China will punish Britain for defying its will. We need allies to hold the line

Steve Tsang
·5-min read

The UK and the People’s Republic of China make an odd couple. In the “golden era” of bilateral relations, ushered in by David Cameron, the UK welcomed Chinese companies to invest in critical infrastructure such as 5G and nuclear power plants. But the Chinese ambassador has now threatened Britain with dire consequences if the government were to act upon its more recent second thoughts.

Should we take the ambassador’s threat seriously? Yes. When the Australians raised issues about Chinese interference in their politics Beijing responded by restricting imports from Australia. When Canada allowed its courts to deal with a US extradition request against the daughter of Huawei’s founder for a criminal offence, Beijing held two Canadian citizens hostage.

Are such reprisals used only against other countries and not the UK? History provides a clear warning. Britain was the first major western democracy to recognise the People’s Republic, in January 1950, less than three months after its foundation. That good will was not reciprocated and the British chargé d’affaires was treated as the “representative to negotiate for the establishment of diplomatic relations” – a supplicant. Beijing only established full diplomatic relations with the UK in March 1972, after the US president, Richard Nixon, visited China.

The Communist party's preparedness to act tough on the UK far predates President Xi Jinping

In the early 1950s, British investments in China, greater in value than its investments in Hong Kong, were expropriated, and British companies with operations in China were forced to remit significant additional sums to secure the safe return of UK workers employed there. In 1967, as the Communist party engulfed China in the Cultural Revolution, British diplomats were physically assaulted and the Reuters journalist Anthony Grey was incarcerated in Beijing for more than two years.

Among the western great powers, then, the UK was the first to engage positively with the Chinese government under the Communist party. However, it also turned out to be the one most harshly treated before Deng Xiaoping introduced the policy of “reform and opening up” at the end of the 1970s.

The Communist party’s preparedness to act tough on the UK far predates President Xi Jinping. How, then, should we understand ambassador Liu Xiaoming’s warning about the British offer of a pathway to citizenship to the British nationals overseas (BNOs) in Hong Kong?

BNOs are people who were born in the Crown colony of Hong Kong before 1 July 1997. They are British nationals by birth, though without the right of abode in the UK. No one born in Hong Kong after it became a Chinese special administrative region is entitled to BNO status. Thus, the latest British offer does not apply to Hongkongers who were born Chinese citizens (post 1997). If BNOs who choose to come, live and work in the UK do so for five years without being a charge on the public purse, they will be able to apply for UK citizenship.

According to Liu, the British offer is an interference in China’s domestic affairs and one that will be met with consequences.

But why should a British offer to end the less advantageous treatment of a group of British nationals be grounds for retaliation by China? Would it be defensible for the UK to threaten China if Beijing announced a policy to accord its Uighur minority the same citizenship rights as its majority Han population?

China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming.
China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

How then should we understand Liu’s offer of friendship to the UK? We should recognise it for what it is. He has offered friendship as long as the UK embraces terms laid down by Beijing, reminiscent of China’s treatment of the UK’s initiative to establish diplomatic relations in the 1950s. It means that we must allow Huawei to build up to 35% of our 5G infrastructure and we are not allowed to change our mind. However, there will be no level playing field between companies, institutions and individuals operating in each other’s territory. While China insists Huawei be allowed to build our critical infrastructure, no British company will be permitted to do anything comparable in China.

Likewise, we shall continue to host Confucius Institutes on British university campuses, under the supervision of China’s propaganda department, while accepting that British universities with branches in China will not be allowed to teach constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, or even free and independent journalism.

It also means that we must ignore British law, under which the UK has an obligation to the people of Hong Kong under the Sino-British joint declaration – an international treaty registered at the United Nations and valid until 2047 – simply because Beijing has decided it is a historical relic.

No amount of trade and investment can justify the abandonment of our basic values

It would be wrong for the UK to forsake positive engagement with China. We have never treated the People’s Republic as an enemy and should not do so now. Nor should we abandon our basic values as we engage with China. No amount of trade and investment can justify abandonment of our commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual, the rule of law and democratic principles.

The reality remains that upholding our values will result in the UK being punished by China, whose foreign policy aims to make the world safe for authoritarianism – a world in which the Communist party’s hold on power in China cannot be challenged. To face this reality, we must work with our democratic allies to form a united front. Chinese threats to inflict economic pain on an individual democracy become hollow if we all hold the same line and do not allow Beijing to divide and rule.

Steve Tsang is director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London