Britain and China – a special relationship not worth having

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The Chinese President’s state visit to Britain recently, from 20th-23rd October, marks a climactic shift in Anglo-Chinese relations, but a change which has come with a good deal of controversy. Whilst the Chancellor, George Osbourne, was positively licking the boots of Mr Xi Jinping, many looked on with scepticism.

So why all the fuss? President Xi is just another diplomatic spectacle, much as those that frequently punctuate our news, isn’t he? Not quite. Until recently, Britain’s relationship with China can at best be described as civil. Unlike our European neighbours France and Germany, Britain’s leaders just haven’t been that fussed. Tony Blair visited just three times in his ten years in office and Gordon Brown once. David Cameron, since he entered office, has been determined to change this civility into genuine friendship and mutual affection. This visit really embodied Osbourne and Cameron’s hopes for a new “golden era with China”.

For both powers this change in relations is a strategic shift, with economic motivation at its core. Osbourne appears to be master director of the show. Ultimately, he wants China to become Britain’s second biggest export market within the next ten years, and ministers said they expected more than £30 billion worth of deals to be struck during the course of the trip. “No economy in the world is as open to Chinese investment as the UK,” the Chancellor said during the visit.  The Chinese, too have their own ‘strategic’ motives. For them, it was very important that the visit went off without a hitch in order to reinstate confidence in its government after the stock market meltdown over the summer has prompted anxious questions over economic growth and competence in the global markets.

However, the visit and all it represents raises some serious questions about the ethics behind the economically driven motivations of Mr Osbourne and Co. The visit comes amid huge job losses in the UK steel sector, for which cheap Chinese imports are one of the big factors being blamed. Excess cheap Chinese steel (now cheaper per tonne than cabbage), a result of Chinese state subsidisation, and the hangover of China’s share market drop in July, is effectively being ‘dumped’ on British shores, assisted by the UK government.

The international plummet in steel prices as a result of this is crushing the British steel industry. In October this year, the government announced the closure of the steelworks in Redcar after no prospective buyers came forward, with some 2,200 jobs lost. Just in the last few weeks, Tata Steel has announced the latest in a series of cuts – 1,200 jobs are going at its plant in Scunthorpe. So, as men and women all over the country face the reality of unemployment, British leaders cosy up to China, and in fact help them in the process of “dumping”, as shadow business minister and MP Kevin Brennan commented, the subsidised steel, in order to pursue more lucrative economic policies. This includes offering building contracts like HS2 to Chinese firms. It’s not difficult to see why the visit has more than just raised eyebrows.

The trip had other moral hazards – human rights, for one. Let’s just say China’s track record on this is less than clean. Limited relaxation on some of the tightest restrictions on its citizens may have accompanied rapid socioeconomic expansion in the past few years, but China remains a fiercely authoritarian one-party state. The Communist Party government represses expression, association, assembly, and religion amongst other things. It censors its press, the internet, newspapers, and academic research. In the name of ‘social stability’, it justifies some shocking human rights abuses.

Whilst in the past, the UK has been clear in its disapproval and intolerance of China’s behaviour, the sentiments expressed by Osbourne and other government officials during President Xi’s trip marked a clear attempt to forget all this in favour of economic expediency. John Bercow, speaker in the House of Commons, actually called China a “moral inspiration” when introducing Mr Xi to the House, whilst the most senior Foreign Office Civil Servant, Simon Macdonald, bluntly admitted that human rights is “not one of our top priorities … The prosperity agenda is higher up the list.”

Many fear the economic logic which all of this ‘boot-licking’ is justified with is unsound. China has already taken a stake in one third of Hinckley Point C, the UK’s first new nuclear power station. It’s rumoured to be on course to be “one of the most expensive power stations in the world”, as claimed by Lisa Nandy, Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, costing British bill payers an awful lot in the future. Aside from those obliged to defend it, politicians and civil servants alike, including, awkwardly, Mr Osbourne’s father-in-law, agree it is a terrible deal for the UK – both for the consumers and the industry.

What is clear is that the latest Chinese visit to Britain was about more than just photo calls and sipping tea. It was diplomacy alright, but perhaps not as we know it. Diplomacy tends to ensure one country’s interests with another, but I’m not sure all Britons could agree that their interests had been secured when Mr Xi Jinping came to stay.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are not representative of Palatinate, and are those of the author only. If you disagree with the opinions expressed, or would like to write for Palatinate in response, please contact the Politics Section at politics@palatinate.org.uk.

Photograph: tea rose via Flickr

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