In recent years, many Chinese visitors to London have used the great clock of Big Ben as the background to a romantic photograph. Women in white wedding dresses pose beside their besuited husbands.
Behind them, next to Big Ben, stand the famous buildings that the British like to regard as the “cradle of democracy” – the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Tourists are not usually invited inside the parliamentary estate, although MPs offer free tours to visitors. The public are also encouraged to watch debates or attend committees.
At present, Big Ben is shrouded in scaffolding for repair and political life has been disrupted by coronavirus. Yet by June this year, MPs had returned to the Commons in person or online — and China had risen to near the top of the political agenda, largely due to the situation in Hong Kong.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who represents the governing Conservative party, said in the Commons on June 2 that a new security law for Hong Kong proposed by China undermines the “one country, two systems” framework, threatens the rights and freedoms of citizens, and places protesters at risk of prosecution for political crimes.
The response from the opposition Labor party was supportive. “We share the Government’s opposition to the national security law and we want to see real action to address police brutality,” said Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy. MPs from smaller parties also spoke out. “This is not a party-political issue,” said Alistair Carmichael from the Liberal Democrats. “If ever there ever were a time to act in support of Hong Kong, it is now.”
Such cross-party consensus has opened the way for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel to offer visas to some people from Hong Kong who wish to emigrate to the U.K. for political reasons. In an article for the South China Morning Post, Johnson wrote that if China imposes its national security law, Britain will change its immigration rules to allow a select group of Hong Kongers to come to Britain for work, providing a pathway to their citizenship.
The message went down well in the U.K. but there was a mixed response in Hong Kong. Politician and activist Lee Cheuk Yan said that visas are unlikely to be available to people born after 1997, when Hong Kong changed its status from a British colony to become part of the People’s Republic of China. He claimed that young activists do not regard Britain as their benevolent savior. “We do not want an exit door. We want to stand firm on our rights and fight in Hong Kong. What is Boris Johnson doing to put pressure on China? Is he going to raise the matter in the United Nations?”
Britain holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, where it often takes opposite sides to China. However, the U.K.’s current stance on Hong Kong is in step with its allies. In early June, Britain, Australia, Canada, and the United States released a joint statement expressing deep concerns over the proposed new security legislation. New Zealand and Japan issued similar communiques.
China’s response has included strong rhetoric and hints of revenge. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing insists that the U.K. has no sovereignty or jurisdiction over Hong Kong, nor any right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. Britain, in its view, is clinging to a colonialist mindset.
The Global Times newspaper, which often takes a strident position on Western political matters, warned that the U.K. faces “substantial damage” to its economy if Johnson refuses to back down. China accounts for about 7 percent of U.K. imports and receives 4 percent of Britain’s exports. China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, has told business leaders that China will review its investments in Britain’s nuclear power plans and the HS2 high speed rail network.
It is only relatively recently that such a mood of suspicion toward China has spread throughout the British political establishment. When Johnson was mayor of London, he courted Chinese investment and when President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Britain in 2015 – including dinner with the Queen – the Conservative government heralded a “golden era” in Sino-British relations.
Soon afterwards, Britain voted for Brexit, leaving politicians hoping that trade deals with China would compensate for the exit from the European Union. Since then, Chinese money has been welcomed in many business sectors, especially tourism and education. More than 100,000 Chinese students are enrolled at British universities, paying high fees. The Chinese telecoms company Huawei made a 5 million pound gift to one of the leading establishments, Imperial College in London, as it seeks a greater role in the U.K.’s communication infrastructure. This concerns the Americans, who want Huawei to be completely blocked from Britain’s 5G network – a position that is supported by China hawks within Britain’s Conservative party, such as Home Secretary Priti Patel and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
The relationship between China, the United States, and America’s allies has deteriorated during the COVID-19 crisis, largely due to claims of a cover up by China in the early stages of the epidemic. “Two different systems of ideologies and values are battling to declare a winner. The outcome depends on whether it is the Chinese centralized system or the Western liberal system which is the first to recover from the economic problems caused by the outbreak of coronavirus,” according to Professor Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.
China says it is being used as a scapegoat by the leaders of Britain and America, who have seen their public support levels fall dramatically as the public blame them for mishandling the coronavirus crisis. Nevertheless, Brown believes there is scope for international cooperation between China and the U.K., especially in finding a vaccine or treatments for COVID-19. He also acknowledges that Britain faces a challenge in finding its place in a “dual track world” led by the United States and China.
At the moment, the U.K. government’s primary objective is to become less reliant on China for essential imports, such as medical supplies. It is also drafting new laws to prevent British technology companies from being taken over by the Chinese, insisting that any bids, hostile or friendly, must be scrutinized by regulators.
In the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, there is talk of resetting the terms of engagement with China to build a “reciprocal and sustainable relationship.” However, China’s huge economic power puts Britain at a disadvantage in any talks about trade, especially now that the U.K. has broken from the European Union, forcing it to seek bilateral deals. Britain’s Brexit terms are still being debated, leaving another complex issue for the Foreign Office to resolve, alongside the China problem.
Yet for Britain to be secure and to thrive economically, it must make its peace with both China and the rest of Europe. Brown therefore believes we are entering “a golden age for diplomats” who can manage potential tensions and prevent worst-case scenarios.
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and has reported from Hong Kong for the BBC World Service.