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Engagement with China does not mean kowtowing

This blog was authored by Stephen Vines, former and exiled Hong Kong journalist.

More or less everything you need to know about the problems of democratic nations engaging with China was encompassed by the recent visit to Beijing by British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.

China pointedly set the scene for Mr Cleverly with a threatening air force intervention over Taiwanese airspace the day before he arrived.

He was received by Vice Premier Han Zheng who was placed in charge of cleansing Hong Kong by Xi Jinping, followed by other rather brief meetings. The net results of these encounters was precisely zero. Indeed it is possible to argue that from the British point of view there were far more negatives than positives because the visit made it clear that despite the People's Republic of China's (PRC) outrageous behaviour in the U.K., Britain would remain timid.

Beijing has no compunction over allowing its diplomats to beat up protestors on British streets, over planting agents inside Parliament and flaunting its disregard for an international treaty signed with Britain that facilitated the handover of Hong Kong.

Under the premiership of David Cameron the U.K. government was delusional enough to proclaim a ‘golden age’ of relations. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping was invited to Britain in 2015 and wafted away with claims that ‘£40 billion of deals’ had been secured. If any of this materialised maybe now would be the time to provide the details. One of these remarkable deals was an idea that looked plain daft from the moment it was unveiled. It involved building a British designed 'Garden of Ideas' in China at the cost of £1 billion. Needless to say this unlikely theme park never even made it to the drawing board.

Italy, the European Union member state that invested most heavily in better relations with the PRC by joining Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, has shown the deepest signs of buyer regret and pulled out of the scheme. It seems that the more nations try to cosy up to China, the more they become disillusioned.

Britain has moved from having golden relations with Beijing to a state of timorous uncertainty in its dealing with the PRC. China, for its part, appears to have no compunction in seeing Britain as being weak and wavering. Having described the PRC as a ‘threat’, the ever-changing government in London now describes it as ‘challenging’.

The U.S. government is more forthright and China is more circumspect in its dealings with Washington. Yet some illusions of forging a harmonious relationship with shared aims still lingers.

Beijing regards bilateral and multilateral relations as being entirely transactional. It shows few signs of believing that its dealings with foreign countries can be conducted on the basis of mutual benefit, despite liberal use of this term in the state-run media. On the contrary China’s negotiators are supposed to go out there and score ‘wins’.

Therefore it is quite hopeless to appeal to Beijing’s better nature on key issues such as climate change and, more pressingly, international attempts to end the war in Ukraine.

None of this is unknown and none of this is new yet, particularly in the gilded corridors of Britain’s grand Foreign Office, lessons are resolutely not learned.

Instead of adopting a resolute approach to the Chinese dictatorship, apologists for the lack of a firm U.K. policy keep saying that it would be fatal to end engagement with Beijing. Yet no one is suggesting such a thing; on the contrary, friends of the Chinese people argue that contact must be maintained but done so on a basis of unwaveringly asserting the principles of a free society and calling out Beijing’s many serious infringements of acceptable diplomatic behaviour.

A good start could be made by a vigorous effort to secure the freedom of British citizen Jimmy Lai who, on 26 September, will have spent 1,000 days behind bars in Hong Kong for the crime of advocating democracy and upholding the values of freedom of expression.

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