New China ambassador lands in London into nest of hornets

June 17, 2021 06:00

For Zheng Zeguang , the post of ambassador to the United Kingdom was supposed to be the climax of a stellar 35-year career. Instead, he finds himself in a nest of hornets.

A vice-minister of Foreign Affairs since 2015, Zheng took up his post last week with a video speech in which he said closer co-operation between the two countries will “serve the interests of both sides and contribute to world peace, stability and prosperity.”

He will have his work cut out. On June 4, a short distance from his embassy in central London, a tribunal opened public hearings to “investigate China’s alleged genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslim populations.”

Its website has versions in simplified Chinese, Russian, Urdu and Uyghur as well as English. At the hearings, Uyghur exiles described forced abortions, arbitrary arrests and forced labour in Xinjiang. Beijing has denounced the tribunal and refused to take part. One day will Zheng have to go before it and present his government’s case?

Human rights are also overshadowing what should be one highlight of Zheng’s term – the move of his embassy to the former Royal Mint overlooking the Thames in the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London.

At the handover ceremony in 2018, Zheng’s predecessor said that the embassy would become a “new landmark in London”.

But, in March, the council of Tower Hamlets voted to consider naming roads and building in the area surrounding the embassy as Tiananmen Square, Uyghur Court, Hong Kong Road and Tibet Hill to “show support for the freedom and diversity of our borough”.

Of its population, 38 per cent are Muslim, the highest proportion of any borough in London.

All this leaves Zheng in a tight corner. Any television channel would give him prime time to defend China – but he is highly constrained in what he can say by the guidelines laid down by his superiors.

When he turns to the business file, however, a smile returns to his face. In 2020, bilateral trade in goods and service between the UK and the mainland was 79 billion pounds, with an additional 21.9 billion generated in Hong Kong. That lifted China to the rank of Britain’s third largest trading partner, after the U.S. and Germany.

As of the end of 2020, cumulative British investment in China totaled 10.7 billion pounds, with a year-on-year increase of 30.7 per cent during 2020, according to figures from the British Chamber of Commerce in China.

Last month the British Sunday Times newspaper put Chinese and Hong Kong investment in Britain at 135 billion pounds, of which 44 billion came from state firms, including stakes in Thames Water, Heathrow Airport and Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant and 57 billion in shares of blue-chip FTSE firms.

Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservative Party, said that the figures showed how dangerously Britain was sailing toward Chinese control of key aspects of its business. “China poses the single greatest threat to the UK and the free world and we must make sure that we understand exactly how they set about essentially controlling key areas of economies, not only in the UK but also abroad.”

This is a common opinion within the ruling party. But government policy is contradictory and ambiguous.

“China is a systemic competitor, an authoritarian state which presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security,” said the Integrated Review, an official foreign policy document released in March.

“Britain will continue to pursue a positive economic relationship, including deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the U.K.,” it also said.

This leaves Ambassador Zheng plenty of room to exploit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is erratic and inconsistent. He told a meeting of Chinese businessmen earlier this year that he was a “fervent Sinophile”.

The Conservatives are the party of money and business. One of the main objectives of Brexit is to sign individual trade agreements with major markets, of which China is the largest.

Britain badly needs inward investment to offset the fall in GDP that has resulted from leaving the EU; companies choose to build factories and headquarters within the single market and not outside it.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.