19 Oct 2015

Britain and China: 200-year-old lesson learnt, but is it too late?

It may be a little late to kowtow to the Chinese. In 1793 Lord Macartney, envoy of George III, famously refused to touch his forehead on the ground in front of the Qianlong Emperor. To do so, he believed, would be a ritual humiliation of his king. After negotiation, he genuflected, touching one knee on the ground – a bow, then, not a prostration.

Nonetheless, the Emperor rejected the British request to open more ports for trading. “I have perused your memorial: the earnest terms in which it is couched reveal a respectful humility of your part,” he wrote. The respect did the British no good. “Should your vessels touch the shore, your merchants will assuredly never be permitted to land or reside there but will be subject to instant expulsion,” the letter continued. “In that event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for nothing.”


The British have learnt their lesson. Last month the Chancellor, George Osborne, was the first senior western leader to visit Xinjiang, the western province where the Chinese are repressing the Uighur minority. He was there not to discuss human rights but business opportunities.

“What characterises Osborne is perhaps his pragmatism regarding his China policy,” gushed the Communist Party’s international mouthpiece, the Global Times. “It should be diplomatic etiquette for foreign leaders not to confront China by raising the human rights issue.”

On the eve of his state visit to the UK, President Xi Jinping has indicated that such “respectful humility” may bear fruit.

“The UK has stated that it will be the Western country that is most open to China. This is a visionary and strategic choice that fully meets Britain’s own long-term interest,” Xi said in a written response to questions from Reuters.

Note the vagueness of the statement. Britain is going all out to get Chinese investment and to increase British exports, but the Chinese are pragmatic too. They’ll invest where they will get a good return, and import the best products. China imports more from Germany than the UK not because Angela Merkel glosses over human rights, but because Germany makes cars and precision factory equipment that the Chinese need.

But times are changing. Germany’s status as China’s biggest trading partner in Europe is looking less enviable than before.

The Germans have benefited from three decades of unprecedented Chinese expansion, but the pragmatic Mr Osborne’s kowtow coincides with a slowdown in Chinese growth, and instability on its stock exchange.

Britain is already feeling the impact. The steelworks at Redcar is closing because it can’t produce as cheaply as the Chinese. The Chinese economy can no longer use all the steel it produces, and has been accused of ‘dumping’ on the international market. This is not what the British government envisaged from a “golden era” in Anglo-Chinese relations.

Over the next four days, ┬ároyal rituals and courtesies will be observed meticulously as President Xi is feted and wined and dined in Buckingham Palace. The Queen will not curtsey to him – perish the thought. They are likely both to incline their heads politely over a handshake. The danger is that all this harmony – as the Chinese like to call it – is thirty years too late for our latter day merchants.

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