Britain, China and Li Keqiang
Despite the low prominence given to the Chinese Premier in the British press last week, you may have noticed that he – Li Keqiang – made a three day visit to the UK which secured over £14bn of trade deals and showed that Sino-British relations are back to normal after David Cameron’s controversial meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012 that angered Beijing.
That meeting well and truly upset the Beijing government, and relations between the two countries were almost frozen. But the change of government in China – with president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang – seeked to ease tensions, and separate visits by George Osborne and David Cameron to China last year paved the way for Li’s visit to our shores this month. President Xi still snubbed Britain on his pan-European tour earlier in the year, but just the fact that the premier came to the UK is a positive sign of thawed relations.
Aside from the economic deals, Mr Li said that one of his main intentions during his visit was to put right the many misconceptions that people in the west – especially in the UK – have about China. The majority of people in the country probably didn’t either notice or care about his visit, and so I doubt he succeeded in doing so. So I shall try.
China has a lot of issues. Corruption is a culture embodied in its society, from villages and farms right up to central government, human rights abuses are still commonplace in a society that remains largely cruel in nature, corporate and individual pollution and environmental issues are worse than ever, there are growing inequalities between the favoured Eastern Seaboard and the sidelined non-Han western regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, and the largely unreported interference from central government into Hong Kong’s supposedly autonomous affairs and press.
But the west must learn to embrace China. China is on a journey – a journey of rapid development both economically and socially. While it is showing no signs of political development, its economic growth is unprecedented and its society is changing too. Although the West enjoys reveling in amusing stories of Chinese women sunbathing in full body morph suit bikinis, Chinese teenagers taking cabbages for walks instead of dogs, and wealthy Chinese men doing and buying all manner of things, we must remember that this is a vast country of well over a billion people and the news-worthy and laugh-inducing acts of a small slice of China’s growing middle class does not represent a nation of people that traditionally and even still values humility, collectivism and modesty.
China has also come under criticism for its neo-colonisation of large swathes of Africa in recent years. In return for mass infrastructure investment, it gets first dibs on the many untapped resources in the continent, but this is really not as bad or imperialist as people make out. China needs a lot of resources, and China has a lot of money. Using that money to build infrastructure and mega projects in return for resources is logical and a winning situation for all parties. China is not seeking to influence people or politics in these countries or exert its power through culture or anything else. It is a mere exchange of needs: infrastructure going one way and resources going the other, and is far more effective in aiding African development than the massive aid handouts that the West has been trying for the last 50 years.
Of course, China knows it is powerful. But this is not a country that is seeking to take over the world. It has a vast military that is growing in manpower and resources every year, but it wants this to protect itself, not take over any countries or start any unnecessary wars. China wants to be a peaceful power, and ignorant people across the West still lump it in with North Korea for no reason whatsoever. Yes, it is totally irresponsible in the South China Sea and it likes to annoy the Japanese, but it would be extremely hesitant in starting any actual physical conflicts.
China has also made progress in a number of areas, and current president Xi Jinping has at least done some things right – his massive crusade against corruption is cleaning up both politics and business slowly but surely, making it much easier and safer for, for example, British companies to do business in and with the country.
I also note how no one in Britain is bemoaning the £14bn Mr Li has just given us. But plenty of commentators cry foul each and every time the Chinese conjure up such deals in Africa or elsewhere in Asia. We need China, and we all know it. Only heads of state on official state visits are usually honored with a royal audience with the Queen, but Li – a mere head of government, not state – demanded he was afforded the opportunity to meet Her Majesty, a request we gave into. And the Chinese ambassador to London told the British press on the eve of Li’s visit that Britain was only the third biggest power in Europe, well behind Germany and France. China can wield this chalice all they wish and we must merely obey.
But we obey with good reason. The US is falling and although Europe is stable right now, we must continue to look to China for large trade and investment deals. Yes, we must retain the right balance between economic and moral principles, and it is right for us and the rest of the world to continue nudging China about its human rights record, but we must make no qualms about the fact that right now, as the UK economy starts to grow and slowly thrive once more, we certainly need China on our side.
Hopefully, Li Keqiang’s visit last week further normalised diplomatic relations after that Dalai Lama meeting, and hopefully those £14bn worth of trade deals will widely benefit us.