One irritation for anyone involved in Sino-British diplomacy over the past 15 years has been the various attempts by the UK to “rebrand” itself in China. Surveys show that the Chinese regard Britain as conservative, swathed in smog and littered with ancient castles. Whoever first introduced this suite of stereotypes was a marketing genius, because millions of British taxpayers’ money has done nothing to reposition Britain in the minds of the Chinese as the cool, creative, modern place it claims to be.
For all the hype, the Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit merely the latest in a series of attempts to get the Chinese to see the British in a different light. The odd thing is that this time all the established stereotypes are being redeployed. It was Prince William, during a visit to Beijing in March this year, who carried the invitation for Xi to come here. And it will be Xi’s temporary accommodation in Buckingham Palace and the images of him marching in to a state banquet with the Queen that will figure most in media coverage in China. The British tactic seems to be that these hoary old symbols are worth exploiting to win the bigger prize: economic engagement.
To achieve this, Chancellor George Osborne, the chief China zealot in the government, is taking a great diplomatic risk. He played every trick in the book to grant Xi an imperial-style reception in London. Lord Macartney’s delegation to China in 1793, the first ever from Britain, was doomed when the Brits refused to kowtow to the emperor. But there is a good chance, were Osborne to travel back in a time machine, that he would tell them to swallow their pride and bend.
There is the potential that cash will come. The world’s second-largest economy has been a penurious trader and investor in the UK. China has accrued trillions of foreign reserves (though these ebb by the day) and it may be poised to unleash its investment across the world through state and non-state vehicles, but the UK seems to belong in the “action tomorrow” box rather than receiving any of this largesse today. For a decade, a stalwart constituency of the faithful here has been eagerly awaiting the arrival of mountains of renminbi. But so far, only 0.1 per cent of the stock of foreign investment in Britain is from China.
That it is so small might prove to be a blessing for Osborne. Doubling, tripling or quadrupling it in a year would be a feat worth declaring from the rooftops, even if it will have little impact beyond the symbolic. There will, of course, be long-term consequences. Osborne has had to expend huge political and diplomatic capital on this visit, dealing with brickbats from the media, other allies and trading partners, as well as his own party, over human rights in China and its difference in political and social values from the UK. He needs big returns fast in order to maintain this position and prove he was right.
The pressure is on Xi, too. His visit will be judged a success if it resets attitudes towards China in the UK – and the UK in China. Xi is ambitious. The idea that this visit will appear materially different from the campaigns in the past that have tottered along and then fizzled out will appeal to him.
To ensure that his visit differs from those of other high-level leaders, he will need to cut through the remarkable indifference towards China by the British public and political elite. In Australia, China inspires strong emotions – in the words of the former prime minister Tony Abbott, “fear and greed”. In America, it stirs antagonism and pushback (not least from Donald Trump). In the UK, China hardly registers one way or the other. The default response seems to be curt and measured acknowledgment that China has come a long way in the past decade – but so what?
Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, may be able to energise some of that indifference. A seasoned singing star in her own right, she has been deployed as a soft-power weapon. But Xi, with his refusal to hold interviews while in London, and his imperious manner, will probably reinforce the notion that China is a huge country run by inscrutable-looking men.
For television viewers across China, the Britain they see will be similar to the one they have been watching, or imagining, for most of the past few decades: a stately, formally dressed, unelected elderly lady, marching in step beside their own unelected national leader. These are hardly the ingredients for a magnificent relationship to blossom: rather the slicker, image-conscious delivery of more of the same.
Kerry Brown is the director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister