Late in March , Chinese Premier Li Keqiang warned local officials not to hide new cases of the novel coronavirus . His warning sounded more like a plea: officials in China today are aware that the Communist Party has declared “victory” over the virus, and bearing news that the war is not actually won could be a sure path to demotion. Meanwhile, last weekend the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday featured a “senior [UK] government source” claiming that after the coronavirus crisis was over, China would face a “reckoning” and might become a “pariah state”. Insiders in the Boris Johnson administration let it be known that they wanted to go “back to the diplomatic drawing board” with Beijing when the crisis was over. With the UK currently in lockdown, there is no space for relations between the two countries to gain serious attention in the national media. But a signal is being sent: Britain is angry with China in a way that would have seemed bizarre just two months ago, when Johnson risked the wrath of Donald Trump by allowing Huawei to bid to provide elements of Britain’s 5G network. Yet both China’s virus “victory” and Britain’s threat of a reckoning suggest something more ominous: a lack of reality about the geopolitical future once the disease really has retreated. In early March, China’s social media sphere, uncensored by the authorities, caricatured Britain’s initial stance of a relatively loose lockdown policy, with some prominent commentators suggesting that the government was undertaking a “social Darwinist” scheme to cull the weak and old. The Chinese government may have found this mockery a welcome distraction from the numerous domestic critics of China’s initial actions in Wuhan, whose comments were being scrubbed out on a near-hourly basis from Weibo during the height of the crisis. Yet seeing the way that Britain’s policy was being reported in China may have hardened hearts in London. In fact, Britain’s domestic response to the virus has been science-based and well-received, although it has been criticised for paying insufficient attention to testing. Even Johnson’s critics acknowledged that he had also shown genuine concern that emergency police powers should not unduly affect civil liberties. Yet in leaking threatening noises to the papers about China, the UK government may be indulging in some distraction activities of its own. The virus has devastated the world economy for the immediate future, and this creates a major issue for Brexit Britain, still due to leave the structures of the EU single market on December 31 with no idea what trading arrangements it will have with the rest of Europe or the rest of the world. The model of “hard Brexit” pursued by the Johnson administration is based on the idea that the UK would be entirely separate from any of the world’s largest trading blocs, but simultaneously part of a network of free-trade agreements policed by the World Trade Organisation . That potential world, which was already in grave danger from the combination of sluggish global growth and the election of protectionist and isolationist leaders, now looks about as likely as a springtime picnic in London’s Hyde Park. Rage against China is perhaps an understandable reaction in the circumstances. But it is a reaction that is unsupported by strategy. Who is Britain’s message about a “reckoning” supposed to target? If it means that Britain wants to bring together like-minded countries to demand that China change its standards on internal transparency of information, or indeed on animal welfare, that’s a worthy but very big ask. It’s a particularly big ask for a country that has recently left the EU, the international entity with the most interest in raising such issues on the international stage, but with which the British government is still in a form of Cold War, even during the virus crisis. Blame Boris Johnson for giving my colleague the coronavirus Alternatively, if “the reckoning” was a signal of closeness to the Trump administration, with its strong anti-China agenda , this might force a reversal of Britain’s decision to use Huawei. And, of course, any “reckoning” makes the likelihood of opening China’s markets, one of the prizes hinted at by Brexiteers for the past four years, much harder to achieve. Britain still has many advantages: creative talent, superb higher education, hi-tech manufacturing, world-class services. But Brexit has, at least in the short term, made its international relationships much more fragile. Which of its relationships is Britain seeking to leverage with its comments on China? And why would China pay attention? Actually, there are good reasons for China to pay attention not just to British, but also world opinion. Beijing can expect immense sympathy for the many deaths in China, and respect for the swift way the state dealt with the crisis. But if China simply declares that it has been right all along, rather than reassessing its opaque treatment of information and the culture of political fear, then it will squander the goodwill it has created. China would win immense credit by declaring openly that its political culture has learned major lessons from the crisis about the need for transparency in domestic and international affairs. Countries that acknowledge weaknesses, and pledge real steps to address them, have the real qualities needed for global leadership: confidence, trust and openness. It would also show understanding of why countries like Britain , which have been quite China-friendly in recent years, have suddenly turned cold. Blaming China for the coronavirus will come back to haunt the West In a strange way, Britain and China find themselves in a geopolitically similar position. Both are countries which are globally admired for aspects of what they do. But they are both a long way from the sweet spot that would give them a globally plausible voice when the virus crisis is over. If Britain wants change in China, it needs to be precise about what that change is, and how it will seek new friends who share those views. And if China wants to protest angrily that Britain is quite wrong, then it needs to change its systems visibly, to make sure that its premier does not have to appear in public to demand that public officials tell the truth because they are still terrified of the consequences of honesty. ■ Rana Mitter is Director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival Sign up now and get a 10% discount (original price US$400) off the China AI Report 2020 by SCMP Research. Learn about the AI ambitions of Alibaba, Baidu & JD.com through our in-depth case studies, and explore new applications of AI across industries. The report also includes exclusive access to webinars to interact with C-level executives from leading China AI companies (via live Q&A sessions). Offer valid until 31 May 2020.