Has the United States lost its best friend to its biggest rival?
As Xi Jinping, president of China, toured Britain and promised large investments, the Chinese word “kowtow” was much heard. The Oxford dictionary defines it as a prostration in which one kneels “in worship or submission” — and contemporaneously, as acting “in an excessively subservient manner.”
Both bear on the presidential state visit.
Historically, the person who received the deepest kowtow was the Chinese emperor himself; the person showing respect knelt three times, each time touching his head on the ground three times — nine times in all. The first British ambassadors, at the end of the 18th century, wouldn’t do that, so full embassy was denied: Emperor Quianlong sent a letter to George III, which made clear his view of foreigners as “barbarians” inevitably inferior to China.
An embassy was not admitted until the British and French beat China into submission in the First (1839-42) and Second (1856-60) Opium Wars. The victors both received trading concessions, while Hong Kong was ceded to the British. For decades after that, the UK was the most powerful nation on earth, visiting on China — whose rulers were hugely sensitive to status — great humiliation.
Now, humiliation is reversed.
More than two centuries after the first ambassador refused to prostrate himself before the Son of Heaven, “kowtow” is used in the first meaning. Xi is being given the highest honors the British state can bestow. Queen Elizabeth II gave him a banquet and a suite in Buckingham Palace (last occupied by her grandson William and his wife on their wedding night); he addressed parliament; he was attended constantly by either the queen, or by Prime Minister David Cameron.
This kind attention is because China may invest up to $46 billion in various projects, including up to $12 billion in a new nuclear power station (together with France). China will use the City of London for international banking and currency and other trading; and will favor Britain when importing services.
In this newfound amity, there has been no public mention from the British side of human or civil rights. No lectures on the imprisonment of dissidents, nor the suppression of already limited press freedoms, nor even of the vast corruption that still plagues the country, in spite of Xi’s campaign against it. This silence — it’s widely said — is Britain’s shame.
Steve Hilton, once Cameron’s closest advisor said that the behavior of his former boss “is one of the worst national humiliations we’ve seen since we went cap-in-hand to the IMF in the 1970s” (in 1976, the International Monetary Fund loaned a near-bankrupt UK $4 billion).
The dissident artist Ai Weiwei, now in London, said the Chinese — who, he believes, are becoming more aware of their rights — would be “deeply disappointed” when they saw Cameron “put human rights aside.”
These polemics are likely to fade back into debates among specialists and activists: but there is a yet larger issue, now coming to the fore.
Britain has seen itself as the United States’ best friend on the international scene for more than a century. I had thought that we British overdid its importance — till I heard the president of the United States tell an audience in the House of Commons in May 2013 that it was special, very special, “because of the values and beliefs that have united our people through the ages”.
That doesn’t seem to have stood the test of time. This past year has been special only for the disquiet that’s crept into the relationship, as successive high U.S. officials deplored cuts to the UK’s defense capacity. Then, in March, the disquiet became acrimony, as the UK headed the list of Western states to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment bank, with only minimal warning to the United States. One senior official spoke of a “constant accommodation” of China by the Brits.
Now, the U.S. administration believes that, according to another unnamed source, “there was a major rethink at the highest levels of the UK government that (they) were going to fall over ourselves to send a signal that (they) want a good relationship with China. It’s a pretty un-British thing to do.” It is un-British: being British has meant being close to the United States — not, apparently insouciantly, hacking away at ties that have bound the two main Anglophone nations in favor of a new and sudden Asian passion.
It’s a very large gamble on the still-rising power; and implicitly, it’s a bet against the United States, which, while still by far the richest and most powerful state, is steadily declining relative to China. That major rethink was led by the chancellor, George Osborne, Cameron’s likely successor when he stands down before the next election in 2020: it seems to have included such considerations as the globally-perceived weakness of this and likely future U.S. presidents, the permanent jam in Washington politics and the turning inward of the U.S. establishment — especially on the right.
Further, a referendum sometime in the next two years on British membership in the European Union may prompt an exit from the Union — and the need for this middle-sized state to find new, big friends. Britain’s economy is growing at around 2.5 percent — among the leaders among developed economies — but latest figures show signs of slowing, and manufacturing remains weak. The East may not be (very) red any more, but it’s increasingly loaded with wealth.
A very large shift in the UK’s international posture may thus be on the cards: if confirmed, the consequences will be much larger than those for the country itself. It will underscore the United States’ weakening position; further alarm the other EU members, who would see a British exit — “Brexit” — as major damage; weaken the once-strong UK voice in the realm of human and civil rights, and at the same time bind it to a China whose growth, though still almost three times higher than that of the UK, is slowing and whose human rights record is still dire.
There’s a different possibility, not much heard among the criticism: that the UK could be a bridge, not just between Europe and the United States, but between China and the United States — as Margaret Thatcher was between the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. And there could be a possibility that the closer relationship may — contrary to Ai Weiwei’s forecast disappointment — help China improve.
At the press conference he gave on Wednesday, Xi said “there is always room for improvement in the world. China is ready to increase co-operation with UK and other countries over human rights.”
Does that have real meaning? Or was it simply a way of fending off aggressive questions from British journalists, not something Xi faces in his own country.
It seems, prima facie, unlikely. But we have to hope there is meaning there, and that Britain has not sold the “values and beliefs” Obama lauded four years ago for a mess of money. That would be a bad deal.