Photo credit: IOE China
The year is 2013, but if George Osborne is to be believed, it may as well be 1793, the year that George Macartney carried out his famous visit to China. Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer remarked to the Daily Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan, “I do think there is an ambition in the country and a sense of optimism and ‘can do’ which our country had in the Victorian age and had at other points in our history.” Where does this ambition lay, Osborne was asked. “We’ve got to start by understanding that China is an ancient civilization with a long and proud history,” the Chancellor said. Osborne’s words will have been music to the ears of Chinese officials, who now enjoy a burgeoning confidence about China’s place in the world. This kind of confidence has not been seen since any Chinese ruler since the Qianlong emperor, who received Macartney at his summer residence in Chengde, north of Beijing. But while Osborne is jealous of the sense of ambition that is pervasive around China, it is his foe in the eventual Conservative Party leadership contest, Boris Johnson, who has been the talk of the town everywhere he has been during his own recent trip to China. While the rhetoric of both British politicians has been topped up with a healthy dose of criticism, people on both sides of the UK-China relationship remain aware that they each have things they can learn from the other.
Western governments have been quick to criticize China for its human rights abuses, and for its non-conditional dealings with the world’s most questionable regimes, from Sudan to Zimbabwe. This moralising was not under the sole command of the American government: a controversial meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama 18 months ago led to a froideur between London and Beijing which has only thawed with the visit of Osborne to China. Downing Street, it would seem, has decided to shed its previous qualms about Beijing’s human rights record for the time being. “China is what it is. And we have to either be here or be nowhere”, said Osborne. The manner in which Osborne has opened the doors to some of Britain’s most sensitive industries for Chinese investment may prove jarring for some, but it indicates just how much value the Chancellor places on building a strategic partnership with China. The Chinese government has been allowed to join French energy firm EDF to build a new nuclear power plant in the British county of Somerset. Meanwhile, Osborne also paid a visit to the headquarters of Huawei, the telecoms giant accused by the CIA of espionage on behalf of the government in Beijing. Osborne noted, “I know there are some countries that are a little nervous of Huawei. This is not Britain. I think Huawei is a fantastic company with a great future and a great future in the UK.” The Chancellor again addressed concerns about the moral implications of dealing with China. “We do have to jolt some pre-conceived ideas in Britain – we can either be here or be nowhere.” Perhaps blinded by his jealously of China’s ambitiousness and entrepreneurial spirit, George Osborne’s performance bore a resemblance to the imperial practice of foreign dignitaries such as Macartney paying tribute to the emperor and kowtowing before him.
In the same week that George Osborne performed a metaphorical kowtow in China, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, also paid a visit to China. While Osborne, as the Daily Telegraph’s Matthew Norman wrote, looked “as uncomfortable and puny as ever”, this trip was right up Johnson’s alley, as the mayor engaged in his good-natured banter with all around him. The content of what he said was not far removed from what Osborne expressed. He made similar desperate calls for Chinese investment in the UK, telling an audience at Peking University that “China’s recent economic growth is nothing short of staggering and the opportunities that this provides for London are huge.” Reports indicate that Johnson also wants to set up London as an overseas trading hub for the RMB. But what sets Johnson apart from Osborne succeeded in winning the hearts of ordinary Chinese citizens, who would likely vote for him and against Osborne were they able to vote in the next Conservative leadership elections. Never one to shy away from populism at home in London, Johnson did not hesitate to apply his usual tactics in Beijing. Riding a specially-imported Boris Bike or travelling on the Beijing subway, Boris was a breath of fresh air in the Chinese capital, where rumours that President Xi Jinping once took a ride in the back of a Beijing taxi were denied by official sources and derided on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. It was also on Weibo that the public’s enthrallment with Boris has been most visible. One user wrote, “I simply want to know how to move to London without breaking any law? PS: I am poor!!! PPS: we all love you!! XOXO!”, while others were more open in making a direct comparison between Johnson and his Chinese counterparts: “Our nation’s officials, please learn from others.” His popularity was at least partially due his buffoonery and man-of-the-people style. An article from the Shandong-based Qilu Evening News commented that Johnson gave the impression of being a 屌丝 (a term meaning “loser”, but one with which many young Chinese identify). Just as in London, Boris’s floppy hair and playful manner won him many plaudits.
In policy circles, Osborne’s visit will be seen as the more distinct success: the Chancellor returned to the United Kingdom with concrete deals in place for the Hingley Point power plant and with a bolstered relationship with Huawei. Johnson comes back to London with little to show for his time in China – nothing approaching a solid deal on RMB trading in London and no more than a few favourable words on Weibo. As it stands, the existing envy between the different actors in these events will be consolidated: Osborne will yearn for the public persona that Johnson displays so effortlessly. Johnson will want for London the trade deals and investment commitments that Osborne has secured. The Chinese people will want what Londoners enjoy: a leader who is not afraid to mingle with them and who makes meaningful contributions to their living environment. But most of all, the leaders of China will be envious of a man who, with one ride on the Beijing metro, led a netizen to tell his country’s rulers to learn from the example set by West. This, certainly, is an envy that Qianlong will never have felt.