Britain’s double Chinese betrayal?
The relationship between the Chinese and the British goes back over 200 years. And the products of that relationship are evident throughout what used to be Britain’s Empire. It can be seen in the architecture it left behind in Shanghai and Hong Kong and in the populations of Chinese descent living in Britain and the countries that were part of that Empire, both formal and informal.
The East India Company recruited Chinese seamen in the eighteenth century to man its trading vessels in the Far East. The Royal Navy recruited them in the Napoleonic Wars. Heirs to the Great Voyages of Admiral Zheng He, they were known to be excellent seamen, sober and industrious.
Chinese seamen in their thousands were used in the British merchant fleet in both the First and Second World Wars, most sailing out of the city of Liverpool in the North West of England. Hundreds of these men settled down with local women and began to raise families only to find that at the end of the conflict that they were no longer needed.
After World War I men found themselves unable to get work, some waiting two years to find a ship. After World War II, the situation was to be far worse. Almost twenty thousand Chinese mariners were based in Liverpool manning the convoys that brought the supplies from the USA without which Britain could not fight the War. Like in the first conflict, hundreds formed relationships with girls in the city and had children. At least a thousand babies were born to these Anglo-Chinese couples.
Many of these men were from Shanghai. They had formed their own trade union, separate from that sponsored by the Kuomintang. Soon they came to be regarded by the shipowners as ‘troublemakers’. And troublemakers they were as they fought to be treated as equals of the British mariners. They did the same jobs and faced the same dangers but were payed far less.
Eventually, they achieved what they sought but at the end of the War the shipowners determined to get rid of them. For the men with families this was a disaster. Denied shore work, they were not to be told they had rights to remain in the country if married to a British woman. Offered only one-way voyages back to China few were ever to see their families again. They had served their purpose and were no longer needed.
The parallels with what happened to the citizens of Hong Kong are all too sadly evident. The citizens of Hong Kong were full citizens of the UK. They had full British passports with rights of residence in Britain. Then 1997, the date when the territory had to be handed back to China, appeared on the horizon. Those rights were taken away. Hong Kong was no longer needed. Its people were no longer needed. Even if they did not identify with the PRC – the place from which so many had fled. They would be left to its all-too-doubtful mercies.
It would be an exaggeration to say that concern for Hong Kong’s future disappeared from UK policy at midnight on 1 July 1997 – but not too much of an exaggeration. In a submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into UK relations with China, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office reconfirmed its ‘moral and political’ commitment to the people of Hong Kong. But the main emphasis in this submission was that the UK’s objectives in dealing with China were to influence China’s political, economic and social development in a positive way and to encourage China to play a responsible role both within the region and in the wider international community.
In effect, strengthening economic ties with China is portrayed as being the best way of integrating China into ‘international society’ and also of benefiting the interests of UK business. This is not to say that political dialogue over issues such as human rights has been abandoned. The UK is alone among EU states in retaining a bilateral process of negotiation with China over human rights whilst also participating in multilateral dialogue through the EU. Nevertheless, the UK’s interests in China have been redefined in largely economic terms, and policy towards China has been largely built on the best way of enhancing these economic interests both for their own sake (assisting UK commercial interests) and as a means to an end (of engaging China).
Unease over the UK policy in promoting positive change within China is fired by a concern that economic considerations and commercial interests are overriding other political and ethical concerns. Furthermore, there is a suspicion that China has rewarded countries that take a soft stance on human rights abuses by awarding commercial contracts to companies from those countries. This is particularly the case because commercial interests and private enterprises argue that they need specific government help to access the Chinese market due to its special nature.
China may have a population in excess of 1.3 billion people, but this does not automatically equate to a market of 1.3 billion consumers waiting to buy UK-produced goods and services. Income and wealth is also unevenly spread. There is a considerable divergence of income between coastal provinces and those in the interior, and an even wider division between urban and rural residents. In reality, the current potential market in China for UK producers is probably around 150 million consumers.
Chinese investment has flowed faster into Britain. Its direct investment in the UK has topped 2.3 billion US dollars. Early this year, China Investment Corporation (CIC), the country’s sovereign wealth fund, has bought 8.68% of the company behind the UK utility group Thames Water.
The Chancellor, George Osborne has urged Chinese investors to put money into British transport, energy and utility projects. The planned High Speed 2 rail link from London to Birmingham and the north is among the projects to have attracted interest from China, along with big industrial developments including the Atlantic Gateway in the north-west of England. Other projects under discussion include updating Britain’s energy infrastructure, broadband investment and road schemes.
So, with billons of dollars pouring into the UK, will China have a hold over the UK’s foreign policy when it comes to human rights? We must surely hope not.
Yvonne Foley is founder of www.halfandhalf.org.uk and Sonny Leong is Publisher and Chair for Chinese for LabourTagged in: china, hong kong, Shanghai
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