In conversation with Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford.

The UK-China relationship is complex and multifaceted. While policy diverges and creates tensions on important issues relating to Hong Kong and Xinjiang, they converge on critical global challenges, such as climate change, global health, poverty alleviation and economic recovery post COVID-19. 

Engagement at a government to government level is dynamic. However, there is an undercurrent of engagement through the UK’s influential cultural, and education assets. This offers the UK a valuable channel to build engagement and trust amongst Chinese society at a time when the UK’s international relationships are in flux. 

The British Foreign Policy Group (BFPG) recently highlighted the strengths of the UK’s education and cultural sectors in China, as well an urgent need to increase British understanding of China, its language, history, values and culture.

Matt Burney (MB), British Council Director, China, spoke with report co-author and leading British expert on China, Rana Mitter (RM) to explore the opportunities and challenges ahead for the bilateral relationship.

MB: Compared to when I started working in China in 2000, it’s fair to say that China is now right at the centre of political discourse and we’re entering a new era in the relationship. As we do that, what are some of the key strategic challenges?

RM: The relationship between the UK and China has been re-set in some quite unprecedented and even startling ways in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has been one very important factor in changing the terms of engagement, but I think it also reflects a wider set of changes over a longer period of time.

Just a few years ago perceptions of China were very limited among the general public in the UK. That has changed for a variety of reasons and there’s much more awareness now of China as a global player. This in turn has given a new urgency to the question of what the UK feels it wants from its relationship with China.

Firstly, there’s a set of questions about the trade relationship. That’s partly a product of the post-Brexit environment and the UK’s need to find new markets as part of its Global Britain Strategy. There’s also the issue of what Britain thinks its own role should be in a fast-changing geopolitical situation where China and the United States are the two major actors.

Finally, there’s a set of questions to do with values.

How does Britain as a state that defends a whole range of liberal and universal values, engage with values issues in a way which acknowledges the particular circumstances of both sides, but does not in any way compromise on the values which are core to what the UK stands for in the world?

MB: In the BFPG report you say that the UK should deploy soft power carefully and strategically in China. What do you see as the role of soft power and cultural exchange in the bilateral relationship between the UK and China?

RM: ‘Soft power’ is a term that is used a great deal, but often not understood in as much detail as it should be. Sometimes the mistake is to assume that soft power is the same thing as cultural power, and of course the two are linked but they are not the same.

Soft power is the idea that you can lead other countries and people in a certain direction you want them to go – not through force, but through attraction. Having this definition helps us to understand UK and Chinese engagement with soft power. 

It is very difficult for us to deploy our soft power in engagement with China if we ourselves do not have a greater understanding of what China is today, how it works and how it thinks. 

There’s a huge imbalance in understanding one another’s countries. Large numbers of urban-dwelling, aspirational, middle-class Chinese who are forming the next generation that will come after this one in terms of politics, business and media know a huge amount about Britain. And they have strong ideas about Britain too – some positive, some negative.

It is worth remembering that in a country of 1.3 billion people, 60 per cent of the population lives in cities. City living is accompanied by an increased level of education and lifestyle changes for a very considerable portion of humanity.  

MB: Latest polling for the British Council shows that the UK is the second most attractive place to study for young Chinese, and one of the destinations they most want to visit on holiday. From your own engagement and research in China, what would you say are the strong, positive ideas that many Chinese have about the UK?

RM: The UK is regarded as a country where educational standards are considered very high and of global standing. This has a particular resonance in China. 

You don’t need to know that much about China to know that it has a legacy of a culture driven by great thinkers – Confucius and others – in which education has almost always been a really important component of the Chinese mindset. 

This locks very nicely into respect for the UK as a country that also actually regards education as one of its best offers to the world. This is a point of cultural connection that the UK could better harness in terms of soft power, yet we always seem to talk about the value of UK-China educational engagement in purely monetary terms.  

There is no doubt about this huge economic value, yet it’s this cultural connection of education that’s actually at the heart of how we as a country engage with an immensely important actor on the world stage, and which helps to create that vital soft power environment.

Think about the hundreds of millions of middle-class Chinese parents all across China today. If they’re in a position to send their kids overseas to study, where do they want to go? The first answer is still the United States, despite the tension between the two sides, but the UK comes immediately after that.

The number of other destinations for international study that are Anglophone, outward-looking and very high quality is actually quite small. The UK has a huge amount of weight in that arena that it doesn’t always fully seem to realise. So, I think we should be spending more time being confident of our position and knowing how central this is to the way that China’s next generation thinks about its opportunities. 

MB: You’ve alluded to this imbalance of knowledge and understanding between the UK and China – what do you think are the issues that need to be addressed in bridging the UK’s knowledge gap around China? 

RM: We have to be much more China literate in the UK and I would actually say that this is true of most countries in the West. In the UK we have a long way to go and we have to get there quite fast. 

I’d like to explain what I think is at the heart of that term – China literacy – because sometimes it is equated with one very worthy, but rather high bar, which is learning Chinese language. Those of us who have learned Mandarin and have spent years or decades of our lives trying to master the language know that you can make progress quickly and shouldn’t be afraid of learning it.

Yet, it’s probably not realistic to expect that large numbers of people will become fluent in Chinese language quickly – and that isn’t necessarily what the heart of the problem is. 

If we’re going to engage with this huge superpower on our terms which of course we must be doing, we need to spend a lot more time getting to know what that superpower is actually about and that means language learning and cultural engagement, but it also means simple things like having a look and seeing what they’ve got on the telly.

I like to say that China is a plural noun. In terms of improving our China literacy we should understand that within China there are many different Chinas – young China, old China, western, eastern, ethnically diverse, etc. 

It is essential to develop a more balanced approach, and for people in the UK to gain knowledge and understanding of China’s diversity. A lot of institutions including the Great Britain China Centre, have been trying to encourage and support people in the British public sphere to become more China-knowledgeable, particularly around wider complex realities.

Change in levels of China literacy is happening but it is happening more slowly than the urgency of engagement with China. 

MB: The conversation around values is critical to improving mutual understanding between both countries and I would say we have to engage more, particularly with young people, to understand each other’s cultures and share our values through education and exchange. When it comes to China how do you think we should approach this question? 

RM: In recent decades the vast majority of countries that the UK has dealt with on a daily basis have been liberal democracies with similar cultures and values to ourselves – the United States, countries of the EU and Australia. However, gaining a foothold in understanding China has been more difficult.

The key issue here is much more to do with achieving a wider understanding of the things that make us think outside our normal categories. 

I think the best way to talk about the differences between liberal societies and China is to be upfront about the fact that the values systems are different. Trying to claim that they are versions of the same thing is not a helpful strategy because that is objectively not sustainable. Sometime values will cooperate and sometimes they can come into conflict. I would stress the idea of having some norms that are completely unbreachable and some norms that can be dealt with by engagement. 

For example, in the higher education sector, values of academic freedom, of the absolute right to debate and engage with any subject, the right to criticism and freedom from interference in teaching are non-negotiable values from the British side. China or other non-liberal systems might say that certain collective values take precedence over that, and we just have to say that is not something we can concede on. 

There is also potential for exchange on certain types values. The value of education as a good for society in its own right is a great example of this in China’s case.

Understanding where there’s a wider spectrum of values, some of which we absolutely have to stand by and others where there’s a lot to learn, is really important. 

MB: People often think that the relationship between Britain and China is only 40 years old, but that’s of course not true. China often makes historical references to its relationship with the British Empire as part of its foreign policy strategy while the UK is going through its own process of examining its imperial past. What role do you think soft power and education play in dealing with some of those more difficult histories between the UK and China?

RM: I think history is really very important in shaping how we in the UK should engage with China. There’s relatively little understanding here of how central the longer history of British engagement in China sits in the minds of today’s Chinese leaders and middle classes.

The Opium Wars are in the minds of foreign policy thinkers because their outbreak in 1839 is regarded as the beginning of China’s tragic engagement with the modern world. British traders are remembered for busting open the doors of China, bringing opium, Christianity and a whole variety of ideas which ultimately brought about the downfall of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing.

That’s a very central trauma in the minds of Chinese thinkers and shapes a lot of their current foreign policy attitudes. Their thinking is influenced by the idea that we must never allow the Opium Wars to happen again, we must never be invaded and humiliated again. 

In terms of how we deal with the history, I think we should first acknowledge the colonial violence of the past that’s been committed against the Chinese and many other people. 

We also need to inform ourselves about the past to be able to tell different stories. There are stories of how the Chinese and British have worked together even in the context of colonialism and violence.

These stories show the nuance and ambiguity of the relationships between the two sides, but these are just not well known in Britain. 

For example, we could talk more about how China was one of our WW II allies. This fact wasn’t prominent at all in our recent VJ day celebrations. Yet, as I show in my new book, China’s Good War: How World War II Is Creating A New Nationalism, over the last 40 years China has been developing its own story about how it fought alongside Britain and the Americans to defeat the forces of Axis fascism.

Another example is trade. There’s some magnificent new research on the Maritime Customs Service which was an institution which collected customs for the Chinese government of the late 19th and early 20th century but was established and run by British people who regarded themselves as servants of the Chinese government.

We really need to be able to tell these more positive stories, but we can’t do that unless we know the history. 

MB: In your report with BFPG you highlighted the role of the Chinese diaspora. What role do you think they can play in exploring these shared histories? They don’t tend to have a very loud voice outside their communities and sometimes people aren’t aware of the sheer size and scale of those communities in cities like Manchester and Belfast. Do you feel that there is a role for organisations like British Council to engage them more closely on that shared history as well as other aspects of UK-China people-to-people relations?

RM: Absolutely there is that duty, but it should be more than that – it should be an opportunity. The British Chinese community is a diverse community and one that is relatively quiet in the UK context. We should hear more from them, but it shouldn’t become their job alone to lead this engagement for the greater good of the UK. It’s about dialogue, it’s about respect, and it’s about both sides engaging in something that’s more than the sum of its parts. 

MB: And finally, how would you summarise your key recommendations for the UK’s soft power engagement with China in the coming years? 

RM: China is not standing still, neither are we, but we need to increase the pace of our China engagement so that we in the UK understand where our opportunities are, where our vulnerabilities are and how to transform this into the friendly, frank and confident conversation with China that we need.

* With thanks to Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, University of Oxford and Matt Burney, Dire