In the sport of getting along, China and the UK should go for gold
Mark Logan says despite the ups and downs, Sino-UK ties have the potential to deepen. Much depends on the working relations between Xi Jinping and new British leader Theresa May
Olympic years are becoming increasingly seminal for UK-China relations: Beijing 2008 saw the global financial crisis swirl overhead; weeks before London 2012, then British prime minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama; and Rio 2016’s carnival party was presaged by terrorist attacks, fears of a protectionist turn in US policy and uncertainty over the implications of Brexit.
Beijing 2008 showcased China’s entrance onto the world stage. Society was becoming increasingly pluralistic. People were travelling more. Chinese demand for international education has surged, with 150,000 Chinese students now in the UK. After 2008, China helped mend the global economy and seemed an increasingly outward-looking nation.
Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent commentators analysing Boris Johnson’s (then the mayor of London and now foreign secretary) unbuttoned blazer while accepting the Olympic flag as subtle criticism of China’s interpretation of freedom.
In 2012, I was only a few weeks into my role at the British consulate in Shanghai when Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama took place. Our government engagement efforts were significantly hamstrung. A 1948 Chinese Olympian’s return to London for the 2012 Games to meet a former rival was a rare chance to promote more positive relations.
Fast forward to 2016. For Britain and China, Brexit has the potential to alter bilateral ties. Will relations deepen or wither due to Brexit-associated shifts in personnel?
Analysts are looking to the postponement of a decision on Hinkley (a Chinese-backed project to build a nuclear power plant in the UK) as evidence of a change in approach. But what’s more important from a Chinese perspective is guanxi – personal connections and working relationships. The relationship between new British Prime Minister Theresa May and President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) will surely define the evolution of UK-China relations.
There are concerns in the Chinese blogosphere that May’s previous tighter measures on Chinese student visas will spell trouble for ordinary Chinese consumers. Arguably, diplomatic niceties have no place in the duties the British Home Office has to perform. A conflict existed between government promises to the UK electorate to bring immigration numbers down and the message to a Chinese audience that the process of applying for a British visa has never been easier.
Some worry that close advisers to the new leader are less sympathetic to Sinophile agendas and that this will impinge upon UK-China government relations. They point to the Hinkley debacle.
However, it may be prudent to avoid jumping to conclusions. The delaying of a decision is not the final decision.
The UK and China must work together to improve the world’s rules-based system. Our shared responsibilities in the G20, the UN Security Council and now the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank require dialogue and deep cooperation.
Last week, I stood looking across the Chinese border to North Korea, through binoculars, and saw evidence of the need to cultivate openness.
You could see the colossal difference made by the 200 metres separating China from North Korea.
Modern cars behind me; barely any vehicles ahead. Best-in-class motorways to my rear; dirt tracks on the North Korean side. The message is simple: we must look to the future, and avoid the mistakes of the past.
When the UK went into Iraq to signal its friendship to the US, critics pointed out that one’s best friend may sometimes say no. Can UK-China relations be warm and honest or will they be cool and disingenuous? The two could settle for a bronze or a silver relationship. But a golden one would mean stronger ties, franker discussions and a robust and fit-for-purpose system of bilateral forums and engagement processes.
Mark Logan was head of communications and spokesman at the British Consulate General in Shanghai from 2012-16 and a global communications adviser to Chinese organisations