At the time of negotiation of Chinese investment in the Hinckley C nuclear power station commentators noted that it marked a new and much deeper connection with China. Some went as far as to suggest that, in reality, it marked a transfer of sovereignty far greater than anything associated with the EU, that had passed with barely a comment. Their point was that Chinese control (or near-control) of a major nuclear power station gave them significant influence over key infrastructure. At its crudest: would they shut off our power in event of a war or trade dispute?
In August 2018 Jeremy Fleming, Director of GCHQ flagged up similar concerns over Chinese involvement in computing infrastructure, particularly the new 5G mobile phone technology. At a European level, there are attempts to mitigate this risk. Inevitably Brexit weakens the UK’s ability to follow the EU’s path and do something similar.
At a technological level this matters because there are significant concerns both of the possibility of China chosing to shut down key infrastructure, and at the possibility of terrorists being able to disrupt this. These two threats seem different — one potentially hostile action by a foreigh nation, and the other creating a new target for terrorists. The delicacy is that state-sponsored cyber attacks are not unknown: one example is the suggestion that North Korea was behind the “Wannacry” cyber attack in 2017
But there is more to this than technology.
The actual level of the threat is hard to guage because it is new territory. It’s easy for fears of the technology to merge with fears of what others might do with it. Technological change is altering how we live in profound ways, and these are things we struggle to talk about — except in tension between technophiles and luddites. Neither of those extremes help. It may be that the anxieties focus on China because of its increasing dominance, but it’s also possible that they head there because of the sense of China’s “foreign-ness” — in some sense standing for all that seems alien.
It is signiicant that it is the EU that is seeking to mitigate this.
The expressed anxieties around “sovereignty” in connection with the EU have little to do with how it works. Nick Clegg in How to stop Brexit floats the ideat that, for many people, the loss of Empire and entering the EU went together, so reclaiming “sovereignty” is about reclaiming an imperial status — overlooking the dubious aspects of empire.
Sovereignty is a mix of emotional issues: some of that is located in the present tense, but much is about the stories people use to define themselves. That means it is about the recycling of memories, which is not something that works well across cultures.
The sense is that China operates in a way that is nor particularly Western, so we tend to respond to the aspects that look familiar and miss the rest. That means people are understating the significance of China because China is not accumulating influence as the West has tended to do. Intellectually we miss much of this, but it is around to be intuited in a sense that “something is up”.
At the same time, those worried about sovereignty in relation to the EU are overstating the problem at an intellectual level. But the emotional response is seeing in the EU a dominating and quasi-imperial power. That is to see in the EU precisely the imperialist fantasies harboured by those in the UK who hanker for empire — we overlook the damage we did in empire to make the memories bearable, and project that we don’t like of ourselves onto the EU.
The tragedy is that, while we negotiate those difficult emotions, our fear of the dark side of our imperial tendencies leads us to project them onto the EU and seek to leave — setting us outside the EU bulwark against cyberaggression. That is a dangerous situation.