China and Britain are totally back together (as long as no one mentions human rights)

Sino-British ties could take off again.
Sino-British ties could take off again.
Image: AP Photo/Ed Jones
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Ahead of Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Britain this week, China’s ambassador to Britain assured London that the recent, frosty state of Sino-British relations was through, and welcomed a return to the good old days.

Historically, when China talked about Europe, it meant “Britain, France and Germany,” Liu Xiaoming told reporters last week. “But unfortunately many opportunities were missed in the past year or so—and we all know the reason behind it,” Liu said. He didn’t elaborate, but his meaning was clear. British prime minister David Cameron’s 2012 meeting with the Dalai Lama prompted Beijing to cancel meetings with top British leaders and froze diplomatic ties for more than two years. (Though economic ties don’t appear to have suffered—Chinese investment in the UK was $12.4 billion last year, up from just $840 million in 2008.)

Recently, when China talked about Europe, the order of countries has been “Germany, France and Britain,” Liu said, and it is now time to “set this order to its original setting.”

Judging by the premier’s high-profile itinerary—he is meeting Cameron and has an audience with the Queen, a meeting that’s not often extended to visiting state leaders —it seems Cameron’s attempts to mend relations after the Dalai Lama visit have worked. Late last year, Cameron visited China with a delegation of over 100 business representatives, played ping pong with students and tried to cozy up to the Chinese public by answering questions on the microblog Weibo.

Some $30 billion in deals between the two countries are expected to be announced this week. That includes China’s largest private investment group, China Minsheng Investment, plowing $1.5 billion into setting up its European headquarters in London. Officials are also expected to announce that China Construction Bank will become London’s first clearing bank for the yuan.

Other issues could still thwart this recent thaw. In April, the British Foreign Office criticized China’s human rights record in a report in April and the UK is at risk of being pulled into a dispute between Hong Kong, a former British colony now under Chinese control, and Beijing over universal suffrage. Last weekend, anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong demonstrated in front of the British embassy and called on the UK to take back Hong Kong.

In this context, Liu, China’s ambassador to Britain since 2009 and one of the country’s most outspoken and critical diplomats (and, incidentally, a Harry Potter fan) seems to be warning London not to make the same mistake again.