Protesters stand outside the Chinese Embassy in London ©Philip Robins/Newzulu/PA Images
The Chinese government has hinted that if Britain does not give the go-ahead to the Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset, then it will revise its future plans for investment in the UK. China is a part investor in the Hinkley project, along with the French government-owned company EDF and both are keen for the project to go ahead. But, as Prospect has reported the project is beset by problems of scale, funding and reactor design. These questions have caused Theresa May to pause the project so that the government can review the situation. Remarks made today suggest that the Chinese government is willing to use its proposed investments in Britain over the next decade as a lever to make sure the project goes through. The Times reported today that the Chinese government wants the project to start “as soon as possible.” Last week, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said: “The new British government is actually running the risk of dampening the hard-won mutual trust with China.” China is planning many tens of billions of pounds’ worth of investment in Britain, as well as Hinkley.
Only a year ago, things were very different. In 2015, when President Xi Jingping visited London for a state visit, a Treasury statement announced that £30bn worth of commercial deals had been completed during the visit. These, the government suggested, would create over 3,900 jobs in the UK. Who could possibly pour cold water on such economic benefits? The economic logic of China, with its surplus, investing in deficit-ridden Britain has an irresistible symmetry. But in cosying up to the Chinese, promising investment opportunities and a safe financial haven for off-shore trade in the Chinese currency, did we go too far? Can Britain and China ever be true partners?
Several years ago, I had my one encounter with the Chinese state. It left me with a deep sense that the answer is no.
The Chinese Embassy is located on Portland Place, based in one of the large mansions close to the BBC’s headquarters at the top of Regent’s Street. On the pavement outside the Embassy a policeman usually stands with a machine gun. On the opposite pavement, protestors are often found meditating cross-legged on a mat, surrounded by boards, on which were pasted images of prisoners allegedly tortured in Chinese jails.
The inside of the Embassy is very different to its façade. There are no 18th century fittings. Instead the building has the feel of a 1970s conference centre, all thick red carpets and wood-paneled walls, long, ill-lit corridors. Every curtain in the Embassy is drawn. There is little natural light within.
When I paid my one and only visit early last year, the press staff were impeccably polite. I was shown into a large room by a young woman, where tea was served by an attendant. She spoke about a London museum display of Chinese art and a Chinese language Shakespeare company that had plans to visit Britain.
Then the head of press entered, a calm, charming man who spoke in a low voice about cooperation. The darkness of the room, the exquisite politeness of the people and the delicate aroma of the tea—the meeting was going well.
The press office had made investigations and asked about suitable publications and ours, I was told, was meant to be very good. We spoke for around thirty minutes, much of which was made up of warm statements on the importance of cooperation. The meeting over, my hosts stood and thanked me for coming. We shook hands. And as he was leaving the Head of Press handed me a few sheets of A4 paper. It was an article, he explained, by the Chinese Ambassador to Britain. He left the room.
At the time of my visit to the embassy, the Chinese and Japanese had experienced a sharp decline in relations over a chain of disputed islands in the South China Sea. The ownership of those islands is still disputed, but at that time, relations had become especially sour. The article that I had been handed at the Chinese Embassy was on the subject of those disputed islands and took the form of a prolonged attack on the Japanese government. The text centred on Japan’s historic crimes, and came close to comparing the then Japanese government with its Second World War counterpart.
On reading it, I felt the familiar sensation of a scoop turning to dust in the hands. It was very obvious that the article by the Ambassador was useless and could not be run. It was a straight statement of Chinese government policy, and as such, it was not journalism. I sent an email to the Embassy declining the piece and got on with other things.
Then the phone calls started.
They were polite phone calls, but insistent—very insistent. Why had the piece not been used? I explained. But I thought that we were going to work together. I explained that we would be interested in other articles by the Ambassador, but not this particular piece framed in quite this particular way. But you said that you would run the piece. No, I said that we might run a piece, if we thought it was suitable and this was not suitable. Why is it not suitable?
And so on…
Over the course of a week I was called between ten and fifteen times by members of the press office and by the Head of the Press, demanding to know why we were not running the article. The calls became increasingly confrontational. By the end it became clear that I was simply being instructed to run the article. I explained in one conversation, at length, that no British publication would ever publish anything other than what it chose. Eventually the phone calls stopped.
I was deeply struck by this encounter. China, is greatly reformed and a long way from its worst Maoist excesses. Yet it is still a single party state, in which the government controls the economy and all major enterprise. The media is controlled. There is no freedom of speech. People are still executed in China by a bullet to the back of the neck. The family is then charged for the ammunition used. If political bigwigs put a foot wrong (as did Bo Xilai the charismatic former governor of Liaoning) they simply vanish.
Despite its friendly overtures, despite the pageantry of last year’s state visit and despite its money, China is not looking for friends. It is looking for people who will do what they are told. It is to be hoped that Theresa May will keep this in mind when the pressure starts to build over Hinckley point and the telephone calls begin.