The forecast for British-Chinese relations in 2018: a storm on the horizon

BY Martin Thorley   /  11 January 2018

As vague, well-worn pronouncements on the rise of China give way to the complex reality of increasing Chinese power, a number of countries have begun to seriously consider the influence of the Party-State within their own borders. The factors that have triggered debate in countries such as Australia and New Zealand are also to be found in the UK. Yet at the same time, Brexit changes the calculus of engagement. Britain is soliciting more trade and investment from further afield. The upshot might well be a tumultuous year for British-Chinese relations.

From Chinese tech giant Huawei’s courting of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats during their coalition government, to the astonishing decision to move forward with the French-Chinese backed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, there is no shortage of links that merit further scrutiny.

In the course of my own research, it’s been fascinating to observe how the Hinkley Point project has united all manner of experts (engineers, physicists, environmentalists, China specialists, business analysists) in fierce criticism of the project as it stands. Despite serious doubts over the practicality of the project that saw two of French energy giant EDF’s directors resign in protest, as well as widespread claims that it was a terrible deal for British consumers, supporters eventually pushed the deal through. Chinese state-run China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) will own a third of the project, with plans to lead construction of further nuclear power stations in the UK.

The deal is only a small part of a wider phenomenon. Though increased interactions with China, including trade and investment, are to be welcomed, there are a growing number of elite linkages developing in tandem. Rather than seeking out characters in Le Carré novels, the focus should be on strategic influence that impels certain behaviour. As ever more numerous debates around the globe attest, the reach of the Chinese Party-State is becoming problematic.

These issues are not limited to politics and business. Take academia, for instance. When organising a debate on China at Durham University recently, students were reportedly contacted by the Chinese embassy and warned against hosting a politically sensitive speaker. To its credit, the university didn’t interfere with the debate on that occasion. Nonetheless, the incident does perhaps reveal new pressures that universities face.

At the University of Cambridge, a £3.7m donation to fund the Centre of Development Studies and an associated professorship was revealed to have come from the family of former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao through a convoluted chain. One academic at the time noted that “it seems a foreign government appointed a professor of politics at Cambridge”. This comes at a time when Chinese academic institutions face the biggest crackdown on their academic freedoms for a generation.

Huawei’s hiring practices and the University of Cambridge donation were revealed by the Daily Telegraph. However, after those particular stories broke, the Telegraph signed an agreement to offer the monthly supplement “China Watch” to its readers, made up exclusively of stories written by China Daily. Though the content is not likely to change too many readers’ minds on China, might the £750,000 annual income it pulls in for the Telegraph raise questions about wider China coverage in the paper?

The Telegraph’s own chief political correspondent, Peter Oborne, resigned over the matter in 2015, claiming that stories critical of HSBC were discouraged after the bank pulled advertising in response to criticism. Oborne even mentioned his fears about the impact of the “China Watch” income in his resignation letter. He may have been less than impressed when his new employer, the Daily Mail, signed its own content-sharing agreement with China’s People’s Daily in 2016.

To be clear, the world will benefit from increased exposure to China, not only in terms of trade but also culture, language and friendship. Let’s not conflate a people with its representatives – China contains myriad viewpoints and worldviews, the official voice of which is only one. Participants in the British branch of this debate must also ensure it doesn’t descend into unfounded suspicion of the vibrant British-Chinese community.

As the British government promotes international trade and investment in the run up to Brexit, tension in Hong Kong is one of many issues coming into sharper focus. At the same time, the UK boasts the sort of links with the Party-State that have recently fallen under intense scrutiny in Chinese influence debates around the world. Britain may be forced to ask difficult questions about the nature of its relationship with China. Will it tolerate increasing Party-State influence inside its borders – and can it afford not to?

This article was originally published on The Conversation 

Martin Thorley is a PhD candidate in Contemporary Chinese Studies and International Relations, University of Nottingham