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China-UK relations: what are we set to lose?

China-UK relations: what are we set to lose?

Escalating diplomatic tensions predominantly between China, the USA & the UK in recent weeks have led us, unfortunately, to finding ourselves living in fractured times. It was six months ago when COVID19 was declared a “global health emergency.” It has changed everything both on an international and a community-based level in the way we work, live, interact and consume. It also, it would seem, magnified our prejudices and nationalism to support or denounce the “other.” What is happening in the intra-governmental space at this crucial point is really critical as are the unheard voices of the populace who are caught up in the midst. 
The Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, said this week that “COVID19 has brought nations together but also pushed them apart.” Covid has certainly highlighted how vulnerable our interdependent world order is in the face of a global pandemic. Logistics, supply chains, air travel & the hospitality industry, the arts, theatre and sport, to name but a few, have all suffered and we have felt poorer for it.  Forced into lockdown, across the globe, people have been denied their normal freedoms. Whilst reflecting on the different approach taken by nation states to ‘track & trace’ and other measures taken to stem the flow of the virus, including temperature checks on entry to buildings and the wearing of face masks, we have found ourselves interrogating our own values, norms & systems. 
The recent and major causes for pushing nations apart have been four-fold and in quick succession:

  1. China’s initial response to the coronavirus was harshly criticised and “warrior” rhetoric became a speciality from both East & West, with the US, particularly, accusing China of unleashing the “Wuhan” virus. 
  2. Hong Kong’s Security Law, passed on 01 July, unleashed a volley of international reaction that has, in turn, angered China. Hong Kong, former UK colony, has been part of the so-called “one country-two systems” since 1997. The new law offends Hong Kong citizens the UK & some of its allies because it breaches an international treaty set out for fifty years and has the potential to restrict individual freedoms. For the Chinese government, voicing an opinion that is contrary to its own and taking a stance on it, is considered “gross interference in [its] internal affairs.” 
  3. The UK’s decision to stop Huawei being involved in the future of 5G in the UK, whilst acting on indications that there may be a security risk, will cost the UK years & £billions to unravel from its infrastructure as well as delay the roll-out of 5G. It will certainly damage trade & diplomatic relations with China and may well be hugely damaging for inbound investment from China for the foreseeable future. 
  4. The plight of the Uighurs, an ethnic minority group mostly living in Xinjiang Province in Northwest China, is the latest story to affront western, democratic values over human rights. News of mass sterilisation & ethnic cleansing is, of course, brutal and hugely disturbing. 

China has legitimate questions to answer in some of these areas but it would be a great shame if any of these should de-rail the relationship irreparably for the future. The US, under President Trump, has this year abdicated from a position of responsibility leading the world in areas such as climate change and the WHO. It makes it questionable that the West can accuse China of not playing by the rules when key players are not even playing by their own rules.
What may happen if the west takes action is potentially to risk damaging much more; we all find ourselves at the end of July 2020 with the status quo challenged and have seemingly & suddenly arrived at this point without, perhaps, knowing the huge consequences that could ensue, ultimately threatening world peace. 
The tit-for-tat responses, such as have been seen in the forced closure of the Chinese Embassy in Houston, Texas, on 22 July and now this week the US consulate in Chengdu, Sichuan, western China, are just the type of attention-grabbing, headline-hitting actions that pull people behind tribal lines. Chinese state media may control national opinion through its propaganda machine but there is plenty of fake news or polarised opinion in the western media, that can be ugly, too. 
The strength & calibre of national leaders, different systems of government, resilience of economies, people’s acceptance of lockdown measures will all contribute to the successful recovery of nation states. COVID19 is, as everyone now knows, here to stay. We have to learn to live with it, that is a fact. To do so effectively will require collaboration and honest engagement in finding solutions and a global framework to control its devastation, for the benefit of the many. 
Ignorance is often at the root of problems. Language barriers and lack of cultural insights only serve to compound the situation. It is incumbent on the west to remember that China’s cultural heritage is different and that Chinese people are not the same as the Chinese Communist Party. Millions are members but they comprise less than 1% of the total population. Chinese people have shown themselves to be hard-working, resilient, generous go-getters. After centuries of hardship, famine, civil war and social turmoil, the last 40 years have been a springboard to a better life providing previously unimagined freedoms to hundreds of millions and with everything to gain from a stronger and more prosperous China. 
The war of words and actions over the last few weeks, may, in the course of time, be seen to have damaged much more than just trade & diplomacy; it may have damaged opportunity itself. Opportunity to learn from one another’s models, education systems, mistakes, achievements, aspirations & global cooperation around COVID recovery. Through this foggy patch of diplomatic relations we would do well to find ways to keep communication lines open. If we lose those, we are at risk of losing so much more.