On China, Boris Johnson trapped between rock and hard place

March 18, 2021 12:17
Photo: Reuters

On February 12, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a group of British companies active in China that he was “fervently Sinophile” and determined to improve ties “whatever the occasional political difficulties”.

On Saturday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared that, after passing sweeping political reforms for Hong Kong, China was in a “state of ongoing non-compliance” with the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

Last week China’s Foreign Ministry summoned Caroline Wilson, Britain’s ambassador to China , to criticise an article she wrote on the embassy WeChat account praising the foreign media in China.

“Her article was full of arrogance and ideological prejudice,” the ministry said. The Chinese government and people oppose the publishing of “fake news” viciously attacking China, the Chinese Communist Party and the system of China under the pretext of “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech”.

These rows are the latest as relations between the two countries deteriorate to their lowest level in many years. Other disputes involve the admission to Britain of Hong Kong people with BNO passports, treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and banning CGTN from British airwaves.

The Chinese and British business communities are watching this rift with growing alarm. They ask what price they will have to pay for the mutual hostility.

In 2019, total bilateral trade in goods and services between the UK and China registered double-digit growth to reach a record high.

In its 2020 Position Paper, the British Chamber of Commerce in China said: “both countries must push forward with discussions on a free trade agreement (FTA). As our second largest non-EU trading partner, we call on the UK to include China among the prioritised partners with which the UK is negotiating an FTA. The UK’s approach to China must be balanced and informed and must not be swayed by external political pressures. An interconnected world and open markets are crucial for supporting growth and creating new opportunities, but the past few months have demonstrated the ease with which populist and protectionist politics can disrupt international relationships and increase business risk. The UK and China must resist this urge.” Like other foreign firms, British companies argue that China will grow faster than any other major economy this year – six to eight per cent -- and they must not be put at a handicap.

The freedom to negotiate such FTAs was one of the main arguments advanced by those who campaigned for Brexit. Out of the EU, Britain will not benefit from the trade and investment agreement the EU has signed with China. Last year, the UK economy shrank by 9.9 per cent, the worst among G7 countries, because of Covid-19.

In an article published last month, the China Daily said that the UK could not have it both ways. “The UK Prime Minister and his government cannot expect to save the country’s economy by developing economic co-operation with China while at the same time besmirching China’s image with totally groundless accusations. The political differences between the two countries that Johnson spoke of are those contrived by the UK, and he can swiftly resolve them by committing to cease and desist.”

The worsening tension is bad news also for the large Chinese business community in Britain. According to Chinese figures, in 2020, there were 838 Chinese firms in the country with an annual revenue of at least five million pounds. They employed 75,239 people, up from 71,000 a year earlier.
Britain was among the most popular destinations in Europe for Chinese investment last year, accounting for almost one third of all deals, the figures said.

Bao Ling, a minister at China’s embassy in the UK, said that the atmosphere in bilateral relations was not so welcoming. “This calls for genuine efforts from both sides to strengthen dialogue and seek common ground.”

Many in Britain hold China responsible for spreading Covid-19. Last month, a Chinese lecturer in Southampton was injured by four young white men who shouted “Chinese virus” and told him to go home.

Johnson is trapped between a rock and a hard place. Some in his Conservative Party have called the treatment of the Uighurs “genocide”. If the government agreed with them, there would not be FTA with China.

With his government preoccupied with the pandemic, how can Johnson balance the rival demands of politics and business?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.