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The U.K. is Finally Falling Out of China’s Spell

Coronavirus and the crackdown on Hong Kong has taken the sheen off of an era of conservative bridge building with Beijing.
Boris Johnson visits China

When Prime Minister David Cameron led the largest ever British trade delegation to China, he launched a decade-long push from Conservative governments to establish a “Golden Era” in relations between China and Britain. This era might be coming to an end in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic.

David Cameron’s efforts culminated in President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain in 2015 and his declaring Britain to be “China’s best partner in the west.” After a state banquet with the Queen, where she described China and Britain as “stewards of the rules-based international system,” a slew of deals were struck. They covered key parts of the British economy such as nuclear power, car manufacturing, and higher education.

Conservatives across the spectrum saw China as a source of untapped economic and financial potential for Britain. Brexiteers became enamored with the idea of a sovereign Britain cutting a trade deal with China among other growing economies, succeeding where Brussels had failed. The theory went that opening up China to the world would ensure its rise as a benign superpower in the global order. Scant attention was paid to the advance of mass surveillance and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The election of President Donald Trump and his trenchant criticism of Beijing delivered the first shock to this complacent attitude. In the early months of her tenure in office, Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to share this skepticism of China and questioned Chinese involvement in sensitive parts of Britain’s infrastructure. This led to a review in 2016 of China’s role in building the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, but the project was ultimately still approved. Two years later, Theresa May would go on to also agree a controversial deal with Huawei to help build non-core parts of Britain’s 5G network.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election as Conservative leader marked a break with his predecessors in a number of ways but with China being an important exception. Boris Johnson spent the first months of his premiership emphasizing his “pro-China” credentials, even going so far as to praise the Belt and Road Initiative, as part of his brinkmanship with Brussels in the EU withdrawal negotiations. When Britain finally left the European Union earlier this year, China appeared to be a promising alternative source of trade and investment.

Although Conservative governments have largely maintained a friendly stance with China, scepticism of Beijing’s behaviour has entered Britain’s political mainstream. Boris Johnson’s decision to give the greenlight for the 5G deal with Huawei, albeit with some restrictions, has been met with significant opposition from some Conservative MPs. A former leader of the Conservative party, Iain Duncan-Smith MP, led a group of MPs opposed to the Huawei deal, and has joined the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China. When Parliament has to give its approval to the legislation for building 5G later this year, there could be a larger rebellion against Boris Johnson if he pushes ahead with the current plans.

While British Conservatives remain pro-free trade by and large, they have become more aware of how opening the Chinese economy has not led to a liberalization of China’s politics. China’s economic retaliation against Australia after its calls for an international enquiry into the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic has helped this shift in perceptions of Beijing’s motives. Some Conservative MPs have formed the China Research Group to push for a change in Britain’s China policy and to scrutinize China’s behavior, specifically its industrial policy, use of technology, and foreign policy. 

The protests in Hong Kong over the past year have accelerated this trend. Under the May Government, Britain adopted a critical but restrained approach towards China’s treatment of the former colony. British diplomats asked Beijing to respect the Sino-British Joint Declaration that secured Hong Kong’s rights in 1997 when sovereignty transferred from Britain to China. While the acts of police brutality and restrictions on civil liberties continued and were condemned by all major political parties in Britain, there were no acts of retaliation.

There are limited choices for Britain in this situation. However, this does not mean the British government has to stand by idly as China tears up the agreement that protects Hong Kong’s autonomy. With the recent passage of a new national security law, China appears to have crossed the line. Boris Johnson has now promised that if the national security law is implemented then Britain will respond by providing a visa extension and path to citizenship for British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders in Hong Kong. As China’s grip around Hong Kong continues to tighten, this could become an essential escape route for almost three million Hongkongers.

China-sceptic Conservatives have spent the past year making the case for unilaterally granting British citizenship to Hongkongers with BNO passports. For months, the May and Johnson Governments refused to follow this path, believing it would only provoke China into further undermining the Sino-British Joint Declaration. By changing course so dramatically, Boris Johnson has shown the first sign of a new direction in Britain’s dealings with China. 

At this point, this China skepticism has not turned into outright hostility, but it is gaining strength in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. China’s attempts to cover up the initial outbreak in Wuhan province has made Conservatives more aware of the dangers posed by Beijing’s behavior. The immense pressure put on the National Health Service (NHS) also exposed how vulnerable British supply chains have become due to dependency on imported Chinese goods. This has required a significant scaling-up of the domestic manufacture of ventilators and other medical devices to support the NHS. 

There is now work being led by the Foreign Secretary within government to review the extent of Britain’s reliance on China and the vulnerabilities this has created within the national security infrastructure. After a decade of growing ties with China, Boris Johnson is preparing to reset Britain’s economic and diplomatic relations with China on a more balanced basis. Boris Johnson might revert to his predecessors’ point of view, but China skepticism within the Conservative party and the broader political mainstream looks set to only grow.

Free from the European Union, Britain has an opportunity to redefine its role in the world. With a strong majority in Parliament, Boris Johnson has the power to ensure that taking back control from Brussels does not lead to simply handing it over to Beijing.

David A. Cowan is a writer based in London, UK, and is a graduate of the University of Cambridge.