The hidden horrors of the ‘Golden Age’ of UK-China relations

by Georgia Leatherdale-Gilholy

Last month, former UK Business Secretary Vince Cable received some well-deserved flack for the alarming views expressed in his upcoming book on China. During a London School of Economics event, Cable lamented the lately expired “Golden Age” of relations between the governments of the United Kingdom and China that overlapped with his ministry.

This alleged Golden Age has recently been addressed by numerous respected thinkers and publications, as issues from Hong Kong to Huawei have since put the UK-China romance on the rocks. But what constituted this supposedly glittering epoch, and why has its conclusion sprung forth a well of concern from some corners of British politics?

The use of the phrase in reference to UK-China relations seemingly began around the time of President Xi Jinping’s 2015 state visit, during which then-Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred to the inauguration of a “golden” year and age between the two countries.

Editors at Chinese state media outlet China Daily opted for a video listicle celebrating the “golden friendship” between London and Beijing. These extravagant displays of friendship were the culmination of an extensive cooling of tensions three years after David Cameron’s May 2012 meeting with the Dalai Lama had sparked anger. Britain’s ambassador in Beijing, Sebastian Wood, was summoned to China’s foreign ministry following the meeting and duly chastised by Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao.

In 2013 George Osborne made a five-day mea culpa trade mission to China, in which he celebrated the “common aims” of both countries and announced an easing of visa restrictions for affluent Chinese applicants. In June 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and his wife visited the UK and met with Queen Elizabeth II and Cameron. Early in 2015, the UK co-founded the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

If I were to guess at the reason behind this change of tack, it would be that Cameron had never been particularly invested in criticising China at all but had simply been oblivious to the fury his meeting with a figure like the Dalai Lama would invoke.

After all, at the height of the scandal, Cameron did not defend nor apologise for the meeting but merely dismissed the seriousness with which Chinese officials obviously regarded the interview. I suspect the £30 billion-plus worth of trade deals signed during the 2015 visit may have helped Cameron and Osborne along too. Nor does it appear that our former Prime Minister has reconsidered his attitude in the light of recent controversies, given that in June he greenlighted plans for a $1bn China investment fund.

During the 2015 visit, while Cameron still occupied the top job, Xi addressed the Palace of Westminster in a speech, claiming: “The world will be watching and waiting expectantly as the emerging superpower that is China takes its new place in the world.” Human rights demonstrators protested on the Mall in advance of Xi’s reception at Buckingham Palace. Reportedly these groups were penned into certain areas while, chillingly, the larger pro-China demo was permitted free reign.

In the following months and years, even as Cameron’s referendum defeat meant his replacement by Theresa May and subsequently Boris Johnson, relations with China continued to be cosy. In July 2016, a £1.3 million UK-China collaboration on sustainable agriculture was co-founded. In March 2017 “China Plus” and Renmin University hosted experts and researchers from China and the UK to discuss the future of our bilateral relations. In February 2018, Theresa May made a three-day trade mission and once again met Xi Jinping, with whom she had presumably shaken hands while Home Secretary. The most provocative issue she mentioned was the Yangtze River’s plastic waste.

The subsequent summer things began to turn sour. Here at least, it was not the ever-blustering Boris’ ascendancy to blame, but the rumblings of the world far beyond Westminster.

In July 2019 UN ambassadors from 22 nations, including the UK, signed a joint letter to the UNHRC condemning China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs and other minority groups, urging its government to close the Xinjiang “re-education” camps. This June, the United Kingdom openly opposed the Hong Kong national security law that finally put an end to the “one country, two systems” principle and illegally breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration. On December 5th, it was reported that the UK was now granting five passports a minute to Hong Kong residents seeking to flee the increasingly authoritarian territory.

Wranglings aside, the benefits of a close relationship between the United Kingdom and China are obvious. Trade of services and goods with an increasingly high-tech economy. Flows of information and people to the benefits of various industries. The enrichment of education, culture and travel opportunities. Not to mention the incentive of maintaining the status quo rather than rocking the boat in the current economic and political climate. This knock-on impact of this year’s troubles may set in motion a catastrophe worse than the Great Depression, and some might suppose that this is no time for political posturing by a drizzly island on the edge of Europe.

Yet, by allowing western governments and corporations to uncritically engage with their Chinese counterparts we, by definition, ignore the ethical implications of normalising their practices. It is no secret that the Chinese state and its affiliated enterprises enforce a vast network of forced labour, organ harvesting, surveillance and predatory attitudes to all manner of private liberties. The longing for a UK-China Golden Age by the likes of Vince Cable, fetishes an ideal past that never really existed, apart from for elements of political and corporate elites eager to leapfrog on the ascendant economy’s rise at any expense.

Cable’s attitude reinforces a flawed and borderline neo-colonial idea that whatever is good for the short-term gain of both British and Chinese elites is to the betterment of the world. Similarly, Cameron and May’s consistent policy of appeasement assumed the fantastical “End of History” vision that a nation’s economic progress will automatically usher in democracy and western-style human rights – a theory that the Chinese regime’s rise has routinely rendered void.

Although the recent crisis in UK-China relations has emerged chiefly from increased attention toward the latter regime’s human rights failures, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, these tragedies are nothing new. It was at the very height of the so-called Golden Age in 2014, that hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest on behalf of democracy, using umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas.

While Chinese state press were affectionately dubbing Theresa May “Auntie May”, Xinjiang officials had already begun confiscating passports from Uyghurs, and evidence of disturbing detention facilities in the region had already emerged. Does this sound like a Golden Age to anyone but Cable and his cronies? Or rather, an attempt to reroute Britain toward a path of pro-China appeasement as millions to suffer under this barbaric regime’s jurisdiction?

If Johnson’s cabinet wishes to be remembered more favourably than its predecessors, it ought to escalate rather than tone down its approach to Chinese human rights violations and robustly discard the dated logic of Cable and Cameron.

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