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How The Coronavirus Has Strained U.K.-China Ties

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Queen Elizabeth II during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace during Xi's state visit to Britain in October 2015. During Xi's visit, the queen hailed a new "golden era" in relations between the two countries.
Dominic Lipinski
Chinese President Xi Jinping with Queen Elizabeth II during a state banquet at Buckingham Palace during Xi's state visit to Britain in October 2015. During Xi's visit, the queen hailed a new "golden era" in relations between the two countries.

In 2015, Queen Elizabeth accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping in a gilded, horse-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace, during a visit that was supposed to symbolize "a new golden era" of closer economic ties between this former empire and the ascendant power in the east.

"The relationship between China and the United Kingdom is now truly a global partnership," the queen declared during a state banquet.

Five years later, the tone and attitude in London are totally different. Political analysts say the growing assertiveness of the Chinese government and its recent coronavirus disinformation campaign have soured relations and encouraged lawmakers and members of the British government to reconsider its China policy.

"I think the Chinese have shown a remarkable ability to shoot themselves in the feet," says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.

Britain's top diplomat, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, says there are tough conversations ahead between the two countries.

"There's no doubt, we can't have business as usual after this crisis," Raab said at a press briefing last month. "We'll have to ask the hard questions about how it came about and how it could have been stopped earlier."

Raab was referring to calls by officials in the United Kingdom and other liberal democracies including Sweden, Australia and the United States, for an investigation into the origins and initial handling of the virus.

Political analysts say relations between the U.K. and China had already been declining in recent years.

In 2017, students at Durham University went public when a Chinese embassy official reportedly threatened them to drop a human rights activist from a public debate on China. British lawmaker Tom Tugendhat says that same year, Liu Xiaoming, Beijing's ambassador to the U.K., tried to dictate terms of a parliamentary trip to China.

"He attempted to tell us who we could and couldn't take on the visit," recalled Tugendhat, who chairs Parliament's foreign affairs committee. "The bullying by the Chinese ambassador to London actually rather revealed the nature of the regime."

Relations worsened this year, after it emerged that officials in Wuhan tried to cover up discovery of the coronavirus. Beijing's initial handling of the crisis "sowed doubt in people's minds about how reliable China is as a partner," says Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Center and the author of a forthcoming book, China's Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism.

Charges and counter-charges followed. In February, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton suggested — without evidence — the virus had come from a Wuhan lab, which China denied. The next month, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, suggested — also without evidence — that the American military had brought the virus to China.

"We're seeing, effectively, a concerted attempt to use propaganda to change the narrative," Tugendhat said.

China insists it has been transparent and critics are smearing it.

During a recent video session with London's Asia House, Ambassador Liu likened the criticism and even lawsuits against China to the tactics of past imperialists, apparently alluding to the 19th century Opium Wars, when Britain forced China to cede territory and open itself to trade with the West. The Chinese Communist Party describes what followed as a "century of humiliation."

"Some people want to play world police," Liu said. "This is not the era of gunboat diplomacy... These people think they live in the old days. They think they can bully China."

The Chinese Embassy in London did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Under global pressure, Beijing says it will support a World Health Organization investigation into the virus' origins, but only after the pandemic has been brought under control.

For decades, Chinese diplomats around the world generally maintained a low profile, following the philosophy of the late leader Deng Xiaoping, who urged "hide your strength, bide your time." But under Xi, so-called "Wolf Warrior" diplomats have emerged, named for patriotic action films about a Chinese special forces operative who dispatches foreign mercenaries and arms dealers, Rambo-style.

Among those seen as Wolf Warriors is Gui Congyou, China's ambassador to Sweden. After a former Hong Kong bookseller, who is imprisoned in China, was honored with a human rights award in Sweden last year, Gui told Swedish public radio: "We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns."

Most analysts say the aggressive tone is primarily aimed at a Chinese domestic audience, to stoke national pride and show that Beijing is willing to attack critics and defend the country's honor. Charlie Parton, a retired British diplomat, calls the Wolf Warriors "national treasures" — not for China, but for Britain and other liberal democracies.

"They are wonderful representations of how nasty the party really can be, stripped of all this 'win, win' and 'in a shared destiny of mankind' rhetoric," said Parton, referring to two of the Chinese government's favorite slogans about the country's relationship with the rest of the world.

As the Chinese government continues to assert itself, some British lawmakers say the U.K. needs a new, more sophisticated and nuanced approach. For starters, Tugendhat says, Britain must eventually eject Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, from the U.K.'s 5G system.

Parton, who has spent more than two decades either working in China or covering the country, agrees, arguing that continuing to allow a Chinese company access to critical infrastructure is too risky and could make Britain beholden to the Chinese government.

"Can we make decisions in other areas unrelated to 5G and telecommunications in which China looms large?" Parton said. "And we think, 'Well, actually, we've got to be careful because ultimately they could cause us real problems.'"

Parton says British politicians need to tone down the rhetoric, as the U.K. still needs China for medical supplies, among other things. But he believes Britain's reliance on China's economy – China was the U.K.'s sixth-largest export market and fourth largest source of imports in 2018 – is overblown.

Any moves to change the U.K.'s relationship with the world's second-largest economy, though, will have to be weighed against the economic damage caused by the pandemic and Britain's relative isolation coming out of Brexit.

"We're certainly not a position to go into any kind of Cold War, but we have to nonetheless engage with [China] on our own terms," says Mitter. "It's really hard, but nobody said that geopolitics was easy."

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Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.