Dr James Strong of the LSE said in a lecture on British Foreign Policy that “Britain has selective memory when it comes to its imperial past.” It is easy to sweep colonial legacies under the rug; pretending they do not loom over current relations between the UK and its former colonies. However, memories of imperial oppression and a sense of victimisation are still alive in the nationalist rhetoric of many countries, most evidently in China. In the context of China-UK relations, Britain needs to soberly acknowledge the historical implications of its time in China and the lasting effects on Chinese foreign policy in order to foster the two countries’ so called “Golden Era” in the uncertainty of post-Brexit.
History between Britain and China traces all the way back to the First Opium War in the first half of the 19th century. The British engaged in an unbalanced war with the inferior Qing forces to protect its drug sales and trade rights. The Qing dynasty took action to put an end to opium addiction and socio-economic instability brought about by British illegal imports of opium to compensate for silver shortage. Owing to its naval and gun power, Britain won and was granted control over several ports and the cession of Hong Kong under the treaty of Nanking – the first of what the Chinese referred to as the unequal treaties that the nation was bullied into accepting.
The Opium War marked the beginning of what the Chinese called the Century of Humiliation during which Chinese civilisation was incessantly undermined by foreign aggression. This was and has been the source of Chinese grievance for centuries, mostly because the CPC refuses to let bygones be bygones. Since the late 80s, the Communist Party has integrated “patriotic education”, a large section of which focuses upon the colonial outrages committed by Britain, into the school official curriculum. The heavy emphasis of the CPC on historical grievances shows us a China that is driven to restore national pride and demands to be treated as a powerful emerging nation. The British Conservative government needs to recognise this mentality if they wish to conduct successful diplomatic and business relations with China.
The Chinese economy is growing at a rapid rate. The Chinese government and its elites are putting their eggs in various baskets around the world, one of which being the UK. The China Development Bank owns 1% of Barclays’ shares after investing $3 billion. Furthermore the Chinese have invested more than £7 billion in London property between 2009 and 2015. Chinese investment had been crucial in Northern Powerhouse Project and Chinese investors own many UK companies whilst being dominant shareholders in a dozen others. It is clear that the UK welcomes Chinese investment and wants a long term business relationship with China. Mr Osborne once expressed that Britain wanted to become “China’s best partner in the West.” However, Britain’s actions often fail to match its words.
Theresa May’s initial reluctance to approve the Hinkley Point C project, in which China General Nuclear took 33% stake, holds some political significance. The reason for the government’s hesitance according to Nick Timothy – May’s Joint Chief of Staff was the fear that the Chinese could “build weaknesses” into British computer systems that would essentially permit them to shut down Britain’s energy production “at will.” In the era of new forms of warfare, the government’s concern was justified, but the public airing of suspicions about China’s intentions didn’t score well with the Chinese public. Xinhua – a Chinese state news agency, wrote that the delay added uncertainties to the “Golden Era” of China-UK ties and that it is damaging the hard-won mutual trust with China. Furthermore, while China understands that the British government needs time to consider such an important deal, it is not pleased with the “suspicious approach” that they believe comes from nowhere. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK warned: “If Britain’s openness is a condition for bilateral cooperation, then mutual trust is the very foundation on which this is built.” And here is the hard truth, Britain has no choice but to trust China.
Britain needs Chinese investment but it may have lost its allure to Chinese investors after Brexit. Philippe le Corre, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, questions whether Britain outside the EU will remain the leading destination in Europe now that the country’s position as a gateway to Europe is compromised. To make matters worse, the Chinese increasingly see the UK as a waning power, hung-over from its imperial heydays. The UK, in a fragile state after its vote to leave the EU, cannot afford to risk bilateral ties with China. Therefore, Britain has to be very careful in its diplomatic conducts not to stir up Chinese nationalist sentiment and learn how to feed Chinese national pride; because whether or not we want to acknowledge it, nationalism is the new opium.