The country's leaders think the UK is quaint, broke and insignificant.by Isabel Hilton / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
Britain’s eagerness to please Beijing reached new heights over the government’s race to be the first to announce that it would join China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite Washington’s undisguised disapproval. Joining the bank is sensible, the United States’s objections notwithstanding; the panting enthusiasm was embarrassing at home, but occasioned some amusement in Beijing.
When David Cameron visited China in 2013, the Global Times, the Communist Party mouthpiece, seized the moment to let him know how Beijing views the United Kingdom. “The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese,” the paper mused. “We’ve discovered that Britain is easily replaceable in China’s European foreign policy. Moreover, Britain is no longer any kind of ‘big country,’ but merely a country of old Europe suitable for tourism and overseas study, with a few decent football teams.” It could hardly have been put more plainly.
China’s view of Britain as quaint, broke and insignificant is not new, but it has gained in strength as China’s economy has grown and Britain’s has flagged. Beijing concentrates its foreign policy on what matters most to China: its immediate neighbours, including Japan; the European Union, with particular stress on Germany; and the United States, against whom the Chinese measure their rise. They are reluctant to be the world’s number two, but unwilling to assume the responsibilities that go with superpower status.
Britain has form in the Chinese popular imagination: when Cameron wore a poppy during his first visit to China in 2010, many Chinese took it as a slighting reminder of the days when Britain did enjoy a positive balance of trade with China through the good graces of Jardine and Matheson’s opium shipments. The figures have never looked as positive since.
Britain’s imperial past is remembered when Beijing wishes to score a point for other reasons. Apart from two Opium Wars, there was the looting and burning, with the French, of the imperial Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860, the forcing of foreign concessions on Chinese soil and the notorious sign on a park gate in Shanghai that banned entry to dogs and Chinese. Such memories were refurbished in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when the Communist Party rewrote its history books to stress foreign malevolence towards China. Britain’s position as a symbolic hate figure seems assured, and the ruins of the looted Summer Palace, once abandoned to duck farms, are now restored as an official memorial to national humiliation. Revenge, as the Global Times demonstrates, is still sweet.
How much does this matter in practical terms? Perhaps less than we might think. Japan has attracted maximum venom both at official and popular level since the late 19th century but remains an important trade partner. Other nations periodically incur contemporary imperial displeasure: France, Germany and the US have been rebuked for their sympathies for the Dalai Lama without any noticeable impact on business; the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned political activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010 created a high-level chill in Sino-Norwegian relations and a ban on Norwegian-farmed salmon that greatly benefitted producers in Scotland—mostly owned by Norwegian companies, as it happens.
Cameron’s own meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012 led to a spell in the Beijing freezer. As the Global Times thundered at the time:
“They must pay the due price for their arrogance. This is also how China can build its authority in the international arena. China doesn’t need to make a big fuss because of the Dalai or a dissident, but it has many options to make the UK and Norway regret their decision. China-UK cooperation will have to be slowed down. Free-trade agreement talks between China and Norway have also been upset. The ensuing loss is a small one for China.”
Nevertheless, UK-China trade grew modestly during the Dalai Lama spat, apparently little affected by Cameron’s unpopularity. The fact is that the UK has always been a laggard in exports to China and remains so. Indeed, one problem with the current government’s insistence that politicians should promote business, and that commerce trumps both diplomacy and political relations, is that Britain’s export performance scarcely registers in Beijing.
Britain’s imports, conversely, remain high. France exported $19bn of goods to China in 2013, and Germany $73bn, to the UK’s $10bn. The UK trade deficit with China that year was $32bn, to France’s $10bn and Germany’s $1bn. Despite the official drumbeat about the Chinese market, Britain still sells more than twice as much to tiny Ireland than to China. The Prime Minister’s last visit in 2013 shifted some £45m of pig semen, with big hopes that trotters could follow, but it was not enough to move the dial significantly.
The Prime Minister was more successful in courting Chinese inward investment, though, according to analysis by Ernst & Young, Germany still received 44 per cent of Chinese investment in Europe in 2013, to the UK’s 19 per cent. His other ambition, to pitch the City of London as the base for the internationalisation of the renminbi (RMB), had some success, though both Singapore and Hong Kong are more important RMB trading centres.
Britain’s difficulty with China is less its imperial past than its perceived irrelevance. China values Germany because its industrial sector produces things that China wants, and it counts in the EU; Beijing sees Britain’s standing in Europe as a shrinking asset.
English is China’s second language and the UK continues to attract Chinese students, but being outside the Schengen Area has meant that the bulk of the rapidly-growing Chinese tourist traffic goes elsewhere: 149,000 Chinese tourists visited the UK last year, compared to France’s 1.1m. George Osborne’s super priority visa scheme for Chinese business visitors and tourists, announced in 2013, may help bring shoppers in, but it is unlikely to improve the government’s image. Political relations count and appearing needy and weak is not smart when dealing with China. As a former Mexican ambassador to Beijing put it, “They will bully you if you let yourself be bullied.”