Rob Davidson

Emerging economies, disappearing freedoms

It's common, perhaps, to look to the future and get a sense that things are getting worse. How many cliches do we have for that slippery slope? They weren't like that in my day, it's a dangerous road, it's all going to hell in a hand cart, the end is nigh! But when it comes to global trade and global power, our fears are being validated.

Dominic Raab, the UK's Foreign Secretary, was recently recorded as saying, "If we restrict [our trade deals] to countries with [decent] standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future." This has caused outrage amongst human rights campaigners and Liberals and with good reason but, fundamentally, he is correct: tomorrow's big economies are all human rights abusers.

According to financial services giant, PWC, by 2050, the G7 economies (US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan) will have been usurped by the 'emerging 7' or E7 countries. These rising powers are what used to be known as the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China) plus Mexico, Indonesia, and Turkey.

Every year, Freedom House produces a report on Freedom in the World and scores countries based on how free they are. This year, their report was called 'Democracy under Siege' and highlighted the trend towards illiberal forms of government. They say that 75% of the world's population live in a country where democracy and freedom deteriorated last year.

Their country index describes the E7 countries:

Brazil - the leader Bolsonaro is a 'proud homophobe' who has praised past dictatorships is just ranked as 'free' but not for 'internet freedom'. If Bolsonaro copies the other leaders on this list, Brazil's ranking is only going to get worse.

Russia - well, you'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to have heard of Vladimir Putin's anti-gay laws or how he poisons his opponents with nerve toxin or any number of other issues with his leadership. Ranked as 'not free' in any sense.

India was demoted to 'partly free' this year. Leader Narendra Modi is a persistent member in any list of 'illiberal democrats' and is widely accepted to be taking his country and a significant portion of the world's population into illiberal democracy.

China is another case where lack of freedom is widely known. Current leader Xi Jinping is considered to be taking the country backwards however and in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, rights are being suppressed: even to the point of genocide in the latter case.

Mexico is also considered only 'partly free.' Although the country leadership does change hands democratically, there are serious 'rule of law deficits,' corruption and human rights abuses by state (and non-state) actors.

Indonesia is similar to Mexico in that it's got a fledgling democracy that shows some promise but ongoing corruption, violence and rule-of-law issues are serious and systemic. In Indonesia, blasphemy laws' are used to target opponents, the police are used to crack down on political dissent and treason charges are levelled at activists.

Turkey is listed as 'not free' and the leader Erdoğan is another classic example of an 'illiberal democrat.' He has followed Putin in side-stepping term limits and looks set to be 'president for life' and has attacked opponents with extensive prison sentences any time he has looked weak.

These are the new allies that Conservative ministers see as the future. Indeed. this is what Brexit has been all about. "Free Britain to trade with the world" said Daniel Hannan, sometimes called the 'brains of Brexit.' 'Global Britain' has grown from being a Brexit-boosting catchphrase to the name of one of the biggest government strategy reviews in decades. And the Department of Trade and Industry regularly pumps out propaganda about how well UK trade is growing outside of the EU now that we're 'free' from our most important trading relationship - even if it's fake news.

They have been so eager to pin our trading future to these growing but utterly illiberal economies that they've burned our position as Europe's top stock trading hub, massively damaged our trade in goods with our biggest partner, destabilised peace in Northern Ireland, seriously risked the breakup of our own internal union and market, and broken international law by reneging on a recent treaty twice!

Raab has also said that he wants Britain to use these enhanced trading relationships to encourage the illiberal democracies to change their behaviour. There can be an argument to be made there but it's difficult to think he means it. He says, "I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale" - but clearly doesn't think that China's current and ongoing attempts at genocide fit that description.

He could have acted already if he really meant it. The UK has followed many countries in creating legislation to enable the use of 'Magnitsky sanctions' - where a country freezes the assets of government officials from other countries who are known to be involved in human rights abuses. The US has invoked these sanctions against Chinese officials linked to Xinjiang genocide and suppression of democratic rights in Hong Kong. The EU is moving to do the same. The UK has chosen not to.

In fact, when Ed Davey suggested boycotting the Chinese Winter Olympics, just like we did for South Africa and sporting events during apartheid, the Conservative government said it didn't believe even in this sort of pressure... just like they did with South Africa and sporting events during apartheid.

It is pretty clear that this government has no intention of using any pressure, economic or cultural,  to dissuade these illiberal democracies from their illiberal ways. What is perhaps most galling is that Raab describes this approach as "trading liberally around the world."

But that's the problem with this modern Conservative Party and the Americanised libertarians at the heart of the British government. They believe in a one-dimensional liberty that focuses on freedoms but doesn't care whether they are shared fairly. Some people will be winners with these new economic partnerships and that's all the freedom they need.

Clearly Raab thinks he'll be one of them; he may find that Xi Jinping has other ideas.

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