Charming China: Britain Must Adjust Its Outlook Radically If We Are to Benefit from Asia-Pacific Growth

By Perry, Stephen | New Statesman (1996), June 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Charming China: Britain Must Adjust Its Outlook Radically If We Are to Benefit from Asia-Pacific Growth


Perry, Stephen, New Statesman (1996)


Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty will shortly be complete. Now is the time to turn our attention to Hong Kong's future interests and a clear identification of what the British interest will be.

Recent history has shown that trying to negotiate with China from a position of international pressure rarely produces the desired result. The reality is that negotiation and diplomacy, recognising the cultural differences and real differences of historical perspective, provide the best potential for the people of Hong Kong.

Britain does not have the leverage of the US, with its status as the remaining global superpower and its huge trade levels with China (40 times those of Britain's). The recent support of the G7 for Britain's insistence on upholding democratic structures cannot hide the reality that our fellow Europeans did not back the UN vote on human rights in China; and even if the British and US governments do not attend the 1 July swearing-in ceremonies, most others will.

The choice is clear: we can either follow the example of the previous government in relation to Europe and stand at loggerheads with China - the nation at the centre of Asia-Pacific, or we can follow Tony Blair's European approach and engage in a new way in Asia-Pacific and especially with China. The second course is the preferred stance of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Japan. It has even been reported that President Clinton has opted to follow the route of constructive engagement.

This approach will, however, require the support of China's leaders. And the prime minister could find himself in a corner with them, unless they are fully apprised of how the debate will play in the media here and how parliamentary consideration will undoubtedly be used to score political points.

In other words we need to engage in a great deal of high-level relationship-building and exchange of ideas. This cannot be left to diplomats: their involvement will serve only to ensure the Chinese leaders are not properly briefed and their support is potentially lost.

So what are the components of a fresh start in Sino-British relations? First, more political contact: we should be sending to China more regular and high-level missions of government, politicians and key groupings. The Chinese have sent many high-level missions to Britain, but not enough have gone the other way. A high-level UK-China Forum would enable relations to develop in a variety of ways.

Second, the right kind of persuasion: we know the Chinese do not respond well to public pressure, such as allegations about gulags and orphanages. We also know, however, that they would be willing to set up joint groups to consider the British experience on prisons, police work, orphanages, even national minorities issues. …

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