Security and moral alarms over China love-in

Strolling it: George Osborne wants China to become Britain’s second-largest export market. © PA

This week has seen a flurry of plans to share trade with China. But should Britain be so dependent on a country at the centre of concerns over human rights, hacking and military expansion?

Its land mass crosses five time zones, its population is 1.4 billion and, by one measure, its economy is the world’s largest. China may be mysterious to many in the west, but its importance cannot be ignored. So it is perhaps unsurprising to see the Chancellor, George Osborne, visiting the country this week in an effort to deepen its trade links with the UK.

His visit comes as China is taking ownership of increasing portions of British business and infrastructure. Companies including Pizza Express, House of Fraser and Weetabix are fully or partly owned by Chinese investors, and China’s leaders have a stake in the building of nuclear power plants in Somerset and Essex.

Osborne sees selling goods and services to one-fifth of the world’s population as an opportunity for Britain to become more prosperous. His interest is more urgent as a result of the problems in the eurozone affecting some of Britain’s most reliable trading partners and increasing competition from markets in Asia to the City of London.

But critics have questioned whether the engagement is timely. China’s economic future is now uncertain, as its stock market has suffered dramatic falls since July, and its relationship with the United States is currently icy. President Obama is threatening to impose sanctions on Chinese companies in response to a hacking scandal and concerns are mounting over China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

Western countries have faced a dilemma over how to engage with China since 1949, when Mao Zedong declared the country to be a communist dictatorship. It has liberalised its economic system since a visit by US President Nixon in 1972, but human rights campaigners remain concerned by its highly authoritarian government. Thousands of executions are believed to take place each year, the government has curtailed many freedoms and the treatment of minority groups in Tibet and the north-western Xinjiang province has been condemned.

Friend or foe?

The chancellor says deepening ties between Britain and China is ‘win-win’ for the two countries. Investment will bring jobs, which in turn will lead to improved living standards on both sides. This partnership is simply acknowledging a fact recognised through experience — economic connections are at the heart of people’s efforts to survive and strive for better lives.

But his enthusiasm has met with criticism from commentators like the Guardian’s Rafael Behr, the Mail’s Alex Brummer and the FT’s leader writer. Decent relationships must be built on shared values, and freedom is the most cherished principle which Britain stands for: to sell the UK’s future to China which does not share this view is a dangerous move.

You Decide

  1. Should Britain trade with China?
  2. Which should be more important in making policy decisions — moral values or economic considerations?


  1. List five questions on China to which you would like to know the answer. Then share them with the class and see how much you can learn from each other.
  2. Write a letter to George Osborne, explaining why you agree or disagree with his decision to deepen trade with China.

Some People Say...

“Open markets create open minds.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will this change anything in Britain?
Osborne is particularly keen to stress the role that Chinese investors might play in the north of England — where he has pledged to build a ‘northern powerhouse’ and create more jobs. But his opponents are concerned that selling to China entails ceding control of assets to them. Some are particularly alarmed by the prospect of doing this over the nuclear power stations.
Am I affected by the tensions between China and the US?
The cyber-hacking scandal involved malicious software or bugs being installed in computer programmes run by some major companies, such as Apple — so if you have an iPhone, you may have been affected. And the military build-up taking place in the South China Sea is costing money — and could, in the long term, cost lives.

Word Watch

City of London
The City’s importance to Britain’s current economic system and prosperity was underlined yesterday by the news that it had leapfrogged New York to become the world’s leading financial centre.
Authoritarian government
The infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 is the most notorious example of the government’s crackdown on its people. The military fired on crowds of civilians who had gathered in protest against the government. Hundreds are believed to have died, and the Chinese government remains highly secretive about the event.
The Chinese government restricts many of its people’s rights, particularly their access to information. Many websites, including social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, are banned or highly regulated. Even foreign films are rarely shown.
Minority groups
Rights groups say the Chinese government has cracked down on the people of Tibet, many of whom wish to see independence. They also say the Muslim Uighur population has seen its religious freedom curtailed.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.