What challenges have faced the China-UK relationship since the handover of Hong Kong and how have these challenges been overcome?

IMG_2100International Relations student, Natalie Read-Bone, was winner of the 2017 Baylis, Smith and Owens prize for the best first year essay on international politics, awarded by the University of Lincoln School of Social and Political Sciences. Natalie’s essay on Britain’s relationship with China below, reflects on the undoubted tensions in that relationship since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 but also suggests the underlying priorities which have allowed some of these tensions to be overcome, and which will be crucial to the development of a positive and healthy relationship in the future.


The relationship between Britain and China has been a “long and complex” one (Brown, 2016, p.6), with the UK being the first of the Western countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, the relationship has been described by the British Embassy Beijing as “strong and constructive” (British Embassy Beijing, 2017). The reversion of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 created possibilities for a “new chapter” of even more “constructive relations” between the two countries (Breslin, 2004, p.409). However, the relationship since the 1997 handover has been a volatile one, in which the relations have reached both incredible lows and incredible highs, and the overall relationship has been increasingly unpredictable (Brown, 2016, p.6). Both China and the UK have utilised trade and soft power to improve the relationship; after 1997 the UK aimed to develop “commercial opportunities” and promote positive social and political change in China (Breslin, 2004, p.409). Trade has been increasing since 2004 and China is now the UK’s second largest import partner – in 2014 imports were worth £37.6billion and exports £16.7billion (Office for National Statistics, 2015). On the other hand, the multiple challenges faced, have varied in size – from overarching aspects of society such as human rights, to personal disputes with British leaders. Despite this, in the “successful” 2015 State Visit to the UK, Chinese president Xi Jinping is said to have established a “Global Partnership” that represented both countries commitment to strengthening the cooperation in this new “Golden Era” (British Embassy Beijing, 2017). In a time when Britain is negotiating its exit from the European Union, its foreign relations, particularly those with China, are of significant importance. Therefore, it is essential to analyse the challenges that these relationships have faced and the ways in which they have been overcome, in order to be fully prepared for future developments.

One of the major challenges that has faced the China-UK relationship is China’s approach to human rights. China has been accused of systematically curtailing many human rights (Human Rights Watch, 2015) whilst promoting the “China Model of Democracy”, which aims to enhance economic growth “at the expense of civil and political rights” (Subedi, 2015, p.437). It is not just the UK that are opposed to China’s lack of human rights, it is said that many in Hong Kong also see the PRC as a threat to their freedoms and rights (Krumbein, 2014, p.156). Freedom of expression and freedom of press are two areas that are frequently hindered by the Chinese State. A recent example of the breach of freedom of expression was the arrest of at least 20 people in March 2016, in connection to an open letter that called for President Xi’s resignation (Amnesty International, 2016). China’s public service broadcasting (PSB) policy has also been accused of “prioritizing social order” over the political and civil rights of individuals (Chin, 2012, p.898), with the government controlling and censoring media with the aim of propagating government policies (Krumbein, 2014, p.152). Some Chinese academics believe that PSB is symbolic for its move towards democracy and transparency, however one of the State policy-makers disputes its role in upholding citizens’ civil and political rights (Chin, 2012, p.903).

China’s human rights record has caused a number of moral issues in regards to the UK’s relations with China. The appearance of China on the shortlist for the 2000 Olympic games for example, caused a global uproar, with countries claiming that the human rights reputation that China carried was in opposition to Olympic values. The European parliament urged that Beijing was rejected and the UK foreign minister agreed that Beijing would be a “bad choice” (Keys, 2016, p.9). These conflicting desires created a temporary divide between China and the UK. The UK also experienced a divide with Europe in its approach to human rights in China, as it continued bilateral negotiations on the matter whilst other European states did not (Breslin, 2004, p.144).

In fact, in overcoming the challenge of human rights, the UK has been very open and efficient when working with China. Throughout 2015 the UK “cooperated with China on projects in priority areas including torture prevention, the death penalty, women’s rights, and civil society” (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 2017). It can definitely be suggested that China is making a significant attempt at improving its human rights, and has enacted almost 250 laws related to human rights over the last three decades (Subedi, 2015, p.440). The problem however has not been completely eradicated and requires continued development with the assistance of the UK, if the UK wishes to continue and strengthen the relationship with China. If this does not happen and China does not fulfil the protection of human rights this will “eventually stifle China’s economic development” (Subedi, 2015, p.451), decreasing its attractiveness and influence on the rest of the world, including the UK.

Another, arguably more complicated, challenge that has faced the China-UK relationship since the 1997 handover, is the rise in the Chinese military.  This is arguably more complicated than human rights as it also largely involves the US; whilst the UK has taken a cooperative stance to the growing military, commending the modernization and looking for closer military cooperation (Chinese Embassy, 2012), the US has become incredibly concerned with the growth, and has consequently engaged with a “pivot” of 60 percent of its “naval and aerospace power” towards the Asia Pacific (Evans, 2013, p.165). The challenge of the growing military has been present for decades, it has been suggested that the build-up began under Deng Xiaoping (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.3) and that by 1998 China was rivalling the US on military power ((Bernstein and Munro 1998) Breslin, 2004, p.415). One of the key indicators of the increasing military power is the Chinese defence budget, that has only become available due to the high rate of economic growth in China (Cordesman, 2014, p.65); in 2014 the defence budget was $130 billion (US) – a rise of 12.2 percent, and in 2015 it had risen a further 10 percent to $145 billion (US) (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.5).

This growing military tension between China and the US has created an indirect challenge for China and the UK; the UK has been making efforts to improve its relationship with China since the reversion of Hong Kong in 1997, and wishes to continue this into the future, however, historically British alliances lie with America, with the close relations between the two Western countries termed the “special relationship” (Dumbrell, 2009, p.64). Again, this an issue made more sensitive by the recent vote for Britain to exit the European Union, as the UK will need to be developing and expanding its diplomatic relationship with both China and the US.

This is not a challenge that has been overcome but one that has simply been moderated with the maintenance of strong relations with both China and the US. There is arguably a lack of a physical problem to overcome, as it has been suggested that whilst China may have military power, they must still acquire the ability to utilise it – in doing so they must overcome the problem of an ageing population decreasing potential military personnel, and an increasing demand for better pay for personnel (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.26). It is also suggested that the main aim of the Chinese military build-up is to ensure an “active defence” as opposed to the US view that China is preparing for war (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.25). China is a “major trading partner and exporter” for the US (Cordesman, 2014, p.65), this will be key to overcoming this challenge. Highlighting the economic importance and interdependence of both countries’ economies will be crucial in maintaining peace, and allowing the UK to continue building its relationships with both China and the US.

The China UK relationship has not just experienced large societal and political challenges such as military disputes and human rights abuses, it has also faced challenges on a much more personal level. One of the most significant of these personal disputes came in 2012 following a public meeting with the then prime minister, David Cameron, and “exiled Tibetan spiritual leader”, the Dalai Lama. Following the meeting, the relations between China and the UK were plunged into “the deep freeze” as a number of meetings with Senior UK ministers were cancelled by the Chinese government (Financial Times, 2015).

Relations between China and Tibet have been controversial for a long period of time, Tibet used to be considered its own country until China invaded in the 1950s. Now Tibet is considered an autonomous region of China. Tibet has always been a very strongly Buddhist area, which has always been “threatening and difficult” for the Chinese state to deal with (Mukherjee, 2015, p.61). Following the invasion and the subsequent Chinese suppression of Tibet, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile. Since then, China has closed 99 percent of Tibetan monasteries and has banned images of the Dalai Lama (Free Tibet).

China’s foreign ministry had warned the UK government to consider the “serious consequences” of meeting with the Dalai Lama, and after the meeting, stated that the actions of the British leaders had “seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s core interests, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. The foreign ministry later announced concerns that the meeting with the Dalai Lama, who is “regularly vilified by the Chinese government” and is still living in exile with the Tibetan government (Mukherjee, 2015, p.73), was showing support for Tibetan independence and anti-China forces (BBC, 2012).

This put a tremendous strain on China-UK relations and required strong efforts by the Cameron-Osborne government to overcome the tensions. After nearly a year of very little ministerial contact between the two countries, David Cameron was finally able to get approval to go to China to talk with either president Xi or the Chinese prime minister. In an interview prior to the meeting in China, a Chinese H.E Ambassador gave an interview to Chinese media in the UK about China UK relations, in which he stated that the only significant issue was a lack of political mutual trust. This was therefore one the topics discussed in the meeting of the heads of state (Chinese Embassy, 2013a). Following the meeting the Chinese Embassy stated that the two countries were of significant economic importance to each other and that they should “push for long-term healthy development of bilateral cooperation” (Chinese Embassy, 2013b). Whilst the potential for increased trade and investment had left the Chinese premier describing the relationship as “indispensable”, it would seem that the former UK prime minister did not successfully repair relations with the Chinese citizens, as Chinese media called Britain “replaceable” as Britain was “no longer a big country” (BBC, 2013). This could be seen as an opportunity for the UK to improve its public diplomacy in China as a form of soft power (Nye, 2008, p.94).

The China UK relationship has been extremely volatile since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 (Brown, 2016, p.6). Some aspects have been positive, i.e. the increase in trade and the promotion of positive political and social change (Breslin, 2004, p.409) whilst some have been challenging, i.e. the growing military (Basu and Chatterji, 2016, p.3) threatening the US UK special “relationship” (Dumbrell, 2009, p.64). The important thing to note however, is that any challenges that have faced the China UK relationship have been overcome, either by increasing trade opportunities, highlighting the economic interdependence of countries or working cooperatively to develop new social standards. When faced with challenges in the future it will be important to reflect on the actions taken to relieve tensions in the past, this will be crucial to maintaining a positive and healthy China-UK relationship, which will be at the top of UK priorities as it negotiates its exit from the European Union.


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