“No economy in the world is as open to Chinese investment as the UK,” declared George Osborne on a visit in 2015. Few Western nations would make such a claim today, but the then-Chancellor was on an unapologetic charm offensive that took him to Beijing skyscrapers, and saw him interviewed on bullet trains and paraded in front of giant red flags.
Osborne batted away questions over human rights violations while claiming China stood up for free trade. He even touted the expanding global presence of tech titan Huawei as an example of how the ruling Communist party had embraced free market capitalism.
“There is always more we could be doing with China because I see China as an opportunity not a threat,” he said on one of his visits.
China was the future and Britain wanted to be front of the queue to reap the benefits.
The new “golden era” of UK-China relations that Osborne hailed has lost its shine in the years since, however. Old wounds stretching back centuries to the Opium Wars have reopened while the very 21st century issues of 5G and tech infrastructure security have created new sources of tension.
Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London, says relations were dominated by Hong Kong up until the handover in 1997 and the UK, like other countries, has attempted an “engagement policy” since.
“Under Osborne and Cameron, it became ‘let’s go for investment and trade’ and not get bogged down in complex arguments about values,” he says.
“The thing we are seeing now is the end of this engagement policy… China has not been what people thought it would be.”