China’s ambassador to the UK has accused the Government of “gross interference” and “political manipulation” for offering around three million Hongkongers the right to settle in the UK.
Liu Xiaoming was defending a new national security law in the former British colony which clamps down on liberties to “prevent, suppress and punish collusion with a foreign country”.
Relations between the two countries are likely to worsen when Boris Johnson, if as expected, reverses his decision to allow Huawei a role in building the UK’s 5G infrastructure.
Mr Liu warned chillingly yesterday: “We want to be your friend, we want to be your partner, but if you want to make China a hostile country you have to bear the consequences.”
This is a doubling down of the initial Chinese response after the PM offered the Hong Kong citizens refuge in the UK. Then a statement said: “China strongly condemns this and reserves the right to take further measures. The British side will bear all the consequences.”
It’s a far cry from the so-called “golden era” of UK-Chinese relations, when then-premier David Cameron enjoyed a pint and a fish and chip supper with China’s President Xi Jinping five years ago.
But what are the “consequences” China has twice now threatened? And should the UK – and the rest of the world – be worried as China begins to capitalise on its position as an economic and military superpower?
Will big British banks such as HSBC which do business in China suffer? Will we face a wave of cyber attacks like the Australians did last month when they stood up to China? Or will our businesspeople become pawns in this international game like two Canadians who were charged with spying in China?
A country suffering from pandemic economic woes and a possible no-deal Brexit would not want a trade war with China, our sixth largest export market. The most recent figures show the UK exported £22.6billion worth of goods to China in 2018, while importing about twice that amount. But already British businesses are caught up in the politics of the region.
Last month it was reported HSBC chairman Mark Tucker warned Downing Street a ban on Huawei would see the bank facing reprisals in China – despite HSBC’s Asia head Peter Wong publicly declaring support for the new law.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then accused Beijing of “coercive bullying tactics” toward HSBC. So it is no surprise Mr Liu said Britain was having to “bounce to the tune of the other countries” – by which he meant the US.
“Whatever happens we are in for a long and difficult relationship with China,” said Dr Rod Wye, who has more than 30 years’ experience as a government analyst specialising on China and East Asia.
He believes the response from Beijing will come in two forms. One high-profile, and, darker, the stepping up of covert pressure.
“They will make a lot of loud noises designed to put the fear of God into the UK government. Meantime they will step up the under the table stuff,” he said.
Dr Wye, who worked at the British Embassy in Beijing in the 1980s and 90s, said China may well take a post-Brexit deal off the table as punishment for Mr Johnson’s offer to Hong Kong citizens.
And he believes the UK might be the focus of increased espionage – similar to the cyber attacks seen in Australia.
He said: “These are the kind of things everyone knows are happening but which can be denied.
“The noises coming from China suggest they may have even overtaken the Russians in terms of cyber attacks. We could see something like that.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic rejected the “gross interference” claim over Hong Kong.
He said: “It’s a matter of trust and lots of countries around the world are asking this question: does China live up to its international obligations?”
Charles Parton, a former UK diplomat who spent 22 years in Beijing and Hong Kong, believes the threat is sabre-rattling and says the UK should be prepared to call Beijing’s bluff.
“It’s important we hold our nerve,” he says. “They are behaving bizarrely. It’s having a massive quarrel with America. It’s bashing Australia, it’s bashing Canada over the hostages. But I think the days of rolling over have ended.”
He believes that China’s behaviour over Covid tested the rest of the world’s patience.
“People are especially angry over Covid and the lack of humility that was behind it. The propaganda offensive was exactly that – offensive. And people are saying ‘you started it, can’t you just be a bit more humble?’
“Sometimes you have to stand up. We should be looking at limiting their involvement in our infrastructure. The decision on Huawei should be revisited. That might mean some people have to pay and some companies get it in the neck but it is about self-respect.”