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Opinion: C of E should disinvest from Chinese firms

18 August 2023

Investments enrich a country that is perpetrating gross human-rights violations against Uyghurs, argues Andrew Gray

NONE of us can change the past, but we can learn from it to create a better future. That is the logic behind the Church Commissioners’ decision to set aside £100 million over the next decade, creating, according to its own statement, a “better and fairer future for all, particularly for communities affected by historic slavery” (News, 13 January). In 1739, Queen Anne’s Bounty (a predecessor to the Commissioners) held £204,000 worth of investments in the South Sea Company, whose trade in chattel slaves has led to the current programme of reparations. In today’s money, that sum would be £443 million.

Atoning for sins committed in the past has a clear biblical precedent. Leviticus 16 describes numerous forms of atonement as a way of people making amends and becoming one with God. Yet, there is little point doing this with one hand if, with the other, we continue, indirectly, to finance enslavement.

And herein lies the rub: at the meeting of the General Synod last month, the First Church Estates Commissioner, Alan Smith, replied, in a written answer to a question I asked, that “less than 4 per cent” of the Commissioners’ funds are invested directly in Chinese companies. He pointed out that they invest much more in Europe and North America (43 per cent and 39 per cent respectively). Furthermore, their investments are screened via responsible-investing risk policies.

Who, one wonders, is responsible for the screening? The companies in which they are invested are probably blameless, but this misses a much bigger point. The Commissioners have an asset portfolio in excess of £10 billion. At approximately four per cent, they are investing in the region of £400 million in a country to generate wealth, which, in turn, creates tax revenue for a regime which is systematically violating human rights on a scale not seen since 1945.

The sum is comparable to that invested in the South Sea Company. Even if the direct investments in China turn out to be smaller than estimated, it matters not. Investment generates wealth, which, in turn, creates taxable revenue. Every penny of tax, however insignificant, contributes to a state apparatus which is slowly eroding Uyghurs from existence.

LAST year, the United Nations accused China of committing gross abuses of human rights. Two US secretaries of State, Mike Pompeo and Antony Blinken, have both stated that China is committing genocide. At the height of its mass incarceration, between one and two million Uyghurs were held in concentration camps. Detainees have described “re-education”, including mental and physical torture, forced abortions, and compulsory marriage to men from the Han ethnic group. These accusations are nothing new. In 2020, 39 countries condemned China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

In the past 18 months, the world has forgotten Xinjiang. The media focus remains on the war in Ukraine. Nations talk about “de-coupling” from China, yet their trade figures show otherwise. Western foreign policy walks a tightrope between a late awakening to the reality of China’s geopolitical influence and a desire to keep it on side over Ukraine and global warming.

Far from showing leadership, the Church simply tags along. In his reply to my question on this matter at the Synod, Mr Smith said that, as China is the second largest economy in the world, most global businesses will deal with it, whether directly or indirectly. That is true to a point. Any of us purchasing goods online or on the high street will soon find that they have some link to China.

But there is a big difference between consumer decisions (which are often made without information on provenance) and choosing to invest directly in a country whose regime is openly and nakedly abusing our fellow human beings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, anti-slavery campaigners encountered the argument that selling people was a trade so large that it was inevitable; and that, if Great Britain withdrew, others would simply fill the void.

Two centuries ago, the Commissioners’ predecessors chose to invest in a company which promised excellent returns. The fact that it was trading in human misery was largely ignored. Today, its modern equivalent is happy to put its investments in a country whose human-rights record is comparable to North Korea. The only difference between the two nations is that one openly trades with the West, while the other closes itself like an oyster.

ONE of the great tragedies of the Second World War was the compliant silence of the Christian Churches against the treatment of Jewish people. On the subject of Uyghurs, we are once again dumb. They are forgotten and unfashionable.

Earlier this year, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who is deputy chair of the Commissioners, had a slot on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. His message was that “Sorry is the hardest word to say”, and he was speaking in the context of historic slavery.

But actions speak lounder than words. Such an apology seems hollow if the very institution that he helps to oversee is happy to invest in a country which is openly using forced labour. Christian teaching is that sorrow is followed by reparation and reconciliation. If the Church of England is serious about making amends for the past, it could begin by disinvesting from any country whose human-rights records are tainted, starting with China. Until then, it merely tilts at historic windmills.

Andrew Gray is a General Synod member for St Edmundsbury & Ipswich diocese.

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