Beijing to Britain

HSBC, rethinking geopolitics, Johnsons & Raab on China


There seems to be universal agreement that the UK needs an updated ‘China Strategy’. This would inform Government and Whitehall thinking, provide the necessary clarity to businesses operating between both countries, and help outline Britain’s ambitions on the global stage.

In its absence, political views on what this strategy should be are polarised. At its simplest, two loose schools of thought have emerged in Westminster. One calls for a fundamental reset of British relations with China. Any forward relationship must take place through a Western values system, championing human rights over trade. The other school pushes for a realpolitik approach; while the so-called ‘Golden Era’ may be over, it is better to keep China at the table through diplomacy and trade - without these, the UK has no leverage or bargaining chips. It’s worth noting that neither school believes that an enriched Chinese middle class will steer the country towards democracy.

The majority of China-centric politicians in the UK can roughly be placed into one of these schools, although their views often change depending on the issue at play. Crucially overlooked is the presence of a handful of key advisors and campaigners, who have played a significant and influential role in forcing the Government’s hand on China.

And so ‘Beijing to Britain’ was born - a weekly overview of the ebbs and flows of this discussion, and how it impacts politics, the private sector and society.

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  • Prime Minister’s remarks to British businesses in China

  • Johnson & Johnson cause headache for Johnson

  • Foreign Secretary statement at UN Human Rights Council


  • HSBC reports full year results, pivot to Asia

  • Chinese investment in the UK

  • Geoeconomics - a new essay


  • Rana Mitter on soft power

First, a quick look at this week for China in Parliament

  • 24 mentions of China

  • 2 mentions of Xi Jinping

  • 5 mentions of Hong Kong

  • 3 mentions of Uyghurs

  • 0 mentions of CCP

  • 0 mentions of Magnitsky

  • 589 out of 650 MPs (90.6%) have a Twitter account.

Who’s asking what?

Order! Order!

Some of the more notable questions asked of the Government this week

  • Lord (Philip) Hammond of Runnymede askedHer Majesty's Government what progress they have made towards the development of a new British Embassy in Beijing; and whether permission for the construction of that new embassy has been approved by the government of China.”

  • Matthew Pennycook askedthe Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whether he has made a recent estimate of levels of Chinese investment in West Cumbria Mining Ltd’s proposed Woodhouse Colliery deep coal mine project in Whitehaven, West Cumbria.”


An understandably irate Minister Ma Hui of the Chinese Embassy in London. Minister Ma spent a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon tweeting at the Guardian newspaper for using a picture of an Air China Cargo plane to illustrate a story of a Boeing 747 losing parts mid-flight over the Netherlands (Air China had no part in the incident). Ma’s multiple threads accused the Guardian of poor practise, and he concluded:

当地时间2月22日,英国《卫报》报道了一篇题为“一架波音747货机发动机部件在荷兰掉落”的报道,但却配上了一张国货航(中国国际货运航空)飞机的照片...... 英国《卫报》黑国货航这操作,太BBC!

The Embassy has since posted an update on their website.



Three headaches for Johnson, Foreign Secretary on Xinjiang and China

Johnson & Johnson

A story from Patrick Wintour, the Guardian’s well-briefed diplomatic editor, is likely to have caused annoyance at No10. In his piece, Wintour reveals that the Prime Minister held a Downing Street roundtable with Chinese businesses on 12 February to mark Lunar New Year. During this meeting he reportedly told those gathered that he was “fervently Sinophile” and determined to improve ties “whatever the occasional political difficulties”. The only two named companies present at the meeting were Swire Group and Tenacity [both of whom received a mention in the Lords]. A Global Times editorial described the meeting and its fallout:

A day before, it was reported by British media that Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared he was "fervently Sinophile" at a Downing Street roundtable with Chinese businesses. Johnson said he was determined to improve China-UK ties "whatever the occasional political difficulties." The prime minister also signaled he wanted a resumption of formal trade discussions between the two countries by reactivating the Economic and Financial Dialogue and the China-UK Joint Trade and Economic Commission.

Britain has shown two faces. As one of the members of the Five Eyes alliance, London has closely followed Washington's lead in the crusade against China. However, at such a climax, the UK occasionally blew the horn to call for strengthening cooperation with China. People cannot help but ask: Which face of Britain is true? 

This question has increasingly become meaningless. As an old capitalist country, the UK is naturally arrogant and profit-seeking, and showing arrogance has increasingly become a way for it to seek profits. To deal with such a UK, the most important thing for us is to act based on China's interests, instead of indulging London. We should do things favorable to China, making Britain fully aware of who China is. 

In his excellent ‘Slow Chinese’ newsletter, Hampton Group CEO Andrew Methven describes the response online:

My Wechat feed was alive with Chinese media articles about British PM declaring he is ‘fervently Sinophile’ (狂热的亲华派 - Kuáng rè de qīn huá pài) earlier this week.

According to the Chinese media’s interpretation, Boris has laid his cards in the table (摊牌 - Tān pái).

The tentative conclusion is that Boris is actually a genuine Sinophile (真心亲华) after all.

Media coverage is surprisingly restrained, almost positive (overly hopeful?) in tone. Social media users, however, were not so impressed. One comment:


‘Big Mouth Boris’ is no better than Trump. This is nothing more than him saying some empty political words at a political meeting that his guests want to hear.

The use of Sinophile at this time cleverly - perhaps unintentionally - strikes a tone with the current political narrative in China.

During Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson was challenged by Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey on boycotting the Beijing Olympics and taking action on the situation in Xinjiang. The Prime Minister replied:

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the appalling campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has set out the policies that he has—the package of measures to ensure that no British companies are complicit in or profiting from violations. We are leading international action in the UN to hold China to account, and we will continue to work with the US, friends and partners around the world to do just that.

The right hon. Gentleman raises a point about a sporting boycott. We are not normally in favour of sporting boycotts in this country, and that has been the long-standing position of this Government.

A second story emerged in the form of a Twitter thread that appeared on Monday from an anonymous account followed by just shy of 30,000 people.

In the corresponding 10-tweet thread, ‘Nick’ elaborates on the apparent “off-books” diplomacy the Prime Minister has been conducting through his father, Stanley Johnson, and others close to him. They go on to accuse the media of steering clear of the topic, and conclude that it may also be a story generated by infighting at the FCDO. Regardless, their thread has been retweeted nearly 2,000 times and the accusations within will have been viewed by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Twitter users.

Finally, the Prime Minister’s week was capped off by a Sunday Times report on his father Stanley and half-brother Max’s close relationship with China. The piece, ‘Meet China’s best British friends: the Johnson clan’, contains some revealing quotes from the pair:

Stanley: “I know there’s problems as far as Uighurs are concerned. It’s right to draw attention to that. Nonetheless, China is the host of Kunming. And Scotland is still part of the UK. So it’s important for the Chinese and Brits [hosting COP26] to talk closely now.”

Max: The ambiguity in the [UK/China] relationship, he said, was “causing hesitation, which means people don’t necessarily invest”. Regarding human rights as “the only issue that matters” was a “militant, unhinged, crackpot view”.

“We’ve gone from what was an extremely rosy outlook to a more ambiguous tone. And the next question is, where is it heading? It’s that ambiguity, I think, which needs to be cleared up.

“We need to have a multifaceted relationship with a country that is based on politics and economics, and also human rights and cultural exchange. But that means not throwing everything out the window, because one of those issues, so to speak, outweighs all the others.”

Max is uncompromising about the Tory-led groups in Westminster such as the China Research Group, led by Tom Tugendhat, and the Interparliamentary Alliance on China, whose British chapter is run by Iain Duncan Smith. “I’m looking to the future — I think on a longer term. Whereas, you know, there’s unhinged, frankly, factions of Westminster [that] think more short term and are perhaps doing all they can to destabilise,” he said.

“How many of those have actually been to China or, you know, spent any time there?”

Asked about human rights abuses, he is candid. “Hong Kong,” he says, “is part of China ... I think that for people has been hard to understand and has provoked a sort of emotional reaction, and may even hark back to a sort of regret that Hong Kong was handed back.”

He adopts a similar tone on the Uighurs. He “can’t say” whether China hawks are right or wrong about what is going on.


Statements on China

On Monday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab addressed the UN Human Rights Council. His speech covered some of the most pressing current human rights situations and it’s his comments on China merit a closer look.

Raab opened his speech by criticising members of the Council (which currently counts China, Russia and Venezuela among dozens of others as members) for failing to uphold human rights standards:

But, like any institution, we know the Council is not perfect. Some members do not meet the human rights standards we vow to uphold. And the Council’s agenda does not consistently reflect where the most pressing human rights issues are. We need to address that, as well as other institutional concerns. For our part, the UK will continue to engage with all sides to find ways to do so. 

[As readers will recall, there was political conversation around stopping China’s admission to the Council last year, led by Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy.]

Later in his speech, Raab addressed China and Xinjiang directly, in one of the more confrontational statements a senior Government minister has made over the last year:

Now, I must address China. We stand with the growing number of international partners, UN experts and NGOs concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation that we see in China. No one can ignore the evidence anymore.

In Hong Kong, the rights of the people are being systematically violated. The National Security Law is a clear breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and is having a chilling effect on personal freedoms. Free and fair legislative elections must take place, with a range of opposition voices allowed to take part.

In Tibet the situation remains deeply concerning, with access still heavily restricted. Meanwhile, we see almost daily reports now that shine a new light on China’s systematic human rights violations perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. The situation in Xinjiang is beyond the pale. The reported abuses – which include torture, forced labour and forced sterilisation of women – are extreme and they are extensive. They are taking place on an industrial scale. It must be our collective duty to ensure this does not go unanswered.

UN mechanisms must respond. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, or another independent fact-finding expert, must – and I repeat must – be given urgent and unfettered access to Xinjiang. If members of this Human Rights Council are to live up to our responsibilities, there must be a resolution which secures this access.

The UK will live up to our responsibilities. So last month, I announced measures aimed at ensuring that no company profiting from forced labour in Xinjiang can do business in the UK, and that no UK businesses are involved in their supply chains. We will continue to raise our voice for the people of Hong Kong and for minorities in China suffering this appalling treatment. And we urge others who share our commitment to open societies and universal human rights to speak up.

His speech was viewed in some quarters as a toughening of the British stance on the issue, while others criticised the inconsistent nature of the rhetoric coming out of the Government (such as the contrast to Johnson’s statement two weeks earlier to Chinese business).

We think it’s worth highlighting the Chinese Foreign Ministry lines/propaganda on Xinjiang from a press conference recently. At “The 4th Press conference by Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on Xinjiang-related Issues in Beijing” last week, Xu Guixiang, the Deputy Director-General of the Publicity Department of the CPC (Communist Party of China) Xinjiang Autonomous regional Committee, Elijan Anayat, the Spokesman of the People's Government of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and ‘graduated trainees in different trades and profession’ spoke to assorted press.

One of those interviewed was Alimjan Mamatali, a 28 years old Uyghur and ‘graduate trainee of vocational education and training center in Hotan city’. Here’s a snippet of his story:

I ran jade business before and met so-called "friends". They told me that: "Paradise is a more magnificent wonderland where you can have 72 beautiful wives. You will have endless money to spend and a sea of delicacy to enjoy. It is a life-long goal for Muslims." I asked them curiously: "How to enter paradise?" They told me that: "Pray to Allah each day leads to paradise, with participating in jihad and killing pagans as the precondition though."To live in paradise, I believed in their bullshit, hanging out with them all day. Later on, they gave me a passport and a route map of "jihad". They asked me to depart from Guangdong for jihad in other countries. I gave up my businesses so as to realize my dream of "engage in a holy war and die for their beliefs in order to enter paradise."

With a fake passport, I was caught by Guangdong public security organs on my way out. They sent me back to Hotan. Notified by public security organs, I realized that I committed the crime of crossing the border illegally which would be sentenced to no more than 3 years. I was dumbfounded and scared. The paradise I aspired suddenly turned to prison. The police told me that the government set up vocational education and training centers to salvage people like me. He suggested me to study there.

In the vocational education and training center, I studied the Constitution, Criminal Law, Counter-terrorism Law, Regulations on Religious Affairs, Regulations on Deradicalization. I knew the boundary of law and what is the right thing to do. The evil intent violent extremists want us to be slaughter machines and cannon fodder of crime offenders. I realized at that moment that what they told me was fake. "engage in a holy war and die for their beliefs in order to enter heaven" is fake too. I'm deeply regret for my silly behavior which almost devour my life. I would fall into the abyss of evil and be a slaughter machine without rehabilitation from the vocational education and training center. I am so scared when I think of it.

In the vocational education and training center, I've learned marketing management. After graduation, a stable job in the real estate company brings me satisfactory income. I got married last year, and bought a new car. My parents are assured to my changes. We live a good life and are grateful to the vocational education and training center.

Chinese media was also busy. In response to Canada declaring the situation in Xinjiang a genocide, and the UK and USA’s perceived aggression over the region, the Global Times published a series of op-eds.

Canada, the UK and Australia, three members of the Five Eyes alliance, have recently taken action to put pressure on China. They have formed a US-centered, racist, and mafia-styled community, willfully and arrogantly provoking China and trying to consolidate their hegemony as all gangsters do. They are becoming a racist axis aimed at stifling the development rights of 1.4 billion Chinese. - Five Eyes today’s axis of white supremacy: Global Times editorial

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Monday wildly called for the United Nations to be given “urgent and unfettered” access to Xinjiang in a recorded speech to the UN Human Rights Council. His office said Britain would condemn China’s human rights record as a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council. It's well known that Britain is second only to the US in terms of the COVID-19 death toll among Western countries and its per capita rate of deaths is even higher than that of the US. But the UK Foreign Secretary's office is making a shameless imperialist act against China about human rights that has stunned Chinese people. - US, UK overdraw human rights against China: Global Times editorial



From Tuesday, Hong Kong citizens were able to apply for BN(O) passports using their smartphones instead of having to physically present documents. The UK Government statement noted:

The UK committed to this visa following the imposition of the national security law imposed by the Chinese government in June 2020, in a clear breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The 1984 declaration is a legally binding treaty which commits to ensure the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and maintain Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.  



HSBC results, role of geoeconomics


Readers will be now be well aware of the situation facing London-headquartered bank HSBC, a topic we have covered at length over the last year. Criticised by British and Chinese media and politicians alike, the bank has become the most prominent punching bag in a legion of other companies operating between the two countries.

On Tuesday, HSBC posted its annual results. Analysts and commentators in the China/UK sector had been primarily waiting to see two things:

  1. What impact have geopolitical tensions had on the business?

  2. What does the plan to pivot to Asia look like?

Some key quotes readers may find useful from Group Chairman Mark Tucker’s statement:

  • On geopolitics: “The geopolitical environment remains challenging – in particular for a global bank like HSBC – and we continue to be mindful of the potential impact that it could have on our strategy. We continue to engage fully and frequently with all governments as we seek to do everything we possibly can to help our customers navigate an increasingly complex world.”

  • On geoeconomics: “The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership should further boost intra-regional activity across Asia, while the recent political agreement between the EU and China on an investment deal should, once ratified, bolster the already significant two-way investment flows.”

And Noel Quinn, Group Chief Executive (who appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee a couple of weeks ago):

  • On Asia: “The growth plans that we have developed are a natural progression of our February 2020 plans. They aim to play to our strengths, especially in Asia; to accelerate our technology investment plans to deliver better customer service and increased productivity; to energise our business for growth; and to invest further in our own low-carbon transition and that of our customers. They are also designed to deliver a 10% return on tangible equity over the medium term in the current low interest-rate environment.”

  • On geopolitics: “The geopolitical uncertainty that prevailed during 2020 remains a prominent feature of our operating environment. We are hopeful that this will reduce over the course of 2021, but mindful of the potential impact on our business if levels remain elevated. We remain focused on serving the needs of our customers, colleagues and communities in all our markets.”

London’s Evening Standard quotes Quinn on the bank’s HQ remaining active in the capital:

London is extremely important. Our job is to connect London to the rest of the world ... I will remain based in London, Ewen [Stevenson, Finance Director] will remain based in London

In the Annual Report, the bank noted:

While UK-China relations have historically been shaped by strong trade and investment, there are also emerging challenges. Following China’s implementation of the Hong Kong national security law, the UK offered residency rights and a path to citizenship to eligible British National (Overseas) passport holders in Hong Kong. In addition, both the UK and Hong Kong governments have suspended their extradition treaties with each other.

As geopolitical tensions rise, the compliance by multinational corporations with their legal or regulatory obligations in one jurisdiction may be seen as supporting the law or policy objectives of that jurisdiction over another, creating additional reputational and political risks for the Group. We maintain an open dialogue with our regulators on the impact of legal and regulatory obligations on HSBC's business and customers.

China’s expanding data privacy and cybersecurity laws could pose potential challenges to intra-group data sharing, especially within the Greater Bay Area. China’s draft Personal Information Protection Law and Data Security Law, if passed in their current forms, could increase financial institutions’ compliance burdens in respect of cross-border transfers of personal information. In Hong Kong, there is also an increasing focus by regulators on the use of data and artificial intelligence. Use of personal data through digital platforms for initiatives in the Greater Bay Area may need to take into account these evolving data privacy and cybersecurity obligations.

Three editorials make worthwhile reading. In London, the Financial Times Editorial Board published ‘HSBC offers lesson in corporate realpolitik’. It stated:

Yet the bank’s “pivot to Asia” marks more than just an acceptance of economic realities. It is just as much a recognition of the new political reality facing every western company that is dependent on doing business with China. The decoupling that began with the downward spiral in US-China relations threatens to spread beyond technology. It will inevitably affect all industries, from car manufacturing to luxury goods. Businesses will have to choose between western markets and access to China, and between liberal and authoritarian value systems.

HSBC’s calculus is that to survive long-term, it needs to keep China’s authorities on side. The hope must be that the economic realities will prove less stark than the politics suggest.

HSBC’s Asia pivot is a lesson in corporate realpolitik. The new cold war between the west and China is here to stay and other western companies, as well as their investors — in particular those that have espoused a commitment to environmental, social and governance credentials — will themselves increasingly face a very similar choice.

The Telegraph heaped on further criticism:

It’s one thing for a company to declare it is “open to different ideas and cultures” but quite another for it to run open-armed into the vice-like embrace of the world’s largest authoritarian regime.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that HSBC would step back from a region where it makes 90pc of its profits but was it too much to expect the bank to curtail its expansion plans until Beijing softens its aggression towards Hong Kong?

In a grilling by MPs last month, Quinn insisted that the bank has stayed out of politics in the former British colony and has merely been complying with the new laws imposed by China when it froze the accounts of pro-democracy activists.

But what Quinn seems oblivious to is that a decision to double down on the region hands China a huge public relations victory in its battle for supremacy with the West. If Beijing’s behaviour comes with few, if any, ramifications for the Chinese economy, then the regime will be further emboldened.

If there were still any lingering questions about where HSBC’s allegiances lie, or indeed whether the upheaval in Hong Kong would dent its appetite to do business in the region, then they’ve been emphatically answered by its latest strategic shift.

And from China’s Global Times:

UK financial institutions are increasingly pivoting toward China, even as the Johnson government stirs up a series of incidents that have undermined bilateral ties. Chinese analysts call the move a sensible choice that will bring more profit from China's vast and promising market, as well as its sustained growth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Analysts said that HSBC is doing its best to profit from the "China opportunity" while as a whole UK companies and financial institutes need the huge Chinese market to make a profit and get through the hard years following the pandemic.

HSBC has been blamed for its slowness in showing support for the national security law, and for an alleged role in funding Hong Kong rioters in 2019, as well as its controversial role in the detention of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou.

HSBC has been facing a dilemma in China over the past few years. On the one hand, it has to rely on the continuing growing profits of its business in the Chinese market - the first one to quickly recover from the COVID-19 outbreak. On the other hand, it needs to step out of the shadow of its controversial role in the detention of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou, which caused damage to its reputation in the market, an observer who closely followed the bank told the Global Times. 

"Why in the middle of growing disputes between China and the UK on some issues concerning Xinjiang and Hong Kong, did the British bank still choose to side with China when it comes to the question of interests? Because it indeed understands where the future opportunities and benefits are," the observer said. 

Previously, HSBC CEO Noel Quinn refused to question Hong Kong police requests when it agreed to freeze accounts of anti-government activists, a move that has been criticized by some Western analysts as "politically incorrect" about China-related topics. 

Those people do not need to be politically correct as they are businessmen, not politicians, the observer noted. Given the previous controversies and rising doubts about the bank's stance on China-related issues, the bank has become very eager to show that it remains "faithful and loyal" to its Chinese consumers to "save face," the observer added.

To close out HSBC’s tough week, news emerged via the South China Morning Post that Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou would be taking the bank to court in Hong Kong to seek access to its internal papers. It follows her application for the documents, having already been rejected by courts in London, and may serve as another test of Hong Kong’s judicial independence. Clearly this is an important development and one we will closely monitor.

By the way - Standard Chartered also reported this week. There was less media coverage of their results.


Chinese enterprise

Casual readers of China Daily (we exist) would have come across an excellent pie chart in Saturday’s online edition. The data comes from an annual analysis of China-UK enterprises produced by accountancy company Grant Thornton UK in collaboration with China Daily UK and the China Chamber of Commerce in the UK, or CCCUK.

China Daily note:

Some of the largest deals last year included China Resources Group's involvement in a 4.2-billion-pound acquisition of UK waste resources management company Viridor, and Hong Kong-based Link Asset Management's 380-million-pound purchase of the 17-floor London office building The Cabot.

Several companies entered the Tou Ying Tracker for the first time, including but not limited to: Chinese education services company Bright Scholar, which acquired a number of UK schools; and UK-based steel trading company Stemcor, which was bought by Guangzhou-based Cedar Holdings.

The article quotes Bao Ling, minister of China's embassy in the UK, at length:

It is fair to say 2020 was a year like no other for all Chinese companies here. But among all the challenges there have also been many things worth celebrating. These companies have demonstrated strong resilience and determination in fighting against the pandemic and adapted as best as they could.

Currently, the atmosphere in China-UK relations is not so welcoming, which calls for genuine efforts from both sides to strengthen dialogue, seek common ground, and maximize the positive aspects of our cooperation. We should continue to create new platforms for communication between Chinese companies and all sectors of British society, to expand converging interests, safeguard the open and nondiscriminatory environment for businesses, and inject greater stability into China-UK relations.



In understanding Westminster’s response to China, it’s worth reading some of the views that could be influencing the Biden Administration’s China strategy. One such essay appeared this week; William H. Overholt on the new U.S./China relationship.

Overholt’s thesis, which could be partially applied to the UK’s relationship with China, is as follows:

  • U.S. strategy toward China has gone badly wrong because it is not adapted to the post-World War II world, where economic strategies are decisive. Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower understood or intuited the new world and devised an economic strategy, protected by a strong military, that defeated the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders bet everything on the military and bankrupted themselves. Germany, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and belatedly China also understood the new geoeconomics game and rose to positions of leadership.

  • Having won the Cold war, the U.S. forgot the lessons of its success and reverted to a primitive strategy based overwhelmingly on the military (heavily lobbied for by the military industrial complex). This created a vacuum of modern strategy into which China moved with a Belt and Road Initiative that emulates the successful U.S. Cold War strategy.

  • Many in the West project an image of what they wish, rather than what exists, on China. Furthermore, they fail to critically evaluate the roles and flaws of America’s allies in the region.

  • The significant military-industrial complex in the U.S. lobbies hard against any changes to the investment of funding in the military, and therefore impacts how the U.S. approaches China.

While this is clearly an essay examining US/China relations, what lessons and ideas could be extrapolated for British policymakers?



An all star lineup giving evidence to the Defence Committee during a one-off session on ‘China’s military ambitions’. Speaking:

  • Meia Nouwens, Senior Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation, International Institute for Strategic Studies

  • Dr Alessio Patalano, Department of War Studies, Kings College London

  • Charles Parton OBE, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Link to watch the event is here, and transcript is here. Also worth having on your radar - the Defence Committee will be launching an inquiry into the Indo-Pacific at some point later this year.



Rana Mitter on Britain’s soft power

Last week the China Research Group (CRG) held an hour-long discussion with Oxford’s Professor Rana Mitter (transcript, which we thoroughly recommend reading). We advise keeping a close eye on the CRG over the next couple of weeks, especially around new research on key UK/China issues.

The conversation primarily looked to explore the UK-China relationship, but touched at great length on the subject of how the former is perceived in the latter.

A key passage, edited for brevity:

And they [the British Council polling on Chinese attitudes to the UK] show that in soft power terms, the UK now stands as number two In Chinese perceptions, it is the second most warmly regarded or perceived country in the world in this particular listing with an 81% favorability rate.

I should say that it doesn't work the other way round, in that in the perceptions of China in the UK, China is very much down the list at number 26. So there's quite an imbalance there, as well. And it must be said that culture and education are amongst the factors, amongst the reasons, that the wider Chinese population, and particularly the youth contingent in China, really do have a lot of regard for the UK. That is the second statistic. And I think that's something really important in terms of what I hope we talk about today, and I know that Tom wants to address, which is how we can have a conversation, dialogue, and sometimes even more confrontational discussion with China, which holds entirely fast to our values, but also tries to understand how we can make a difference rather than simply shouting into the void.

And that's the fact that we have a 67% trust rating amongst this wider Chinese population. Mostly middle class city dwellers, I should say, but that's a very high level, in terms of the general feeling of trust that the Chinese surveyed have about the UK.

Let me just take a minute or two to outline some of the areas, some of the sources, that I think provide this level of, perhaps to some of you, surprisingly high regard for the UK, in the Chinese public sphere. And I'm gonna use that word “public sphere” again, because I think one thing that's really important is to remember that when we're talking to China, we shouldn't just be thinking about top leaders who've spent their entire lives in the the political machinations, but actually the kind of ordinary middle class urban dwellers living in an increasingly recognisable lifestyle, who mostly don't think about politics, but think about things like how they're gonna be able to pay their mortgage, or they are going to have their savings disappear in a kind of financial scandal, all the things that occupy day to day feelings in in amongst the Chinese middle class.

I don't know how many people here are familiar with Middlesborough, but quite a few young Chinese involved in the media in China are. One of the reasons is that Teesside University's Film and Television Production course is extremely highly regarded, and there are quite a few alumni of it in the Chinese media environment. Now, whether you approve of what the Chinese media do in terms of what they broadcast, and we speak in the week when CGTN has no longer been allowed to broadcast on air in the UK as another matter. But in terms of the high regard that the Chinese media professionals have, for this perhaps somewhat under regarded institution in British terms, I think it's really salutary and worth knowing.

And of course, it's part of that wider diaspora of 100,000 Chinese students who are part of what I personally consider to be a great liberal project. In other words, bringing the brightest and best of the second biggest economy in the world to our country for 2, 3, 4 years, and inculcating them with all the values of academic freedom, open debate, and an openness of mind that I think absolutely associated very much with Britain's reputation, not least in its higher education sector, and I speak as someone who has supervised a range of undergraduate and graduate students in very sensitive fields like history, where I’ll very openly say, I am able to teach them things that they are not really able to talk about in the home country. One day, Chinese will be able to discuss their own history in a free and open way. But at the moment, actually, the wider world, including the UK plays a tremendously important role in enabling that very important part of the history to be to be talked about.

Britain as a whole British society, British culture, who we are as a people is known and recognized in China amongst the middle classes. They have an idea about us in the way that actually I think we still don't about the Chinese middle class in Britain, and it was one reason I suggested watching TV programmes on YouTube. But I think that there's high trust levels. So there are high levels of feeling that really the UK is a country that basically is worth engaging with, and is a starting point for us to have a conversation. Not necessarily that's more nuanced, because I think that suggests a hunkering down on some of the issues we really think are very important, like Hong Kong, but putting it in context and saying, I mean, it seems to me that the following sentence should be a plausible one.

Saying to China, and we say China we're talking I hope about Chinese friends. And by the way, if you don't have Chinese friends, I would say that you should make some because you're going to be thinking about China and talking about China, finding out what Chinese people think about their own country as well as ours, both those who are more favorable to the regime, and those who are not, is a really important part of that conversation. So when talking to those friends, it just seems to be perfectly possible to say, there are so many things about China over the last, let's say 40 years, which are extraordinary.



An excellent meeting of minds taking place at the virtual London Fashion Week; England’s ambassador to football David Beckham and the UK’s Ambassador to China Caroline Wilson. Discussion covered the challenge of creating a more sustainable and innovative fashion industry and how both countries could work to achieve this result.


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Thanks to all those who got in touch; the answer to last week’s location was Laishui County, Baoding, Hebei. Geolocation here.

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