Rethinking of May’s visit to China


Recently, an article appeared in The Economist under the headline of “Macartney’s heir” which touches on the British PM’s visit to China. Actually, it is a common practice in any bilateral relations. Yet, May’s visit aroused public attention because she was perceived to “woo” Chinese investment at the cost of human rights and even impairing the “special ties” between UK and the U.S.

The article went further to a story of how 225 years ago, a special envoy George Macartney made his visit to Beijing where he refused to kowtow to Chinese emperor Qian Long according to the traditional court rituals. Here, the writer attempted to use his incomplete knowledge to argue for two things. First, the Chinese ruling elite of today like their precedents in the past are still arrogant if not ignorant. Second, the British envoy did maintain his monarch’s dignity although he lost the opportunity to make business with imperial China. The article justifiesthis ridiculous comparison by arguing that May faced the similar challenge during her 3-day visit to China.

In foreign affairs, it is a sound approach to use history as a comparison sinceit makes no sense to discuss thecurrent issues without knowledge of their roots. Yet, it is also ridiculous to misuse or abuse history as a so-called evidence. It is well-known that the arrogance and ignorance of imperial China, the mentality of both the ruling and the ruled, were totally destroyed by Western ideas and force in the 19th century, during which it was the Britain that had taken the lead in humiliating China. However, China has never vowed to take revenge against any western power that had installed the unequal treaty system in China until 1997. Due to this, the writer of thearticle needs to retake the foundation courses of modern history either in China or in America and Britain.

Then, the article continued that May wanted Britain to be closely involved in the Belt and Road Initiative that is up to a US$ 4trn network of infrastructure projects endorsed by President Xi in person. Once again, it is mistaken to perceive the British approach to the BRI. Although Britain has already preceded other members of the G-7 clubby joining AIIB, May tactfully avoided an open support tothe BRI as she talked to President Xi, “Britain would like to work with China more on practical cooperation than visionary scheme.” Diplomatically, this is a superficial remark given that the two sides have agreed to enhance the “golden era” bilateral relations. In contrary,China regards UK as a key partner for the latter has more practical experiences in promoting the BRI up to G-7 club standards of transparency in finance and banking.

Finally, the writer holds the cold war mentality that a rapidly rising China would use the BRI as a political scheme to expand its leverage and influence in central and EasternEurope and central Asia. Thisconcern echoed the U.S. white paper in which China and Russia were dubbed “strategic competitor”.It implies that the writer is essentially ignorant of China’s foreign policyin terms of the goal and means. In effect, China has argued “the BRI is based on an open, transparent, inclusive and mutually beneficial principle”. Like each rising power in history, it appeals to the world with a national dream, China is no exception. Yet, no matter whether foreign countries including Britain take part in the BRI or not, China will definitely go global with a view to building up a “shared future for mankind”.To that end, China has demonstrated its willingness to adjust itself to be closer to the global rules, norms and standards.

Thereby, any scholar or journalist who tends to work on China is required to grasp the key ideas behind Beijing’s policy. Now“China can’t be in isolation from the world since its overall development needs the world. As a rising power and eventually a developed country, China will stay committed to acting as a defender of the status quo, an accelerator of the globalization and one of the key decision-makers of world affairs.” Here is to quote from British historian Arnold Toynbee that as a consistent civilization and a continuous political entity for more than two millenniums that is the only one in human history, China might be a bet as a responsible player rather than a challenge to the world order.

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.


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