The UK, Europe and the Rise of China

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May 22, 2019
by Lucy Browett
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The UK, Europe and the Rise of China

Lord Patten of Barnes delivers fifth Palliser Lecture in conversation with Professor Rana Mitter on Europe-China relations in a multi-polar world Lord Patten of Barnes (left) delivers fifth Palliser Lecture in conversation with Professor Rana Mitter (right). Credit: Salzburg Global Seminar/Rebecca Rayne

We “have to take Xi Jinping seriously,” stressed Lord Patten of Barnes in the annual Palliser Lecture on May 21. Addressing an audience of Salzburg Global Fellows, supporters and friends at the Aga Khan Foundation UK in London, the last Governor of Hong Kong spoke in conversation with Professor Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, which was moderated by Clare Shine, vice president and chief program officer of Salzburg Global Seminar. Lord Patten recounted his experiences with China and lamented British preparedness for a post-Brexit role in EU-China relations. 

China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 with the understanding that reforms would take place on discriminatory industrial policies, government intervention in enterprise and its lack of transparency. Since then, the extraordinary economic growth of China has made it necessary for the European Union, its largest trading partner behind the US, to increase collaboration. 

This has included negotiations for an Investment Agreement which launched in 2013, as well as development of the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, which aims to promote continued cooperation on a “peaceful, secure, resilient and open cyberspace” as well as to “deepen exchanges on human rights at the bilateral and international level on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” 

While the general aim of these initiatives is to better align China with European values, Mitter explained that Central and Southern European countries are often hesitant to criticize China’s human rights record due to the benefits these countries have received from Chinese investment.

Despite this apparent progress on a Europe-wide level, there is a sense of unease and distrust about China as a global superpower. The recent scandal over Chinese smartphone manufacturer Huawei has made international headlines, like this week, Google barred them from certain Android updates following a US trade blacklisting from the Trump administration.

Trust is also waning in the UK after a report from the Henry Jackson Society advised a precautionary approach to the tech firm. The foreword to the report, written by former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove, concluded “the engagement of Huawei presents a potential security risk to the UK.” The leak of plans to give Huawei contracts to set up the new 5G cellular network in the country led to the dismissal of the UK Defence Secretary. 

Lord Patten quipped that, incidentally, he believes the best British organization in dealing with China over the years has been MI6.

As not only the last Governor of Hong Kong but also former European Commissioner and a senior British diplomat, Patten has witnessed a changing China.

At the Palliser Lecture, Patten recounted the expectations surrounding the emergence of Xi Jinping and how he has been a vastly different leader to his predecessor. Patten recalled how he and his colleagues assumed Hu Jintao’s reforms would make China a more accountable society. In fact, under Xi, many of those reforms have been rolled back. 

This was the fifth lecture to be held in memory of the Rt Hon Sir Michael Palliser GCMG, who died in 2012. He served as Vice Chairman of Salzburg Global Seminar and was a founding trustee of the London-based 21st Century Trust, which held the event in partnership and now works exclusively with Salzburg Global Seminar. 

Reflecting on the strong authoritarian character of modern-day China, Mitter described the apparent prevalent attitude of Xi: “You will either follow me in cyber-enabled China or get out of the way,” referring to an emerging governmental points-based social credit system. He maintains that if Xi is not at the center of an enterprise in China, it is a lot harder to succeed, with Patten adding that it is misleading to assume that the government is not involved with Chinese business ventures.

Patten referred to the anti-corruption crackdown Xi has been at the forefront of, allowing him to “get a grip” on China, despite the targets being his own political opponents.

The UK will face many unprecedented challenges following its eventual departure from the European Union, one of which is its future relationship with China. Mitter put to Patten the question of how, without the shield of Brussels, the UK can avoid the “trap” of China.

Patten believes that this is one of the most pressing questions of our time: How can we avoid being trapped between the USA and China?

While the answer to this difficult question may not be clear-cut, Patten does not believe that a trade deal with China will be all it has been hyped up to be by leading Brexit politicians. He dismissed the Switzerland-China trade agreement, which is often held up as a beacon of hope for economic prosperity in post-Brexit Britain, as being mainly based in services and not even including one of Switzerland’s trademark goods, the Swiss watch.

Patten debunked the rose-tinted spectacles view of a China-UK trade deal, remarking it would not compare to the UK’s inclusion in the single market.

How does the veteran China watcher believe EU-China relations can best be managed? Patten laments that there are far too few people trained in trade negotiations and far too few are Mandarin speakers. While this is a problem across the EU, the UK will suffer particularly once it has left the union, and Patten cites a decline in funding for foreign language education as a contributing factor in the lack of British and European Mandarin speakers. It is apparent that progress in these areas will need to be made if the UK and Europe are to, as Xi Jinping has already, “get a grip” on China.

At the top of the lecture, Mitter posed the immortal words of Karl Marx to attendees, in relation to European engagement with China: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Time will tell how this history will unfold.


The fifth Palliser Lecture entitled “Europe and the Rise of China: How Can European (including British) Interests and Values Best Be Protected in a Multipolar World?” was delivered by the Rt Hon Lord Patten of Barnes CH, in conversation with Professor Rana Mitter, on May 21, 2019 at the Aga Khan Center in London, UK. The lecture was organized in partnership with the 21st Century Trust.