Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Britain last week had the pomp and circumstance, and glitter and glamor, that only the British can create — and which the Chinese demand. The visit — the first by a Chinese head of state in a decade — was intended to mark the start of a new “golden era” in ties between Britain and China, one in which London will become “China’s best partner in the West.” That policy makes some economic sense, but it is ringing alarm bells around the globe.
Britain’s relationship with China has a long and troubled history. When they (along with the French) sacked the Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, British forces began the “century of humiliation” that today defines China’s image of itself and its relations with the outside world. The Opium Wars and the lease of Hong Kong were additional black marks. London has struggled to escape that history, but incidents such as Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in May 2012 continued to incite China.
Apparently, Cameron has seen the error of his ways. He has not met the Dalai Lama since, and his government appears to be accommodating Beijing at most opportunities. Britain was the first major Western nation to shed its hesitation and join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Earlier this year, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visited Xinjiang, the region in western China that is predominately Muslim and that has struggled against a policy that many human rights groups consider the systematic oppression of rights. The visit came on the anniversary of the conviction of a moderate Uighur scholar on what is generally agreed to be trumped up charges. Osborne appeared to ignore the larger political context of his visit, signaling that Britain was indifferent to the human rights abuses being perpetrated there.
Osborne’s message during that trip was the same as that of the Xi visit: a new relationship with China would yield great economic benefits to both countries, especially Britain. It is reckoned that the two countries concluded some $46 billion in deals during the visit; the first consisted of a $9 billion Chinese investment in a new British nuclear power plant. Even dearer to the heart of the British government is the prospect of the City of London becoming the leading platform for Chinese financial offerings; the first steps in that direction have been taken with Beijing’s decision to let London be the first place outside China to issue Chinese government bonds in renminbi.
The alignment of the Exchequer’s thinking with that of the entire British government reflects the fact that Osborne and his ministry are driving British policy toward China. The result has been a visit with unparalleled “moments” — a ride in a horse-drawn carriage with the queen to Buckingham Palace for a white-tie dinner, an address to a joint session of Parliament, and an invitation to Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence — and nary a word of criticism.
The cost to Britain, at least in terms of the perception of its foreign policy, has been high, however. Criticism of British foreign policy has been scathing, with denunciations of “Osborne’s new model of minor power supplications” being notable mostly for its creativity. More mundane — but equally biting — critics ask if British foreign policy is for sale.
Allies and friends of London have been troubled by the way that Britain has changed course, complaining that they have been blindsided by the shift, as was the case with the decision to join the AIIB. An unnamed U.S. government official espied “a trend toward constant accommodation of China.” This approach is especially troubling if it encourages China to believe that critics can be bought off and all principles are malleable. Evans Medeiros, the former top Asia official on the U.S. National Security Council, explained, “If there is one truism in managing relations with a rising China, it is that if you give in to Chinese pressure, it will inevitably lead to more Chinese pressure.”
In a telling counterpoint to the welcome that Xi received in Britain, the Magna Carta, promulgated in 1215 and the first document to ever outline human rights and liberties, was supposed to go on display at Renmin University in China earlier this month. Permission was delayed, however, and it was shown instead at the British Embassy in Beijing, where it received much less public exposure. This is the softer side of a Chinese government that is currently engaging in an extensive human rights crackdown. British officials insist that they prefer to voice criticisms in private; perhaps, but there was no mention of human rights in the joint statement released by Xi and Cameron after the visit.
Finally, it is worth noting that for all the money that Britain stands to gain, it is still not enough. The day Xi arrived in Britain, British steel companies announced the loss of 5,000 jobs, some of which could be blamed on the dumping of Chinese products. The $46 billion in anticipated investment is reckoned to produce only 4,000 jobs. This relationship is “special” in more ways than one.
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