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by Rory Coutts
‘Golden era,’ ‘Golden Decade,’ ‘unheralded ties,’ the hyperbole surrounding Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK was emphatic. In Chinese media the focus was on the imagery and ceremony laid on for Xi, rather than the purpose of the visit itself: to funnel money into a dwindling UK, and legitimise China as a world power by giving it warm ties with a western state and bringing its currency to match the Dollar.
From both sides, the framing of the Golden Era uncomfortably mirrors the rhetoric that surrounded the ‘special relationship’ with the USA after the Second World War. The painting of similarities between the UK and the PRC seem even more artificial than the ties carved between the ‘English speaking peoples’ pounded by Churchill is his post-ministerial career. An article on the major messaging app WeChat, drew parallels between Buckingham Palace and the Forbidden City, and a China Daily piece spelled out the rich diplomatic history of the past 30 years, from Thatcher and Blair, to Hong Kong. The truth of past ties are ones of Opium War exploitation, welded with World War and Cold War Machiavellian ties. But also like the ties to the US, the future implications of Xi’s visit don’t seem to be one of equal status.
The reality of the current spate of ties is one of mutual benefit, but not the ones of the headlines, which argue the gains to UK industries, a revival of the North, and a ‘strategic partnership’. The United Kingdom has had the peculiar pathology of a declining power for the past century, with the US, Germany, and now China overtaking it as pre-eminent economic powers in the world. This new relationship seems more of a way for the UK to deny its irrelevance. In the face of the US’s demotion as the world economic hegemony and a decisive shift of power to the East, the UK is continuing its trend of playing the fickle friend.
The human rights factor is something that many have brought up as an upset to the plan to side up with China. As you can imagine, these did not cause any stir in Chinese media pieces, instead the glossy pictures of Buckingham Palace and Westminster took pride of place. More troubling is the way that the UK began to deal with this at home. The arrest of two Tibetan women, and a survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre hardly show the right to free protest and speech. I am not calling for a hermit kingdom approach to states such as China, but the way Britain has dealt with the protests is something to be argued against.
It would be better for us to have a ‘Hollandisation’ of British foreign policy as some have observed – an abandonment of the pursuit of power – than to act in the way the police did and to brush a lot of the realities under the carpet. The relationship with China is not a pretty one, and a bit embarrassing if anything. The fact is, we are falling over backwards to be the best friend in Europe, but it seems worrying that we could run such a big gamble for the sake of some shiny new trains.