Article for the British Council on the China-UK relationship.
Who says UK is China’s junior partner in new golden era?
What does the announcement of a golden era between the UK and China really mean? Is it just another trite slogan to be tossed away with the Sunday newspapers? Or might it grow into one of the UK’s biggest foreign policy shifts since the Second World War?
When the golden era of UK-China relations was declared during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in October 2015, press coverage in the UK was largely negative. Ministers were accused of kow-towing to the visiting Chinese president as though he was still emperor. But this characterisation reduces a complex and important opportunity for the UK down to a meaningless sound-bite. We will all profit from taking a closer look at why the Chinese leadership wants to strengthen the relationship at this particular moment.
China’s great military strategist Sunzi wrote in the sixth century BC, ‘Know yourself and know the other, and you can fight a hundred battles’. His teachings hold as much relevance now as in ancient times; they help to evaluate the relative strengths of competitive interests in the modern world as well. China’s leaders want to try to build a special relationship with the UK for a reason.
For more than 150 years, Chinese intellectuals have earnestly studied the West. China had to recover from a series of military defeats to foreign powers in the 1800s, so they searched for meaning in Sunzi and set about understanding their adversary. In 1861, the scholar-official Feng Guifen asked the question in his little-known book Dissenting Views from a Hut Near Bin:
‘Our territory is eight times that of Russia, ten times the size of America, one hundred times bigger than France and two hundred times that of England. Why is it that they are strong and small, yet we are large and weak?’
Western superiority, Feng argued, relied on more than steam engines, iron-clad ships and firearms; there were deeper themes at work. The West, he insisted, had surpassed China in four critical areas: education (‘employing people’s talents’), economic development (‘profiting from the land’), political legitimacy (‘keeping the rulers and people close’), and intellectual enquiry (‘calling things by their proper names.’)
In his book, Feng called for China to learn from the West, borrow from the West, but never to rely on the West. Even Mao, whose suspicion of Western capitalism was unsurpassed, wrote that:
‘Chinese who sought progress would study any book containing new knowledge from the West … modern schools sprang up like bamboo shoots after the spring rain; every effort was made to learn from the West.’
Perhaps this process is not yet finished. After all, the staggering successes of the Chinese economy in the past three decades are largely due to the policy of ‘reform and opening up to the outside.’
The product of all this soul-searching is a society led by people who are far better educated about the outside world than Western leaders are about China. When Wen Jiabao came to visit David Cameron in 2011, he brought with him a book by Adam Smith. But he did not bring Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Instead, he brought the much less well-known Theory of Moral Sentiments – which sets out the limits of the free market – and quoted from it at length. On arriving in England, Wen asked to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, and commented that literature and culture could be a bridge between nations. While he had read King Lear as a boy, he wondered aloud how many Britons knew of the Monkey King. The thoughts of Sunzi can be sensed echoing down the centuries in Wen’s concluding remarks:
‘China has more than two thousand years of written history. There are leaders who arrive at a negotiating table with “red faces and crimson ears”, but who have no understanding of the history of countries they deal with. I would never want to be such a politician.’
One need look no further than the two opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games to understand what it is that China may be seeking from any new partnership with the UK. In Beijing, the world was treated to a colossal display of strength and synchronicity, with acres of perfectly timed dancers moving to the unyielding beat of a single top-down mind. In London, we saw a much more spontaneous and joyful celebration of an eclectic past and the present-day multiculturalism that grew from it. It’s hard to imagine another nation coming up with anything so quirky, so entertaining and, frankly, so completely bonkers. It was a display of brazen, self-confident eccentricity; and the world laughed and loved it.
It is time for the UK to use Sunzi’s ancient ideas, to ‘know itself and know the other.’ For the UK to characterise the golden era as a kow-tow fails to understand the motivations of the other side. It vastly underplays the hand that has been dealt to us. China has experienced staggering progress in the past three decades, but the fruits of that success are largely vested in hard assets; in high-speed railways, in power stations, in chemical plants, highways, bridges, ports. China knows that it has a long way to go to create a truly modern and balanced economy. To do so, it needs to learn a range of softer skills, and that’s where the UK comes in.
Americans still talk about the ‘British Invasion’ of the Sixties, when the music scene there was taken over by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Who. Intangible assets worth billions, such as Harry Potter, tumbled out from the imagination of a single working mother sitting in a low-end coffee shop and worrying about her bills. But 007, Sherlock Holmes, Beckham and Adele were built into world-beating brands not by chance but by an infrastructure that knows how to identify and promote talent. China’s capacity for creative arts and design is less mature. This extends into other areas where the UK excels. In education, China is looking to the UK to bolster its efforts; be it in transplanting independent schools such as Wellington, Dulwich or Harrow to the major Chinese cities, or the development of universities, such as Nottingham’s Ningbo campus, the UK is often the top choice for China because English is seen as the global language and the UK is seen as providing a rigorous and diverse education experience.
There is a huge range of soft skills where China knows that it can benefit from closer interaction with the UK. The High-Level People-to-People Dialogue with China is focused on developing closer ties in sport, such as the British Council’s Premier Skills initiative, on medical sciences, or on tourism, where the UK has some of the best-known assets in the world. Say ‘Big Ben’ in China, and people know what you mean. And London’s global financial markets, particularly as leader in foreign exchange trading, has not gone unnoticed, as China starts to prepare the renminbi for a much wider international role.
China’s sheer size and longevity have a tendency to overawe the outsider. Its financial firepower and its cultural complexity seem overwhelming, so maybe it’s natural that the UK casts itself as a junior partner. But that would be grossly to underestimate the value of what the UK has to offer to China.
What is needed is an overarching vision or strategy for the UK’s engagement with China. We need a properly funded, government-backed initiative across the whole of society to ‘up our game’ on China. We need to start with education in our schools, in our businesses and across wider society. The BBC’s current series on China is a great attempt to demystify China. We must build on that by promoting the teaching of ‘things Chinese’ across the board.
We must capture the imaginations of our young people with the epic struggle of the Chinese people in the last two centuries, with the mesmerising beauty and poise of its writing system, with the spectacular drunkenness of its eighth century poets. We should be introducing opportunities for young people to study the Chinese civilisation for a formal qualification at A-level. We need to search for new ways to stimulate interest in China so that more of our young people find a reason to learn Mandarin Chinese. We should promote exchange between young people and encourage more of them to visit China. The UK’s universities hold a vast repository of knowledge and experience of China that can be used to educate wider society.
It is only through a better understanding of China that we can take what the UK has in softer skills and use it for a properly balanced partnership. If we allow ourselves to think that ‘China is too difficult’, or ‘too big and powerful’, then the relationship will be one-sided and we will let this marvellous opportunity to enrich our minds and enrich our economy slip right through our fingers. We must not allow that to happen.