The Debate

Brexit and the South China Sea: Why Politicians Lie

Why the cost of lying in domestic and international politics should not be underestimated.

Brexit and the South China Sea: Why Politicians Lie
Credit: United Nations/Flickr

China’s so-called historic rights in the South China Sea are bogus (see here, and here.) Since the 1990s, Chinese leaders and politicians have consciously been spreading false historic evidence about purported ancient Chinese possessions in the disputed waters, not only to rally domestic support for China’s maritime expansion, but also to justify the seizure of territories occupied by other neighboring states.

Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the majority of politicians campaigning for the United Kingdom to quit the European Union have consciously been feeding the British public untruths in the run up to last month’s Brexit vote. The most blatant example being the Leave campaign’s promise to spend the (£) 350 million Great Britain purportedly sends to the EU every week on the National Health Service. (The UK Statistic Authority repeatedly exposed the number as false.)

In the two instances cited above, both Chinese and British politicians are liars. However, they appear to lie for two different reasons. Whereas the former are telling strategic lies—falsehoods in the service of the national interest or raison d’état—the latter have spread selfish lies–untruths spread to protect their own selfish interests—during the Brexit campaign. (Simon Kuper recently classified the referendum as an Oxford Union election gone awry.)

Of course this classification is a subjective assessment. Nevertheless, one thing is objectively true: Both Chinese President Xi Jinping and former London Mayor Boris Johnson have primarily lied to their people rather than lying to leaders of other countries, which unfortunately for the two, however, may have a greater negative net effect than inter-state lying on their respective countries’ institutions and population, as John J. Mearsheimer points out in his 2011 book Why Leaders Lie:

[T]he most dangerous kinds of international lies are those that leaders tell their own citizens. They are more likely to backfire and damage a state’s strategic position than the lies leaders tell other states. Moreover, they are more likely to corrupt political and social life at home, which can have many harmful consequences for daily life.

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In the case of both China and Great Britain, Mearsheimer appears to have been proven right.

Enforcing dubious historical rights through so-called gray zone coercion in the South China Sea—justified by an obvious historic untruth akin to the Donation of Constantine—China has isolated itself internationally and helped cement a burgeoning anti-China coalition in the Asia-Pacific region. The United States, while not always prone to speak the truth on the South China Sea either, only had to sit back and bear witness to China containing itself in the murky waters of the Western Pacific.

The lies of Boris Johnson and his cohorts threaten the very existence of Great Britain with a Scottish referendum on the country’s independence again on the table. Northern Ireland might follow suit. Great Britain might turn into the Little England of the 15th and 16th centuries “with trouble at home and an uneasy relationship with the continent, at once needing trade with it yet fearing its influence,” as the historian Margaret MacMillan recently wrote in FT Weekend.

It would be, however, too easy to just blame the leaders and politicians of the countries for spreading lies in one form or the other. Lying about a historical record is often tied to the presumed necessity of creating nationalist myths in order to build and maintain a state. China’s “historical rights” in the South China Sea are partially predicated on this assumption that national myths are essential in the country’s rise to power, and that they are, even if not true, needed to hold the country together.

Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom have also tried to invoke English nationalism by recalling an idyllic but simultaneously glorious past, when Great Britain was sovereign over its destiny; Britannia was ruling the waves, and—most importantly—foreigners and immigrants were confined to their proper place (presumably not England). However, English national myth making (unsurprisingly) appears to have had a centrifugal effect on the United Kingdom that has divided rather than united the country so far.

Ere yet another frontal assault on the Elite, it is worthwhile to point out that Mearsheimer asseses that the people, not just a country’s leaders, are complicit in creating national myths, or, put more bluntly, national lies:

The creation of national myths, however, is not simply a case of elites concocting false stories and transmitting them to their publics. In fact, the common people invariably hunger for these myths; they want to be told stories about the past in which they are portrayed as the white hats and opposing nations as the black hats. In effect nationalist mythmaking is driven from below as well as from above.

Nevertheless, this observation should not be taken as an excuse by leaders and politicians to whitewash their dishonesty. While a good case can be made about the necessity for inter-state lying on occasion, a case for leaders to lie to the public is much harder to make, and one does not even need to recall Kipling’s chilling epitaph on the British dead of the First World War: “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

The principle issue with leaders and politicians consciously lying to their constituents is that it prohibits people from making informed and rational choices. In the case of China, this is specifically the reason why they are being lied to, since an informed and rational Chinese public, in all likelihood, would not support Xi Jinping’s brinkmanship over a few rocks in the Western Pacific (“Mourir Pour Scarborough Shoal?” Anyone?).

In the case of the United Kingdom, a Western democracy, the fact that Boris Johnson’s acolytes got away with lying to the public without serious repercussions not only spreads mistrust between those who govern and the governed, but more importantly, and alas more troublesome to a democracy, it is poised to undermine the rule of law—the lifeblood of the democratic experiment—since trust in elected leaders and the law is the sinew that holds any democratic system together.

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Ultimately, lying in any form, whether in domestic or international politics, more often than not increases the chances of unintended consequences—Brexit is happening, and the anti-China coalition in Southeast Asia is consolidating.

“If we’ve been telling lies, you’ve been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it,” a British civil servant tells a disgusted T.E. Lawrence in the film Lawrence of Arabia highlighting an additional danger in lying. Liars sooner or later will have difficulties separating facts from falsehood. In that sense, both Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping may simply also have forgotten where they put the truth.