A cautious embrace: defending democracy in an age of autocracies Contents


Democracies today face a greater challenge than ever before. Autocratic states are undermining the rules-based international system that has seen freedom and prosperity become more widespread. While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recognises the threats, and work is being done across Whitehall to address them in the fields of cyber security, disinformation and illicit finance, the efforts to combat autocratic interference need to increase if we are to continue to be able to sup at the same table. We are going to need a longer spoon.

One area which has not sufficiently been addressed is autocracies’ influence on academic freedom in the UK. The FCO’s current focus is on protecting universities from intellectual property theft and risks arising from joint research projects. This is not enough to protect academic freedom from other types of interference such as financial, political or diplomatic pressure, with a view to shaping the research agenda or curricula of UK universities or attempts to limit the activities of UK university campuses. The FCO and universities should develop together a strategy to address the challenges posed by autocracies to UK universities. The FCO should start by examining the mounting evidence of foreign influence in UK universities to fully understand the extent of the problem. We also recommend that the UK should coordinate with like-minded countries on academic freedom to stop us from being played off against each other using established groups, such as the Commonwealth, to help coordinate. Given the cross-departmental nature of the issue, we recommend that a Whitehall Champion is appointed to oversee Government efforts to protect academic freedom in the UK and share best practice with universities.

Sanctions—the subject of two previous reports by this Committee—are also an important foreign policy tool in relation to autocracies. Although the FCO has confirmed that it has powers under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 (SAMLA) to impose sanctions against individuals connected with autocratic regimes, it has not yet used these powers. To ensure cross-departmental coherence, and greater effectiveness, of the UK’s sanctions policy, we reiterate our recommendation that the Government appoint a Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) with personal accountability to the National Security Council for devising and implementing sanctions policy. We also call on the Government to act with much greater urgency in establishing the power and processes with which to block listings in the UK on national security grounds—a potentially crucial tool in limiting the influence and reach of autocracies in the UK.

We continue to be concerned by the dangerous erosion of the One Country, Two Systems principle of governance in Hong Kong—a key finding of our March 2019 report on China and the rules-based international system. We reiterate our view that the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong is a legally binding international treaty registered at the United Nations. The UK, along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand, are judiciaries represented in the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. The FCO should coordinate its response to the Hong Kong crisis with partner governments of these judiciaries. We further recommend that the Government grants residency to Hong Kong citizens who are British National (Overseas) passport holders in recognition of their status as British nationals and as a means of reassurance to UK nationals.

Published: 5 November 2019