Brexit and the South China Sea: Why Politicians Lie


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

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.)

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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: