Boris Johnson ambiguous on China, Hong Kong

July 25, 2019 08:01
As Britain's new prime minister, Boris Johnson may find himself torn between the conflicting interests of China and the United States, two of the country's biggest trade partners. Photo: Bloomberg

Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He defeated Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in an election decided by 160,000 members of the Conservative Party.

There are several burning issues waiting for him on his desk at 10 Downing Street. One is relations with China and Hong Kong.

On July 4, Hunt said that China could face “serious consequences” over its treatment of protesters in Hong Kong. “We are keeping our options open,” he said, and refused to rule out sanctions.

The same day a report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the British Parliament said that the country should reassess its “golden era” policy with China, which put economic interests above security concerns.

“The values and interests of the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore the Chinese state, are often very different from those of the UK,” said Tom Tugendhat, Conservative chair of the committee.

These comments draw a sharp rebuke from Liu Xiaoming, China’s top diplomat in London and the country’s only ambassador to criticize publicly the violence of the Hong Kong protesters.

He said Britain should stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. “We all remember what Hong Kong was 22 years ago, under British rule. There was no freedom or democracy,” he said.

Johnson has promised to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31. One of the main rationales of Brexit is to enable London to make trade deals on its own, without the EU. China and the United States are the two biggest partners for such a deal.

After Brexit, Beijing believes, it has a strong negotiating hand with London for a trade deal. Britain receives more Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) than any other EU country and is one of Beijing’s top three trade partners in Europe.

The Chinese state is investing heavily in Britain. In May 2018, it purchased the historic Royal Mint, built in 1805, for its new embassy. Property analysts put the price at 750 million pounds (US$937.68 million). This striking building is close to the River Thames and the City of London.

How will Johnson handle the negotiations? He is close to David Cameron and George Osborne, the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, from 2010 to 2016, before the Brexit referendum. The two declared a “golden era” in Sino-UK relations and approved a Chinese firm to build a new generation of nuclear plants; they courted the Chinese leaders.

After leaving office, Cameron founded the UK-China Fund. But, 18 months after being set up, it still had not been able to raise its target of half of the US$1 billion total. Osborne wants to head the International Monetary Fund; for this, he needs the support of Beijing, which has, with the US, the largest individual weight of votes on the board.

All this points to Johnson seeking the help of Beijing to sign a good trade deal. He will need continued heavy Chinese investment in Britain, whose GDP will slow, if not fall, after Brexit.

China is also an important source of students for Britain. According to official figures released this month, 19,760 Chinese applied to study at British universities this year, up 30 percent over 2018, and more than the 18,520 from Northern Ireland.

With such an agenda, the demands of Hong Kong people for more rights and democracy will not be high on Johnson’s list of priorities.

But it is hard to say. During the election campaign, he avoided specific promises. One senior British civil servant said that Johnson “was impossible to dislike and impossible to respect”. He is detested by EU leaders who regard him a political lightweight and consider that, as one of the main architects of Brexit, he lied to and misled his own people.

The British media call his policies “cakeism” – he once said that he was for having the cake and eating it too – that is to say, avoid hard choices.

Complicating the picture further is the fact that, of British political leaders, he is the closest to Donald Trump; the US president strongly supported him during the election. Johnson is likely to fly to Washington in September to see Trump for his first foreign visit after assuming office.

Trump has his own agenda for the UK. He demands a ban on Chinese telecom firm Huawei taking part in Britain’s 5G network; this is one of the first decisions Johnson will have to make. Ambassador Liu warned that a ban on Huawei would have bad effects on trade and investment. Trump wants his allies, especially Britain, to follow his anti-China policies.

So will a ban on Huawei be the price for Britain to get a favorable trade deal with Washington?

The new Prime Minister will be trapped in the middle between Beijing and Washington, the two governments he most needs for major trade deals. It is hard to see where the demands and aspirations of Hong Kong people appear on his list of priorities.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.