As the COVID-19 pandemic takes its toll in the West, the politics of appropriating “blame” to China is accelerating. Recently, a British Conservative Party-linked newspaper, the Mail, unleashed a scathing editorial against Beijing. Citing sources inside No.10 Downing Street, the paper proclaimed that the government is furious with “China’s lies” and proceeded to cite an anonymous cabinet member who claimed that after the crisis was over there would be a “reckoning against Beijing.” These claims were echoed later, when Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told BBC that the country’s inability to adequately prepare for the virus was due to Beijing’s lack of transparency. Later, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab answered a question related to China at a press conference, saying a “lessons learnt” inquiry would be needed.
While Britain’s relationship with China has been positive in recent years, with Boris Johnson’s government refusing American pressure to ban Huawei from participating in the country’s 5G network. Five years ago the country proclaimed a “Golden Era” of relations with China, even though there was elephant in the room as Britain still held its elitist and former imperialist perspective toward China. Despite the conundrum of Brexit, many within the British government have failed to adequately assess the country’s position in the modern world and are driven by the nostalgia for the British Empire. Not only does the UK lack economic clout, but China will never again allow itself to be humiliated by Britain, or by anyone else for that matter.
The British Empire played a pivotal but disreputable role in China’s early modern history through opening and inflicting upon it “the century of humiliation.” Although long gone are those times, many Chinese people haven’t forgotten how the West refused to accept China as an equal and sought to reshape it to their own vision of civilization.
The era of British Imperialism may be long over, but the mind-set of British elitism and its perceptions of the wider world continue to linger, especially within the Conservative Party. Brexit itself is a product of this attitude, embedded with a belief that Britain is exceptional, superior and capable of making its own way in the world without integration with Europe.
Not surprisingly, this shapes contemporary attitudes toward China too. While on the one hand the British elite see the country as if it was times of old, a vast economic opportunity, on the other they place emphasis on their perceived enlightenment and superiority over Beijing and the continued rhetoric of a “civilizing mission.”
However, such superiority is out of touch with reality. The Chinese economy is five times the size of Britain’s. UK GDP growth even before the coronavirus crisis was forecasted at just 1.1 percent, and the country had already alienated one major trading partner throughout the European Union. The US, with its aggressive emphasis on protectionism and “America First,” is hardly a reliable alternative. The costs of a confrontation with Beijing could be staggering. Boris Johnson may opt to reverse his decision on Huawei to spite China, but this would be a self-inflicted wound that will cost British taxpayers dearly.
It is no surprise given these circumstances that the Daily Mail columnist Dominic Lawson later mocked the British government’s threat of retaliation by dubbing it as what Chairman Mao Zedong described as a “paper tiger” – observing that the government was making noise but there is little it could do.
Almost certainly, any action might be described as “cutting off one’s nose to spite their face” – China will not allow itself to be humiliated by opportunistic deflections from the British government, which seeks to dismiss its own failure in combating the coronavirus. Although China always hopes for a positive relationship with the UK, it will not allow the legacies of the past to be repeated. Britannia doesn’t rule the waves anymore, and Downing Street must wake up to the new strategic realities of post-Brexit Britain.