In the past year, the ruling Conservative party in the UK worked to secure a “special relationship” with China. As a result, London has kept quieter about hacking, persecution in Xinjiang, and the South China Sea compared to its Western peers. Meanwhile, British investors have thrown their weight behind One Belt, One Road projects and London was one of the first Western nations to back Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. These efforts were punctuated by a red carpet state visit by Xi Jinping last October.
However, there is growing dissension in the Tory ranks, with some Conservative MPs pushing for a less acquiescent posture in Sino-UK relations. The Financial Times reports:
A scathing report on China’s human rights record by members of Britain’s governing Conservative party has taken aim at a relationship that party leaders have hailed as a “golden era” for both countries.
The open dissent on the pro-China policy pursued by George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, comes as the Conservatives are being riven by the results of last week’s vote to take Britain out of the EU.
“It cannot be in Britain’s interest, or that of the wider world, to witness a lack of respect for human rights or the rule of law by any country with whom we seek to have a meaningful relationship, without challenging this when we become aware of it,” says the report. “In the relationship between the United Kingdom and China, we must make it clear that we are on the side of the people of China.”
The report comes at a complicated time. Britain is likely to need China more than ever after its divorce from the EU common market; committing to “meeting regularly with prominent human rights activists, including the Dalai Lama”, as the report recommends, is probably not the best diplomatic call in that context. Analysts familiar with Chinese politics agree:
“This report could not have come at a worse time,” said Xie Tao, a politics professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “China currently feels sympathetic for the UK in the wake of Brexit; this could turn public opinion against [Britain].”
China has not sounded very happy about Brexit overall, with Premier Li Keqiang expressing concern that traumatized EU markets will hurt China’s already-suffering exports. Still, Beijing has largely stood by Britain in the days following the Brexit vote, with many Chinese investors seeing opportunities in real estate investment and tourism. One of the China’s most successful firms, Huawei, announced it would not back away from planned investments in Britain.
The Tory paper cited several cases in which international human rights pressure has been effective, but the reality is more complicated. China has often doubled down in response to international criticism in an effort to demonstrate nationalist strength at home. Moreover, British hostility could stoke Chinese Anglophobia.
Perhaps most importantly, a post-Brexit UK will be negotiating with China from a weaker position. The Chinese international property portal Juwai describes the UK as “one of the smallest countries in the G7” and primarily a “popular destination for property shopping”—hardly the characterization of an equal partner. Once the UK has to enter into trade negotiations on its own, London will be in an even worse position to secure human rights improvements. That’s something the Brits might have to get to used to now.