The Trade Department is keen to promote foreign investment in “green projects”, but sometimes, the facts they don’t tell you matter just as much as the ones they do. Fact one: a foreign joint venture is investing £400 million in Sunderland to build a “gigafactory” that will make batteries for electric cars. Fact two: although this foreign joint venture is usually referred to as “Nissan”, it is in fact controlled by a Chinese company called Envision.
Yes, that’s right, the most high profile post-Brexit investment in Britain, constantly promoted by government ministers and subsidised by £42 million of taxpayer cash, gives a Chinese firm control of our biggest battery plant.
This fact hasn’t exactly been hidden, but it has certainly been downplayed enough that it has failed to percolate into the minds of Westminster’s China sceptics. This is unlikely to be an accident. The joint venture building the factory is called “Envision AESC”, which states that it is “headquartered in Japan”, like Nissan. But although its corporate head office might still be in Japan, AESC has been majority-controlled by Envision, a Chinese firm, since 2018.
Why does this matter? Well, there is deep unease about Chinese firms making major strategic investments in the UK, whether it’s in our telecoms networks or nuclear power plants.
This isn’t because of some vendetta against Chinese people or because Chinese companies aren’t up to the job. Indeed, Envision looks like a highly innovative company. But, to its misfortune, shared by everything else in China, it is under the effective control of the Chinese Communist Party. So we have to ask: are we happy that the UK’s biggest battery plant is going to be controlled by the CCP? Are there any other options? Do we get more out of this than we risk by increasing our dependence on China? Has anyone even asked these questions in government? If not, why not?
In theory, the UK has a new process for screening foreign investment to scrutinise exactly this sort of issue. But a tool is only as useful as the person who wields it. Kwasi Kwarteng’s Business Department seems extraordinarily reluctant to use this new tool to protect critical national security interests.
Perhaps he could start with this question: what exactly is the point of helping Australia to build nuclear submarines to contain the CCP menace when we’re handing our car industry over to Beijing without question in the meantime?
There’s no point currying favour with Beijing
Stanley Johnson, father of the young Boris, rarely seems to take a break from promoting friendly relations with China, but this week he surpassed even himself. “We have to absolutely cooperate with China now,” he declared on GB News. “It has to be our number one priority.”
His reasoning is that because China pollutes a lot, the UK must curry favour with Beijing in order to reduce pollution. This doesn’t actually follow at all. We can’t force China to curb its emissions, just as we clearly can’t force Xi Jinping to attend COP26 in Glasgow. If Mr Xi believes cleaning up the environment is in his interests, he will try to do it. If he doesn’t, he won’t. It won’t matter how many Chinese officials Stanley Johnson glad-hands along the way in his desperate campaign to feel relevant.
Hong Kong is facing cultural decimation
The latest attempted statue-toppling to make the news was not in Bristol or Westminster but Hong Kong, where the University of Hong Kong is trying to remove a sculpture commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre to avoid Beijing’s ire. There are rumours too that Beijing will soon start cleansing the city of its “colonial” heritage by, for example, renaming major landmarks like Victoria Park.
Hong Kong’s mixed heritage is part of what makes it a special place. But “special”, in Beijing’s eyes, means “dangerous”. The city is going to look very different in a few years.