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Thursday briefing: What we learned from the foreign secretary’s trip to China

In today’s newsletter: James Cleverly met senior Chinese officials for talks in Beijing – was there anything to gain?

By Helen Pidd

August 31, 2023

James Cleverly and Han Zheng in Beijing. Photograph: Florence Lo/AFP/Getty Images

Good morning, or perhaps 你好 (nǐ hǎo). Hopefully James Cleverly got at least that far on Duolingo before the UK foreign secretary’s plane touched down in Beijing this week on a trip aimed at resetting ties after a long period of tension over security, investment and human rights concerns at home and abroad.

It was the first visit to China by a UK foreign secretary for five years. Remember the last time, when Jeremy Hunt somehow ended up announcing that his Chinese wife was Japanese? Very odd.

The meeting also comes at a time when many on the Conservative backbenches are urging a more hawkish approach on China. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, one of a number of MPs sanctioned by China for speaking out about human rights abuses, dismissed the visit as “a waste of time”, saying the government should not “bend a knee” to China.

So should the UK be cosying up to an authoritarian country that brutally suppresses and enslaves its Uyghur Muslim minority and let one of its most senior diplomats beat up a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist in Manchester last year? For today’s newsletter, I chew through the issues with Tania Branigan, the Guardian’s China correspondent from 2008 to 2015 and author of Red Memory, a book about the Cultural Revolution.

In depth: ‘The reality is that everybody needs to engage with China’

James Cleverly attends a meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing, China. Photograph: Florence Lo/EPA

Why is this trip happening now?

“Cleverly is the latest in a stream of western visitors trying to reset relations after the pandemic years and general deterioration in ties,” says Tania Branigan. “In a post-Brexit world, Britain is touting for business where it can, which is why you have also seen trade secretary Kemi Badenoch in India in the past week.”

Never mind that the UK’s intelligence and security committee recently concluded that the single greatest risk to the UK is China’s ambition to become a technological and economic superpower on which other countries are reliant.

Cleverly had been scheduled to visit in July but the trip was postponed amid the mysterious disappearance and subsequent sacking of China’s former foreign minister, Qin Gang.

Wednesday’s meetings – with Han Zheng, the vice-president who attended King Charles’s coronation, and foreign minister Wang Yi – mark a break with the short-lived Liz Truss era of Anglo-Chinese relations, which saw Truss declare China an official “threat”. In recent years, the government has cut Chinese investment from the Sizewell C nuclear power plant and pledged to remove Chinese technology from Britain’s 5G network amid security concerns.

Cleverly told the BBC that disengagement was “not a credible option”, and declared the UK “open for business from China” – as long as it doesn’t affect British security. It is still a long way from the UK-China relationship of 2015, when the Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, and David Cameron toasted a “golden era” of Anglo-Chinese relations over a pint at a Buckinghamshire pub. (You may remember a Chinese firm later swooped in and bought the pub, with plans to replicate it across China.)

What about human rights concerns?

Cleverly’s office said he held “detailed discussions” about the Uyghurs and the erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and also raised the case of Jimmy Lai, the jailed Hong Kong media mogul and pro-democracy activist who faces life in prison if convicted under the security law.

In contrast, when George Osborne visited China as chancellor in 2015 – including Xinjiang, home to the repressed Uyghur minority – a Chinese state-run newspaper praised him for not “raising the human rights issue”.

Asked by the BBC if the Chinese “cared” about the UK concerns on human rights, Cleverly said: “I genuinely do think they care. They do. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. There would be no incentive for senior Chinese government officials to meet me if they didn’t care about what the UK thinks and the UK does.”

Welcoming Cleverly, Wang Yi said: “I believe that as long as both sides adhere to mutual respect, equal treatment, view each other’s development objectively, and enhance mutual understanding and trust, Sino-British relations will be able to eliminate all unnecessary interference and obstacles.”

You’ll notice he made no acknowledgment of Cleverly’s concerns. “What we see is an increasingly ideological China which is less and less responsive to criticisms raised, whether on human rights or any other issue,” says Tania.

It will not have escaped Beijing’s notice that Rishi Sunak called China a “systemic challenge to our values and interests” shortly after becoming prime minister last year.

Why don’t we treat China as a pariah state?

Opponents of the Chinese Communist party gather opposite Downing Street and march to the Chinese embassy in London. Photograph: Thomas Krych/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

“It’s just not an option,” Tania says. “The reality is that everybody needs to engage with China, whether that’s on international issues such as global heating, or economic issues.” It is worth noting that it is the UK’s fourth-largest trading partner.

Simply acting tough on China isn’t enough: “People are going to have to think much more carefully how to find issues where the Chinese leadership needs to act, or wants to act.”

On the climate crisis, for instance, China is the problem and the solution. As Cleverly noted in a speech earlier this year: “China has pumped more carbon into the atmosphere in the last 10 years than this country has since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.”

But it is also one of the world’s major producers of solar panels and batteries for electric cars, and has 96% of the world’s gallium market, a metal used in semiconductors, transistors and very small electronic devices.

Does China need anything from us?

“Good question!” says Tania. She thinks that given US-China tensions, Beijing wants to improve European relations damaged by its stance on Ukraine – Xi Jinping declared a “no limits” friendship with Russia weeks before Putin ordered troops to invade last February and has remained at Moscow’s side.

Plus China’s economy is in a “very precarious place”. Last year, for the first time since Mao’s death in 1976, China’s economy grew no faster than the world economy, with future dominance threatened by its declining and ageing population.

But ultimately, China “feels like somewhere that is much more suspicious to the outside world, and which needs other places less. It’s becoming not just much more forceful in foreign affairs but also much more inward looking, thinking about how to cut its dependence on other places.”

The truth, says Tania, is that China “is going to be increasingly hard to do business with”.


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