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The small matter of Britain’s interest in China

To many Britons, China is a large country, far away

It may feel like a lifetime ago now, but a mere five years have elapsed since Xi Jinping, accompanied by his glamorous consort Peng Liyuan (sometime major general in the People Liberation Army’s artistic arm), graced the United Kingdom with a state visit.

Both sides put on a good show: the British provided the Household Cavalry, an address to parliament in the Royal Gallery and the mandatory dinner in Buckingham Palace; the Chinese reciprocated with the customary Shakespeare references (rather ominously, it was a line from The Tempest) and the signature-ready contracts (£40 billion’s worth, though much of it delayed for the occasion). The Metropolitan Police even arrested a decent number of Chinese dissidents. Both sides spoke of a Golden Era of Sino-British relations, and the earlier metallic era during which Britain supplied large quantities of hallucinogens in return for tons of silver, was left unmentioned.

Things are rather frostier now. The Golden Era Cameronites having been purged from Her Majesty’s Government, both Westminster and Whitehall are busy undoing what they spent the past decade building up as it has finally dawned on them that China was neither a permanent source of easy money nor going to convert to Western liberalism for the asking. In lieu of the European Research Group there is now a China Research Group, and the excitable Defence Secretary even speaks of sending gunboats to China to fly the flag, an idea only dampened by a shortage of gunboats.

None of this is surprising to long time observers of the Anglo-Chinese scene. Britain’s interest in China has always been characterized by an episodic quality, alternating between extremes, but more typically characterised by a lack of interest. India always loomed larger in the British imagination. Aspiring imperial statesmen learned Urdu and studied the questions of the North-West Frontier; Chinese was the preserve of porcelain collectors and Colonial Service cadets in Hong Kong and Malaya. The Opium Wars, among the most successful of Britain’s imperial escapades, are little remembered here, though they are one of the great foundational traumas of modern China.

This ought not to be so. British historical involvement in China, though it never reached the levels seen in India, is rather more than an imperial footnote. But even the well-remembered set pieces, such as the wet 1997 handover of Hong Kong, are but fuzzily understood, as was seen in the confused realization that three million British nationals, few of whom had the right to live in the UK, still dwelt in the former colony. Even today, how many realise that HSBC, whose impeccably liberal advertising did not prevent it from endorsing China’s imposition of a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, stands for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation?

For a brief, bloody decade during the Second World War, the two countries were even comrades-in-arms, though the Foreign Office threw Chiang Kai-Shek under the proverbial bus less than five years after the final victory when it recognized Communist China in a naive attempt to hold onto the British financial position on the mainland, becoming the first major Western power to do so. Labour was then in government, but in this they were fully supported by Churchill, who gravely declared that “the reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment, but to secure a convenience,” an expression which added little to Britain’s reputation for loyalty.

Maybe unsurprisingly, the British Left, with occasional exceptions – Beatrice Webb was said to hate China and to prefer Japan because of the lavatories –has always had a soft spot for China. Before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe the China Campaign Committee was tireless in its support of the Chinese cause against Japan in its unequal fight, and after the Communist victory of 1949 there was a steady stream of left-wing British delegations to China. But interest was never a substitute for understanding, and then understanding only took you so far. At the peak of the Great Cultural Revolution, the Sinologist luminary Joseph Needham, who knew more about the history of Chinese science and technology than anyone else in Britain, compared the Red Guards to the Puritans during the English Civil War, which he meant as a compliment.

Conservatives, meanwhile, seldom had strong opinions about China, apart from an interest in keeping markets open and Hong Kong British. It is still jarring to many Tories that a Conservative premier was the one who lost the Crown Colony, which is perhaps why a Conservative government is now so ready to allow three million Hong Kong Chinese to move to the United Kingdom. On the whole, however, the Churchill approach still prevails on the right, though now with added doses of moral sentiment in relation to human rights.

What now? If there is a saving grace to the current situation, it is that Britain has the luxury of strategic distance. Though its investments in China have always been substantial, China was never crucial to British interests, economic or otherwise, and the end of empire has removed the problems associated with the defence of Hong Kong from the mainland.

UK allies such as Australia, a third whose exports go to China, have no such luxury, and must bear the brunt of the challenge of dealing with Beijing’s increasingly bellicose foreign policy. The choice now seems to be between taking a proactive stance against China, or pragmatic management until things improve (total decoupling, as some in the United States are advocating, is a non-starter). But apart from a few superannuated politicians on various corporate payrolls, nobody is seriously advocating for a return to the Cameron-Osborne posture.

China still has the power to fascinate, but from the British point of view it has been a source of constant frustration more than anything else, despite the occasional bouts of friendship. And though generations of Britons went to the Far East to trade, govern, settle, and fight, benign ignorance is still the default in this country, though an increasingly unsustainable one. A puzzled Charles de Gaulle once said that “China is an enormous thing”; British policymakers will have to dig a bit deeper.

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