14 Oct 2013

China defrosts; visas rewritten

George Osborne was meant to be in Beijing on his own, not sharing the stage with Boris Johnson.

But the Chinese changed arrangements for a September visit so they find themselves in Beijing together, Boris all photo-ops and jokey throwaways and George Osborne sombrely announcing a change in British visa policy for China.

It’s the latest phase in a long freeze out by China that started with the PM’s decision to meet up with the Dalai Lama in St Paul’s Cathedral in May 2012.

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The Chinese reacted badly to a foreign leader feting someone they regard as an exiled separatist insurgent. But there’s something particularly sustained about the treatment meted out to Britain that is not yet fully explained.

There is always a grumpy reaction from China – traditionally expressed as the “hurt feelings” of the Chinese people – but the Cameron/Dalai Lama meeting seems to have got a different order of coolness.

The British Ambassador in Beijing has been frozen out of meetings with senior regime figures for a year and a half and virtually all ministerial trips were refused or made worthless by lack of access to top people.

David Cameron’s team has been working on easing the problem  – but there are different theories that go around on why he’s been punished harder and longer than others.

Angela Merkel after her meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2007 is said to have given private assurances that she’d got that out of her system and wouldn’t be re-offending.

Did David Cameron refuse to give a similar assurance? Or was there something in the British tone that we got wrong in trying to repair relations.

Is China simply getting more confident about throwing its diplomatic and economic weight around when it’s offended? Is it all too obvious that Britain, pleading for inward investment, needs China more than China needs Britain?

Even long-serving Sinophile experts struggle to come up with unified theories on this spat. The French, like the Germans, mended fences more quickly than the UK.

Part of the answer could lie in one of the big investment decisions expected to be announced any minute: the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations worth £14bn, half of which could come from the state Chinese nuclear generator.

I understand Chinese approaches to invest in the construction were originally cold-shouldered in the UK.

Anyway, No. 10 is probably hoping that George Osborne comes back from Beijing with a crested invitation card inviting the PM to Beijing to meet the new team that took control this year. But after months of delayed dates and postponements it won’t be announcing anything till it’s got a firm invitation in its mitts.

Meanwhile, the government finds itself yet again going East shortly after another visa/immigration crackdown has been announced here to tell the Chinese/Indians (*delete as applicable) that they didn’t mean THEM … their students and skilled and shoppers are profoundly welcome and the rules aren’t as tough as you think/are being hastily rewritten* (*delete as applicable again – in this case, the latter).   

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