Skip to navigationSkip to content
READING THE TEA LEAVES

What the UK can teach the world about engaging with China

Illustration with paper cutouts of Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping
Illustration by Ricardo Santos
  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Published

In Jan. 2020, the British Foreign Policy Group (pdf)(pg. 50) asked thousands of UK adults to what extent they viewed the rise of China as a threat to their country. A virus originating in Wuhan had started spreading around the world, and Brits were concerned, but it would be another few weeks before the UK locked down. At that point, 28% of them saw China as a “critical” threat to the UK.

When they were asked the same question (pdf)(pg. 78) a year later, 41% viewed the rise of China as a “critical” threat to the security of the UK. Nearly 80% saw it as a net threat, whether “critical” or just “important.”

It’s not difficult to guess what changed. Covid-19 fundamentally altered the perception that the UK has of China. People in London, Edinburgh, or Belfast woke up to the reality that decisions made by a government thousands of miles away could shut down their economies and their lives. And with that realization came greater scrutiny—of how reliant the UK is on Chinese-made products, what the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) global ambitions are, and what goes on inside China.

Before the pandemic, the UK, historically one of China’s closest allies in Europe, was often willing to stand by Beijing in difficult moments. In 2015, it became the first Western nation to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in spite of objections from the US, with which the UK famously has a “special relationship.” (At the time, an Obama administration official called out UK prime minister David Cameron for his “constant accommodation of China.”) The UK’s decisions tended to influence others: Five other European countries joined the AIIB around the same time.

Under an approach that UK chancellor George Osborne called the “golden era” of relations in 2015, the UK sought Chinese investment in sectors like manufacturing, nuclear energy, and telecommunications. In 2017, nearly 60% of Chinese foreign direct investment (pdf, p. 10) in the EU went to the UK—an unusually high number boosted by major deals like the Chinese sovereign wealth fund’s $14 billion acquisition of logistics company Logicor. As recently as 2019, the UK was the second largest European recipient of Chinese FDI by volume, according to Rhodium Group. Few of these deals, even in sensitive sectors, were blocked in London.

Both countries’ internal dynamics have radically changed since then. The UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, while the CCP began consolidating power and enacting a set of reforms—laid out in the 13th Five-Year Plan—to transition the Chinese economy from low-value manufacturing to value-add infrastructure and technology.

In 2021, China and Britain 2.0 no longer get along. That matters irrespective of nationality, as the relationship impacts most industries and sets the tone for other democracies’ interactions with Beijing. “The UK is realizing that the China it thought it was courting eight years ago no longer exists,” argues Eyck Freyman, author of One Belt One Road: Chinese Power Meets the World.

The Chinese care about the UK because it holds leadership roles in international institutions like the United Nations, serves as a hub for finance and scientific research, and it is influential among members of the European Union and the Five Eyes Anglophone alliance.

The relationship between the UK and China impacts most industries and sets the tone for other Western democracies’ relationships with Beijing.

Why the UK cares about China is pretty self-explanatory: In 2020, China was the UK’s second largest trade partner after Germany. (Without the pandemic, it’s typically fourth.) China is an increasingly active player in global governing bodies like the UN Security Council and standard-setting agencies like the International Organization for Standardization. It has a huge role to play in slowing climate change and is a major competitor in artificial intelligence. Its investors keep bankrupt British schools open, while its students fill them, and its tourists spend £1.7 billion ($2.4 billion) per year greasing the wheels of the UK economy.

As the UK adjusts to China’s rise to superpower status, there have been tensions, both between the Chinese and British governments, and between the British government and its broader parliament, which disagree about the right way to approach Beijing. This debate is playing itself out among the surprisingly small community of what we’ll call China watchers—politicians, academics, businesspeople, and activists who shape the UK’s long-term approach to China.

How we got here

It might seem a strange choice to begin this story in 2015. The UK and China have been competing, trading, collaborating, and fighting for hundreds of years. British traders first arrived in Macau (pdf) in 1637, setting the tone for the relationship by attempting to force their way to Canton (what is now Guangzhou) to secure trading rights. Britain then went to war with China twice in the 1800s, in part to defend the illegal opium trade, paving the way for a republican China by weakening the ruling Qing dynasty. As a result of these wars, the UK colonized Hong Kong for 156 years until the 1997 “handover.”

The British government also had more recent run-ins with China: In 2012, for example, prime minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese Communist Party put the UK on a diplomatic blacklist for a while. But after Cameron’s Conservative party won the 2015 general election with a majority, after five years of coalition government where he shared power with the Liberal Democrats, a new chapter in UK-China relations began, with a concerted attempt by Number 10 to get closer to China economically and politically. This continued after Cameron’s abrupt departure in 2016, and lasted until Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019.

In Jan. 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak in China a public health emergency of international concern. Questions emerged about when Chinese authorities found out about the virus, how long it took them to lock down the city of Wuhan, and when they notified the WHO.

Around the same time, Johnson green-lit the continued but limited involvement of Chinese tech vendor Huawei in the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure. The US had tried to pressure its allies into banning Huawei on national security grounds. But since 2010, the UK had set up a dedicated cyber-security center that evaluated the risk of Huawei equipment to the UK’s critical infrastructure every year. Johnson’s government seemed satisfied with the center’s conclusion that there was a risk but that it could be managed. Many members of Parliament (MPs) were not. Led by Conservative MP Bob Seely, they formed the Huawei Interest Group. In March, they rebelled against the government over Huawei and lost. It was a radicalizing moment for many MPs and the group would grow to more than 60 members.

The UK locked down on March 23. On April 6, in one of the first cases of a world leader becoming infected, Johnson was admitted into the intensive care unit of St. Thomas’ Hospital in London due to complications related to Covid-19. It was later revealed just how close he came to dying of the disease.

In May 2020, the US sanctioned Huawei, making it nearly impossible for the company to buy the chips it needs for its 5G equipment. The UK’s National Cyber Security Center said it could no longer guarantee the security of Huawei gear. In response, the UK government banned Huawei from British telecoms networks in July. In November, it tightened the ban further by forcing British telecoms operators to strip existing Huawei gear out of UK networks by 2027.

A series of political decisions showed rising mistrust of China in the UK. Parliament passed a new law restricting foreign investment in the name of national security, a move widely seen as targeting Chinese state-backed investors. The government created a bespoke route to citizenship for Hong Kongers seeking to avoid the Chinese government’s security crackdown. And it joined others in imposing sanctions on Chinese government officials accused of human rights abuses. (The Chinese government imposed counter-sanctions on a handful of UK politicians, researchers, and activists, but its response has been pretty muted otherwise—though that could soon change.)

Much of this turnaround happened because Conservative MPs pushed their government to take a stronger stand against the Chinese government. They have been joined by new MPs elected in 2019 and more members of the opposition Labour Party, which under new leadership has been more willing to side with Conservatives on foreign policy.

There are two main umbrella groups for these MPs: the China Research Group (CRG) and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). As a shorthand, they are collectively known as the “China hawks” or “China rebels,” because of their propensity for voting against bills brought forward by their government. But that label obscures the diversity of the group. They represent the major political parties of the UK. Some are concerned about human rights; others about the UK’s strategic dependence on Chinese supply chains. For some, challenging the UK’s relationship with China is a natural progression of the battle for Brexit—just another way to assert Britain’s independence. Others are staunch Europhiles. Many see this as the defining battle of their career—or maybe a chance to launch themselves into Cabinet.

It’s not just parliamentarians who are debating how the UK should deal with China. Researchers who have studied China for years in the relative comfort of academic anonymity have suddenly become stars, speaking regularly on TV or radio and before parliamentary committees about what the UK should “do about China.” Behind the scenes, representatives of Chinese companies and the British business community in China, as well as members of Johnson’s own family, want to bring China policy closer to a more traditional center.

What’s next

For months, China rebels tried to secure a vote on an amendment to a bill that could have made it impossible for the UK to sign a trade deal with China. They alleged that China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang constituted genocide, and argued that the UK should not trade with genocidal states. They lost the vote on technical grounds. But their efforts may have pushed the UK to issue sanctions alongside the US, EU, and Canada on Chinese officials in Xinjiang on the same day as the amendment vote. And in April, the House of Commons voted to declare that China is committing a genocide against Turkic ethno-religious minorities in Xinjiang.

In March 2021, the UK government published a review of its foreign policy, with a stronger focus than ever on China and the broader Indo-Pacific region. It names China as a “systemic competitor” but argues the UK should continue to “pursue a positive economic relationship.” Critics called the Integrated Review confused and inconsistent.

This year will see more changes in the UK-China relationship. Some of the major flash points will be around human rights, academic freedom, climate change, and supply chains. Parliamentary rebels are calling for a complete review of the UK’s dependency on China in every industry. Chinese companies in other industries, like nuclear energy, could face a Huawei-style ban. Surveys of British people (pdf) show there is little appetite for any kind of engagement with China, except on climate change—which is handy, since the climate summit COP26 is set to take place in Glasgow in November. But UK-China tensions may get in the way of that collaboration: In March, China declined to attend a summit on climate change that was scheduled a few days after the UK government imposed sanctions on CCP officials.

Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in the UK will get a new occupant. Zheng Zeguang, who will succeed Liu Xiaoming as ambassador, is a diplomatic heavyweight. Experts like Freyman say that his appointment shows how serious China is about the UK, and that the Chinese are worried they may have “lost control of the narrative” there. Public perception of China is at a low point in Britain, where the focus is now on China’s human rights record, its influence on UK campuses, and its prominence in key UK industries. “The UK is the only country in the world in which the Xinjiang issue is perhaps the dominant aspect of the relationship with China,” says Freyman, and “Beijing would not like to see that replicated elsewhere.”

Though no one knows how the China-UK relationship will change in the coming months and years, conversations with the UK’s China watchers hold some important clues.

How to read this series

In the following 12 Q&As, you will be introduced to some of the people shaping the UK-China relationship. The best way to dive in is with the glossary, which explains the jargon and acronyms that feature in the interviews. Above most Q&As is a table that endeavors to capture the speaker’s views on key UK policies on China. Here’s how they compare:

You will learn about what drove this group to care about China, and understand why they feel the way they do. The aim is to offer some insight into where the UK-China relationship—and by extension, China’s relationship with Western countries—is going.

📬 Need to Know: COP26

Your guide to the world's biggest climate summit.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.