Leaders: Sting in tail of Chinese dragon | Age old problem
THE MORAL dilemmas posed by Scotland’s burgeoning engagement with China are considerable and must be taken seriously.
As we reveal today, the deals Scotland is doing with the Communist giant involve link-ups with unsavoury companies which seem to have little regard for their operations’ political impact (as in Darfur, where oil money effectively financed genocide) or environmental impact (as in Gabon in Africa). One of the world’s leading pension funds has refused to invest in PetroChina, saying it flouts United Nations guidelines on ethical corporate behaviour. Twenty-seven US states similarly boycott the firm. And yet PetroChina has been courted by the SNP Government as part of a strategy of building economic and diplomatic links with Beijing. Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Green MSP, says today that the Scottish Government “shouldn’t be touching these firms with a barge pole”. Is that a reasonable point of view? Should Alex Salmond be doing business with firms with so many black marks against them?
Usually the rationale for refusing to do business with an unethical firm is that the loss of business to a more ethical rival would act as an encouragement for the unethical firm to clean up its act. The problem with firms like PetroChina and Sinopec, however, is that they dominate the Chinese oil and petrochemical industry to such a degree that refusing to do business with them would effectively rule out meaningful engagement with the Chinese oil industry. Are we to rule an entire country – increasingly the world’s biggest driver of economic growth – as off-limits to Scottish industry? Even if we do not go to them, they will come to us. Chinese money is pouring into the North Sea, making Chinese corporate giants de facto players in the Scottish oil industry. The pandas at Edinburgh Zoo were part of a concerted effort by the Chinese to foster links with a small but strategically important nation that may soon be an independent state.
For these reasons it is impractical to suggest a ban on dealing with these firms – it would amount to a Scottish boycott of China. There is much wrong with the Beijing regime – it remains authoritarian, contemptuous of human rights, sceptical about democratic reform, cavalier about environmental damage and increasingly muscular in its dealings in Africa and Europe. But there is no escaping China. It is a political, economic and cultural fact of life here in Scotland. Disengagement is not an option. What we can and must do, however, is examine the terms of our engagement.
On this point, it might be thought Salmond has something to prove. One of his arguments for independence is that Scotland would be free to engage with the world on its own terms. And yet it is hard to discern any higher standards of ethics being applied by the First Minister compared to, say, the UK Foreign Office. When the Dalai Lama – a thorn in Beijing’s side – visited Scotland this year, the First Minister’s office declined the request for a meeting, citing a clash of diaries. Leaders of SNP councils were similarly unavailable. This left a sour taste and left the SNP Government open to the accusation that it was anxious not to upset its new Chinese friends.
If we must deal with China – and yes, we must – let us insist on the highest standards of corporate responsibility in projects with any Scottish involvement; let us support those fighting for political and environmental justice; and let us give full voice, unapologetically, to our criticisms of the way Beijing often does business. Our self-respect as a nation demands nothing less.
Age old problem
THE sobering and thought-provoking analysis by our political editor Eddie Barnes on page 15 contains this alarming line: “It is as if the country is planning for the consequences of global warming, without bothering to think about the asteroid about to strike.” He was describing the spiralling cost of looking after the elderly with, for example, the cost of social care expected to double by 2035. It is becoming all too clear that the full consequences – economic and political – of our ageing population have not been fully absorbed either by politicians or the public.
Many of the political policies that have been vote-winners in successive Scottish elections were forged in times of plenty. And yet there has been little serious political thought given to whether they are sustainable, even in the short term. As the economic crisis is joined by the demographic crisis, the hard truths can be avoided no longer.
It is time this issue played a role in the debate Scotland is having over its constitutional future. As rival camps argue about which outcome in the referendum provides the rosiest future for ordinary Scots, they should have the integrity to
acknowledge that the only certainty about the future is that it will involve unforgivingly hard decisions about what we spend our dwindling taxes on.
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