Britain and China's 'deteriorating' relationship

Head of Politics and International Relations Dr Andrew Moran weighs in on hostility in Sino-UK relations, and the news that China has banned BBC World News from broadcasting.

Date: 12 February 2021

It is no secret that Britain's relationship with China has deteriorated in recent months. Huawei, Hong Kong, the persecution of the Uighur population, and even the recent tit-for-tat banning of media companies such as the BBC has highlighted how difficult this relationship can be as Prime Minister Johnson embarks on pursuing his ‘Global Britain' agenda.

Last year, concerns over the security implications of Huawei's involvement in Britain's 5G network – concerns raised by members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance that Britain is part of (along with the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and also by our own security services – resulted in the UK government ordering the removal of all Huawei equipment from our 5G network by 2027, along with a ban on mobile phone providers buying new Huawei 5G equipment. Arguably, as the second-largest provider of smartphones in the world, this should not damage Huawei significantly, but it is symptomatic of the declining trust between the two countries.

Beijing's introduction of controversial new security laws in Hong Kong and the violent clampdown on the pro-democracy movement broke the agreements reached when Britain returned the former territory to China in 1997, and have severely undermined China's claim that it would maintain "one country, two systems". Britain's response by introducing a new visa for 5.4 million of Hong Kong's residents (70% of the territory's population) to allow them to have the right to work in the UK is seen in China as interfering in the domestic affairs of the region, and will continue to be a point of friction.  

As will Britain's condemnation of the treatment of the Uighur population and other minorities, which the Biden Administration had described as genocide.  Evidence suggests over one million people have been detained in "re-education camps", where they have been subjected to torture, rape and sexual abuse, something the Chinese leadership denies. The British government has already begun to tighten laws on importing goods linked to alleged human rights abuses. It is likely that they will be asked to do more by the international community as it ramps up pressure on China.

One thing we can be certain of is that the Chinese people themselves will not be aware of many of these develops. Increased state censorship recently led to the banning of the BBC World News from broadcasting in the country, most likely because of its coverage of the persecution of Uighurs, and as a retaliation in response to the British media regulator, Ofcom, revoking the Chinese state broadcaster China Global Television Network's (CGTN) licence to broadcast in the UK. Though most Chinese people cannot view BBC World News due to restrictions in the country, its banning is symbolic of the desire by China to limit any criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese State Film, TV and Radio Administration warned that broadcast guidelines state that news must not "harm China's national interests."

Maintaining a positive relationship will require nuanced diplomacy and working with partner states and institutions, particularly as China continues to build its network of client states and its influence beyond the Asia-Pacific region. The relationship between the West and China will be one of the defining events of the 21st Century. If handled carefully, China's rise can be accommodated within the international system. But, as China's Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xioming, warned last year, "We want to be your friend. We want to be your partner. But if you want to make China a hostile country, you will have to bear the consequences."

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