Opinion / Chris Peterson

A relationship over 300 years in the making

By Chris Peterson (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-07-08 08:09

United Kingdom's long ties with China will hopefully help the nation brave the Brexit storm

Sometimes the best relationships take years to evolve, and in the case of China and Britain, the origins stretch back to the late 18th century. It's been a bumpy ride, and there are things that both sides may regret.

If this sounds like a marriage counseling session, in a way it is.

Let's go back to the beginning.

A relationship over 300 years in the making

It all started innocuously. Someone further up the food chain than me here at China Daily thought it would be great if I could contribute an article on British reaction to the Communist Party of China's 95th birthday.

Fine, until I pointed out that Britain as a sovereign state does not formally or officially recognize political parties, and few people follow CPC affairs that closely here.

That seemed to be that until I recalled that Britain became the first Western power to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1950. So now we had something to work with.

Then, as is inevitably the case, a major breaking news story obliterated any chances I had of meeting the self-imposed deadline for a detailed feature. Britons selfishly and amazingly voted in favor of leaving the European Union (a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas). Britain's political establishment seemed to implode, and only now is my mind free enough to return to the question of China-UK ties.

As an amateur historian, China and its connections to Britain have always fascinated me. It is fertile ground for the kind of detail and stories that appeal to me, and makes history come alive.

Take, for example, the British envoy Lord Macartney's mission to Beijing in 1793, the first time the UK attempted to make official contact with the Chinese empire.

A relationship over 300 years in the making

It didn't go that well at first. My favorite anecdote is the one about Chinese officials saying Macartney, a British aristocrat and official representative of King George III, would have to kowtow to Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799). That was never going to happen, so in true British style a compromise was reached in which Macartney would bend the knee slightly in the sort of courtly gesture he would make to his own monarch. (Here in Britain, we didn't go for the forehead-banging routine - too much like hard work.)

The emperor sent a long letter to King George. I won't trouble you with the details, but in essence he told him that he'd given Macartney a good dinner and loads of presents, but there was no way a permanent British ambassador could be based at the Beijing court. At least he didn't tell the British monarch to tremble and obey.

Things went from bad to worse - let's just agree the Opium Wars were a very bad idea, the annexation of Hong Kong dubious, and the virtual break up of China into individual fiefdoms an extremely bad move.

One bright spot was the determination of the Chinese Communists and nationalists to link with the British in their determination to overcome Japanese military-backed expansionism in the '30s and '40s.

This leads us to 1950, and the British recognition of the CPC as the force that brought China together again. Of course, British recognition wasn't entirely altruistic, worried as London was by the fate of thousands of Britons living in China and its various business interests.

In 1997, China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong in a deal that seems to have satisfied both sides, and the relationship has been getting stronger and closer ever since, culminating in October's state visit to the UK by President Xi Jinping, which both sides said heralded a "golden era" of relations.

As I write, it seems that close relationship will be one of the factors that helps Britain weather an extraordinary period of uncertainty.

I really hope so.

The author is managing editor of China Daily European Bureau, based in London. Contact the writer at

(China Daily European Weekly 07/08/2016 page12)

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