States’ experience demonstrates the tendency of IP rights to co-evolve with innovative capacity. But progress is not always straightforward, and U.S. actors continued to engage in ideas theft even after the country became a net innovator. For instance, by the early 20th century, the United States had fallen well behind Germany in the key chemical industry. Determined to “dislodge the hostile Hun within our gates,” the 1917 Trading With the Enemy Act granted a wartime exception to the Chace Act to permit the confiscation and sale of all enemy-owned patents to U.S. firms.

Compared with the U.S. experience, China today seems right on track…

Peter Anestos

17th July 2020 at 6:47 pm

Bizarre, contradictory and wholly improbable apologia for the CCP by Jones. First he states that centralized state control has been tightening under Xi Jinping, then claims Beijing didn’t know what was going on in Wuhan, wasn’t responsible for the coverup. He carefully avoids many facts to the contrary, like that Beijing refused access by outside researchers all through January, fed bogus data to the WHO about purely “animal-to-human” transmission, only jumped in in full Stalinist fashion with forced mass house arrest AFTER the virus had spread out of control, and internationally. I’m a strong spiked! follower, but this interview, where none of this nonsense was challenged, was not your best.

Jim Lawrie

17th July 2020 at 6:05 pm

“These are the big, grinding tectonic plates that are now bashing against each other and causing these volcanic eruptions.” I know about tectonic plates but this analogy tells me nothing of the claimed incompatibility “between the American growth model and the Chinese growth model.” The article lacks substance and purpose. I’ve read it twice and nothing sticks in my head.

Spικεδ editorial policy toward China is is have an indecipherable.

BTW patent protection is necessary for economic development. China does not suffer from this kind of theft because it invents nothing and produces nothing worth copying.

Mor Vir

17th July 2020 at 7:39 pm

My question to your response is, ‘do you have any evidence of that? 58,990 patents? How comes the WIPO missed it all?’

> China Becomes Top Filer of International Patents in 2019 Amid Robust Growth for WIPO’s IP Services, Treaties and Finances

China in 2019 surpassed the United States of America (U.S.) as the top source of international patent applications filed with WIPO amid another year of robust growth for the Organization’s international intellectual property (IP) services, treaty-adherence activity and revenue base.

With 58,990 applications filed in 2019 via WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) System, China ended the U.S. (57,840 applications in 2019) reign as the biggest user of the PCT System that helps incentivize and spread innovation – a position previously held by the U.S. each year since the PCT began operations in 1978.

“China’s rapid growth to become the top filer of international patent applications via WIPO underlines a long-term shift in the locus of innovation towards the East, with Asia-based applicants now accounting for more than half of all PCT applications,” said WIPO Director General Francis Gurry. In 1999, WIPO received 276 applications from China. By 2019, that number rose to 58,990 – a 200-fold increase in only twenty years, Mr. Gurry noted.

Applicants based in Asia accounted for 52.4% of all PCT applications filed in 2019, while Europe (23.2%) and North America (22.8%) accounted for less than a quarter each.

For the third consecutive year, China-based telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, with 4,411 published PCT applications, was the top corporate filer in 2019. It was followed by:

Mitsubishi Electric Corp. of Japan (2,661);
Samsung Electronics of the Republic of Korea (2,334;
Qualcomm Inc. of the U.S. (2,127); and
Guang Dong Oppo Mobile Telecommunications of China (1,927).

About WIPO

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is the global forum for intellectual property policy, services, information and cooperation. A specialized agency of the United Nations, WIPO assists its 193 member states in developing a balanced international IP legal framework to meet society’s evolving needs. It provides business services for obtaining IP rights in multiple countries and resolving disputes. It delivers capacity-building programs to help developing countries benefit from using IP. And it provides free access to unique knowledge banks of IP information.

– World Intellectual Property Organization, April 2020

Jim Lawrie

18th July 2020 at 11:04 am

A patent application is a claim to have invented something. It is not per se proof of invention. Most are turned down because they are laying claim to previous work, someone else’s work or technology that is in the public domain. Once again you regurgitate your google searches with no with no understanding of the subject matter, how patent law works, and therefore no original thought, clogging up these pages like your Chinese heroes do with the patent process.

The theft by the Chinese of unreleased technology from the West followed by an attempt to patent it is in fact proof of their criminality. They think that first claim equals ownership. They think they can hijack the legal system wholesale and use it to enforce their criminality. Note the invective from the author of this article, showing whose side he is on. He says Apple control the intellectual property, when in fact they developed and therefore own it. Elsewhere in this publication, The USA is accused of monopolising the intellectual property, when in fact they own it because they developed it. Like you, they are rooted in anti-Americanism as anti-imperialism, and therefore distorted and dishonest in their thinking.

I’ve heard people from Finland to Romania lay claim to the telephone, the steam engine and the TV as local inventions, and cite as proof exhibits and claims in their local museums.

Mor Vir

18th July 2020 at 12:09 pm

Of course I understand that patent application is not the same as patent grant – what a silly thing to say. The UN WIPO agency exists to evaluate IP applications, to grant them and to settle disputes. 193 countries are member states that rely on WIPO.

WIPO grants as many Chinese as USA IP applications, as the country profiles on the WIPO site indicate. Eg. in 2018 (the latest detailed year stats available) WIPO granted: 345,959 resident Chinese IP applications and 144,413 resident USA applications; 86,188 non-resident Chinese IP applications, 163,346 non-resident USA applications; 31,346 Chinese abroad IP applications, 144,669 USA abroad applications. The totals are about the same for IP grants in 2018, 463493 Chinese IP grants, 452428 USA grants.

Of course China invents stuff. Did you think that only Europeans invent stuff? That is r acialist dogma, dating back to Gobineau and it is not borne out by the empirical data. As the development of Asian countries demonstrates, creativity is fomented by the attendant material, intellectual and political circumstances; Asians are just as creative as Europeans.

It is interesting that Trump’s emphasis on IP theft is feeding into Gobineau-esque r acialist dogmas – which is not to say that he intends that, but some are certainly running with the theme.

Mor Vir

19th July 2020 at 6:53 pm

Actually that argument is of sound form but WIPO is not clear about whether the data for grants is for local rather than WIPO grants; WIPO needs to gets its act together lol.

nick hunt

17th July 2020 at 5:11 pm

So it’s ‘ridiculous’ to hold the despotic government of a developing country responsible for the health and well-being of your own domestic population? No, it’s this view which is worse than ridiculous. First, ‘developing’ China is the world’s second economy and famously seeks to usurp the US by such means as mass industrial espionage and the infiltration and corruption of whole science faculties in the US. Second, why would anyone help Chinese communists continue to cover-up their creation and release (accidentally or not) of a deadly virus that has devastated people’s lives and economies all over the world? Talk about naive. China sought, located, stored, and analysed coronaviruses from bats as long ago as 2012, as the Nature paper linked below proves. It also shows how Wuhan researchers only sought viruses that would transmit directly to humans. But the author ignores all that, and even praises the Chinese authorities effort to tackle the pandemic. Without mentioning their intimidation of whistle-blowing doctors, how they sealed whole families in Wuhan into their homes, their banning of internal flights but not the international flights that spread infection around the world, and many other horrors. No doubt the author beloings to the legions of leftists who think Trump is the evil dictator, not Yellow Man Good. To think that such an apologist is spreading his pro-communist propaganda to even more naive young Brits, and getting paid for it, sickens me.

“Isolation and characterization of a bat SARS-like coronavirus that uses the ACE2 receptor”

nick hunt

17th July 2020 at 4:50 pm

So treating China as ‘beligerant is ‘not good for the international system’. But why assume the international system is good, if it fails to punish monstrous dictatorships like China? Was the international ‘system’ that faled to prevent Hitler and Stalin good?

nick hunt

17th July 2020 at 4:43 pm

“The US under President Trump has been waging a trade war against China”. Please dump the Orange Man Bad’ nonsense. Trump responded to China’s unfair trading advantages and practices over decades. You should smear leaders without the courage to do what Trump did.

Stephen Kennedy

17th July 2020 at 3:51 pm

I often see a sentence like this dismissing to some degree the notion that ‘China released the virus on the World’.

‘But I think it could become apparent in the UK too, if we were to say it is all China’s fault and that they released a virus on the world.’

What sensible people can argue, as I do, is not that China purposefully released SARS-Cov-2 on the World, which I think is preposterous. But, that during research on coronaviruses, particularly ‘increase of function’ experiments, the virus was accidentally released. I’ve believed this to be the most likely theory. I am a Scientist. I’ve read the papers on this work co-authored by the Wuhan Virology Institute (name has changed) and U. North Carolina, and to me these are strong evidence. I am not a molecular biologist or virologist, however, Luc Montagnier, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering the HIV, has stated categorically that he believes this form of the virus was ‘engineered’. He also thinks it will mutate away and disappear.

If this is true then China bears a lot of responsibility for what happened. Not evil intent. But, carelessness and incompetence. I do blame China for the ‘lockdown’ phenomenon. Basically, the World decided to try to copy them. I also speculate that China’s panicked response resulted from their knowledge of what this pathogen actually is. That is completely a guess.

Jim Lawrie

17th July 2020 at 6:11 pm

A good post. Any views on why China is involved in this activity?

Do you think China will claim the intellectual copyright on their invention and therefore ownership of any treatment?

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