20 June 2019

Britain eats humble pie as China turns the table

British Prime Minister David Cameron was fêted by China’s leaders during his three-day trip to the country but much of his diet consisted of humble pie, which he manfully swallowed, pointing to “a visit that has delivered almost £6 billion worth of deals,” (about US$9 billion), including one to export pig semen to raise the quality of Chinese pork.

China refused to meet the British leader after he saw the Dalai Lama in May last year and ostracized him for 18 months until Cameron was suitably contrite and said he did not support Tibetan independence and had no plans to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader again.

When he saw Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, Cameron again repeated the mantra that Britain recognizes that Tibet is part of China and does not support Tibet’s independence.

In fact, during his visit, Cameron volunteered Britain to be China’s champion in Europe. “Some in Europe and elsewhere see the world changing and want to shut China off behind a bamboo curtain of trade barriers,” Cameron said. “Britain wants to tear those trade barriers down.”

The British leader was silent on China’s trade and investment barriers. In fact, his strong advocacy of a free trade agreement between the European Union and China seemed to brush aside E.U. reservations about Chinese protectionist measures, including requiring foreign partners to hand over their technology to Chinese joint-venture partners.

The Cameron visit exemplifies the difficulty of the European Union in holding negotiations with China, such as the current talks on an investment treaty.

While Brussels tries to implement a European policy vis-à-vis China, each of the 28 member countries has its own China policy, geared to its national advantage.

Thus, Cameron was clearly trying to score points for Britain with China, regardless of E.U. concerns over such things as reciprocity.

When Premier Li met his British counterpart, he called Britain “a major country in the European Union,” one that played an important role in China-E.U. relations, and voiced the hope that Britain would help to deepen China’s relations with Europe.

However, the official Chinese media sounded a very different note. In fact, state paper Global Times made it clear that Britain was not indispensable and that there were plenty of other European countries willing to play the role of China’s advocate within the European Union.

In an editorial, the Global Times went so far as to say that China needs to “make London pay the price when it intrudes into the interests of China.”

Despite Cameron bending over backward to try to please, the editorial lambasted the British leader, saying that “the U.K. is highly ‘replaceable’ in China’s Europe diplomacy.”

China is an expert at applying the principle of divide and rule. After then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy met the Dalai Lama in December 2008, China isolated France and cultivated other European countries, such as Germany and Britain.

Similarly, after Cameron’s meeting with the Tibetan leader in 2012, China froze Britain out and pursued economic accords with other European countries.

On the trade side, disarray within the E.U. was evident in the case of the dispute over solar panel exports from China, which had taken 80 percent of the European market share, causing German manufacturers to crumble. Even so, there was little appetite on the part of Germany and other European countries to take on China for fear of retaliation, especially after China threatened sanctions on German cars and French wine.

The Global Times editorial was remarkable in that it said Britain should recognize that it is no longer considered by China to be a major power but “just an old European country apt for travel and study.”

This is a colossal putdown of the United Kingdom. In the late 1950s, when Britain was still a power to be reckoned with, Chairman Mao Zedong launched a campaign of rapid industrialization called the Great Leap Forward and called on China to catch up with Britain in such areas as steel production in 15 years.

China’s attitude today is understandable when looking at the yardstick it uses for measuring a country’s importance. In 1957, Britain produced 22 million tons of steel while China’s production was less than a quarter of that.

However, 55 years later, China has become the largest steel producer in the world, accounting for 46.3 percent of global production in 2012. Last year, while Britain produced 9.8 million tons of steel, China produced 716.5 million tons, or 73 times more.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward goal of catching up with the United Kingdom has been fulfilled in spades.



Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe