A hidden admiration?
With the New Year comes a different focus on the future. There’s a new administration in America, new vaccines to rid the world of the woes of the virus, and closer to home a new Chinese ambassador in town. Conversely, 2020 was a year fraught with growing strain on the international stage for China relations. There was nearly a war between India and China that is still no closer to being solved, the US-China relationship degraded further and perhaps most worryingly of all, Australia has been made an example of for questioning the Asian behemoth.
It must be noted, however, that despite the almost weekly new stories of the next escalation in tit for tat exchanges between all of the above, the UK has come out surprisingly unscathed. Like Australia and the US, Britain banned Huawei from its market. Like Australia and the US, Britain has bluntly raised concerns over what is going on in Xinjiang. And like Australia and the US, Britain has been a constant critic of Chinese actions in Hong Kong, perhaps even going further than both by allowing three million BNO passport holders the right to emigrate to the UK. Yet, the worst that has happened is a string of angry pronouncements suggesting Britain ‘will have to bear consequences’, none of which have been made clear. Indeed, in his parting summary of his 11 years as Chinese Ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming leaves a generally upbeat assessment of relations. Perhaps he is simply being diplomatic, but then again, he was considered one of the first ‘wolf warriors’.
So what could explain this hesitancy to treat the UK the same way China has responded to Australia? The country was, after all, one of the main culprits behind the ‘century of humiliation’. One answer could be that since the UK has just left the EU it is now a freer agent. If China builds up a strong relationship with us, they might be able to pry a key member of NATO, the Five Eyes Alliance and the West in general away from siding with the EU and America on the international stage. There is certainly some truth to that but I can’t help thinking it is also slightly cynical. The answer I would suggest comes from a more heart felt place – that the people of China are, after all, our friends, and no Marxist-Leninist indoctrination can change that.
The first time I really appreciated this phenomenon was when I was sat on the Hangzhou metro hurtling towards the centre of town on a Friday night. In my slightly drunken haze, trying to avoid the glance of other passengers, I looked above the carriage doors to see an advert for Dettol. Squinting my eyes in a failed attempt to zoom in on the image, I noticed in the bottom corner beside the smiling mother and son, the Royal Coat of arms of the United Kingdom, proudly stating ‘By order of Her Majesty the Queen…’ as if it were a product straight out of Fortnum & Masons. Perhaps it was the alcohol but this moment stays in my mind because I was incredibly confused by this contradiction. Here was a British product proudly using the symbol of the Monarchy to advertise in a Communist country that used to considered Britain one of the prime causes of Chinese decline. Yet, far from this turning out to be an advertising faux paux, it instead instilled trust in the quality of the product, something that has been lacking in China for many years after multiple scandals.
Nor is this simply a modern phenomenon, for even the man that rid China of imperialism in the first place admired the aptitude of the British. In Li Zhishi’s book ‘The Private life of Chairman Mao’ about his 22 years as personal doctor to the man himself, he talks about how Mao not only wanted to study English instead of Russian, but thought ‘Western ideas would reinvigorate China’. He also preferred ‘people trained in England and the United States’ working for him.
Returning to the present once again, Downton Abbey was a huge hit in China, UK schools have set up multiple international campuses across the country, I’ve even seen adverts for etiquette lessons in Shanghai delivered in English, albeit by non-British teachers. Whether these examples truly represent a modern, diverse Britain are for a different article, but the fact remains the same, the ‘lao bai xing’ are impressed by the movies they have seen and the books they have read of Britain, from Shakespeare to JK Rowling. So deep is the continuing appreciation of the UK that last year a survey suggested more Chinese students wanted to enrol at British universities than wanted to enrol in American ones, despite the growth in tensions. It seems Mao wasn’t the only one that understood the value of a British education.
These past feelings of admiration are no guarantee of continued love for Britain, and should relations deteriorate further, it would be of no surprise if China tried to sanction Britain’s economy, especially as we enter an era outside the EU where we are arguably more vulnerable to such shocks. However, the underlying strain of affection for Britain stems from our actions as a shining beacon of refined modernity and progress whilst not forgetting our legacies and traditions. In future dialogue, we shouldn’t forget this important aspect of our soft power; we’re not out of bargaining chips just yet.
Perhaps what Ambassador Liu’s op-ed shows most is that Chinese leaders may want to act like wolves when it comes to Britain, but given the positive opinions of the Chinese masses, all the aggressive pronouncements are, as Mao would say, simply paper tigers.