Op-ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip Visit The Great Wall, 1986.
Jun. 6 – The past week, of course, has seen national celebrations of the Queen’s diamond jubilee – 60 years on the throne. Amazing crowds thronging not just the streets of London, but across the country, the Commonwealth and beyond have displayed a sense of affection and majesty that few nations can emulate. Britain’s Royal Family, it seems, is as revered as never before, and Queen Elizabeth II herself enjoys a popularity ranking that politicians would die for.
Yet, as the Queen settled down for lunch following yesterday’s service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I turned to watch the Chinese coverage. And there, in lurid headlines, was not anything especially commemorative. Instead, the Chinese ran headlines such as “Prince Phillip has 30 overseas mistresses?????” and chronicling the messy divorces and scandals certain members of the Royal Family have had over the years. Quite apart from the fact that Prince Phillip is now 90 and in the hospital, and that the suggestion concerning his lovers was followed by a string of question marks, the Chinese reaction in reporting the event belies a nation still wary of monarchy. The Communist Party rules, it seems, and monarchs the world over – having disposed of their own – should be despised. Not surprisingly, I find that a rather shabby attitude to project on someone’s 60th anniversary.
Being British in China has not always been easy. The handover of Hong Kong of course prompted much national gloating, while more serious issues have occasionally arisen – not just when NATO dropped a bomb on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (the UK being members of NATO made Brits culpable) and being harassed at the time in Shanghai. But prior to that were the events of the mid 1800s when Britain was a dominant world power and instigated wars in and with China. The two Canton wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and various other shady deals involving opium of course were not the highlight of the Empire. Yet flicking through the pages of an 1872 directory of businesses in Hong Kong that I have in my possession, I note under the industry category “Opium Traders” some 20 listed, of which ten are Chinese, five Indian, one American and four Brits. The common belief that the evils of Englishmen were totally responsible for the opium trade it seems is something of a moot point, yet we have remained tarnished with the full weight of that particular sordid episode of British history ever since.
Moving on, British soldiers fought in China against the Japanese in World War II, and many British airmen died ferrying supplies across the Himalayas from British India down into China in support of Chinese troops in Yunnan. Such heroics appear to have been set aside. Even the annual Remembrance Day at Hong Kong’s cenotaph went unmarked for several years after the handover of Hong Kong, just yards away from where the bullet ridden bronze lions outside the HSBC building in Central once gave cover for British soldiers repelling the invading Japanese while being strafed by machine gun fire for their efforts. Clearly, although a lot was historically wrong with British behavior in China, a good deal was right as well.
In more contemporary times, the British presence in contemporary China is actually quite revealing – the Brits were one of the first to acknowledge the Communist Party as legitimate rulers of China, and among the first to establish diplomatic relations with them. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s, for example, that the Americans did the same. Hong Kong of course has been a huge success since the handover (it wasn’t doing too badly beforehand either), yet nowadays that is all put down to the industrious Chinese. History validates the victor, after all. So what does Britain actually do for China? For a more pragmatic and less sensationalist view, let’s take a look at the trade figures:
As can be seen, UK-China bilateral trade has doubled in the past five years, with the balance being the British purchasing Chinese manufactured goods in increasing quantities. Last year, despite the global slowdown, saw the UK import over US$46 billion worth of Chinese products, an increase of 8.2 percent over the previous year. Britain in fact is a major customer of China, and places some serious orders with the country. Britain keeps Chinese workers in jobs and contributes significant amounts of trade to the Chinese economy. That is set to continue – the UK has agreed to expand bilateral trade with China to some US$100 billion by 2015, with the bulk of that being in China’s favor.
Perhaps when dealing with other nations and their own history and celebrations, the Chinese may wish to consider their more modern position. Running TV news about the Royal Family’s problems and suggesting the Duke of Edinburgh has a string of lovers around the world is not an appropriate way to treat either the Queen during her 60th Jubilee celebrations, nor the British people as a whole. While it is natural to moan about the Colonial Era, that period is long dead and buried. A relationship worth US$100 billion per year is not to be sneezed at, and the Queen, lest China forget, has done more than her share in bringing the relationship between the two nations closer and more conducive towards enriching the very people whose ancestors were once supported by British troops against invading Japanese. Some respect, rather than mockery, is overdue.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates and a member of the Royal Overseas League in London. Dezan Shira & Associates is a specialist foreign direct investment practice, providing corporate establishment, business advisory, tax advisory and compliance, accounting, payroll, due diligence and financial review services to multinationals investing in emerging Asia. Since its establishment in 1992, the firm has grown into one of Asia’s most versatile full-service consultancies with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Vietnam as well as liaison offices in Italy and the United States.
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this is not totally true i think. there are many medias in China too, if it’s xinhua news or other main stream media to smear, then it’s goverment’s idea. Afterall Royal family is out of politican now, it’s not useful to smear them.
And i saw many news about old American flying tigers members, China also fought with USA in Korea.
Bilateral trade benefits bilaterally, if Chinese shirts price goes up, i don’t think Brits will still support China. So i think you are a little overreacted in this case.
@Gavin – the story was there alright, I was so surprised by the content I asked my wife to translate it just to confirm I had it right. Utterly disrespectful behavior by the broadcaster.
Yet you have British Chamber in Beijing doing monthly debates on “The coming collapse of China.” Why have a business chamber in a China just to promote the idea of not coming to China? Self defeating? Done for the sake of being “objective” as the Brits always say … Only the British lack the self awareness to understand that Chinese hospitality stops at the gate of Anglo arrogance.
@Jason – We’re not members of the British Chamber of Commerce in China, so I can’t comment on their debates. Suffice to say I personally feel they lost their relevance years ago, which is why we don’t participate in their activities. I must admit I also find such debates of the type you mention largely unpleasant wafts of hot air and entirely unproductive. China isn’t going to collapse and talk that it might is meaningless. If you want good chambers then Eurocham is far better or join the Economist China group. Much more interesting. Thanks – Chris
“The common belief that the evils of Englishmen were totally responsible for the opium trade it seems is something of a moot point,…”
Nice try to leverage a revisionism.
The correct would be take full responsibility blame for this past event, but it’s understandable that the UK tries to throw a bit of the blame for the Chinese, because it seems intolerable to the Western establishment’s viewpoint that the Chinese may remain without any taint over this historical episode.
@Hugo – I haven’t denied British culpability. But the fact remains that many Chinese profited from the trade as middle men too. They acted as the supply chain. The Brits had neither the language expertise nor the local contacts to sell into China’s interior. That’s not revisionism – its a commercial and logistical fact. – Chris
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