24 October 2016
When Xi Jinping visited Britain last year, it highlighted what he and British Prime Minister David Cameron (above left with Xi) hailed as a new golden era in relations. But Brexit means China will need another partner to be its best advocate within the EU
When Xi Jinping visited Britain last year, it highlighted what he and British Prime Minister David Cameron (above left with Xi) hailed as a new golden era in relations. But Brexit means China will need another partner to be its best advocate within the EU

For China, Brexit may be a blessing in disguise

The British referendum on quitting the European Union, which is causing tremors across Europe, is being used by China to strengthen its argument against democracy.

On Friday, the state-owned Global Times newspaper published an editorial that painted a gloomy picture not only of Britain but of Europe.

Already, it said, a lose-lose situation was emerging with both the British pound and the euro falling in value.

It also pointed out that Britain may face another independence referendum in Scotland while there are calls in the Netherlands and France to exit the EU.

In its heyday, the editorial said, the UK “was known as an empire on which the sun never set, with colonies all over the world”.

Today, however, the UK was stepping backward.

“Britons are already showing a losing mindset. They may become citizens of a nation that prefers to shut itself from the outside world.”

Not only is Britain’s exit from Europe a sign of British decline, Global Times said, it also “reflects the general decline of Europe”.

In the past, it said, “the world’s center used to lie on the two sides of the Atlantic. Now the focus has shifted to the Pacific”.

So, even though Brexit creates economic problems for China as well — President Xi Jinping had called on the UK to remain in the EU during his state visit last October — it cannot refrain from gloating over the plight that the UK and EU are in.

The article looked at the referendum’s outcome, where “leave” supporters gained 51.9 percent of the vote.

“The ‘leave’ advocates had been calculating whether their pensions were guaranteed or migrants were encroaching on their neighborhood,” it said. “Bigger topics such as the country’s aspirations or its global strategy were overlooked.”

Such a thing, it seemed to imply, couldn’t happen in China, whose leaders would never change course or step down simply because a majority of the population disagreed with their policies.

A referendum has never been held in the country’s history and it has always said that Taiwan, which it claims, is not entitled to determine its own future through a referendum.

Last year, when Xi visited the UK, both countries were loudly proclaiming a new golden era in relations, with Britain promising to be China’s best advocate within the EU.

China asked Britain to persuade other EU member states to recognize it as a market economy. With Britain leaving the EU, China will need another advocate.

Only two days before the referendum, Global Times had taken note that the UK “has backed China’s market economy status” within the EU.

Such a status will make it difficult to charge China with dumping in the World Trade Organization.

The morning after the referendum, a China Daily commentary noted that some Chinese had seen the UK as a sort of bridgehead into the EU, since “setting up a business in the UK involves far less red tape than places such as France, Germany or Italy”.

Clearly, such issues will still need to be worked out.

As a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, Brexit would “have repercussions in various ways, including but not limited to bilateral relations between China and the UK”.

From a strategic global standpoint, China had long favored a strong Europe in a multipolar world to prevent dominance by a single superpower, the United States.

Recent years, however, have seen the increasing emergence of a bipolar global situation, with China competing with the US for influence, with Europe receding in strategic and military significance.

In an essentially bipolar world, from Beijing’s standpoint a fragmented Europe may not necessarily be a bad thing since Europe, especially Britain, has historically been America’s closest ally, although virtually all EU countries have aligned themselves with China from an economic standpoint, such as by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

As far as the Chinese Communist Party is concerned, Brexit is the latest example of the folly of faith in democracy.

As Global Times pointed out, the slim majority of “leave” supporters consisted of people who ignored what was important for the country as a whole, focusing instead on personal issues, such as pensions.

The Global Times editorial concluded: “For the Chinese people, who are at a critical time to learn about globalization and democracy, they will continue to watch the consequence of Britain’s embracing of a ‘democratic’ referendum.”

It is clear that the Communist Party hopes that the tumultuous events in Europe will enhance its legitimacy as the Chinese people draw the appropriate lessons about the failings of democracy.

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

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