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Dancing with a Dragon: How Britain Deals with China in Today’s Global Economy

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Over the past week, nine UK citizens have had sanctions imposed on them by China, in retaliation to the sanctions imposed on China by the UK for the human rights violations of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Amongst these nine, three MPs have been sanctioned: Ian Duncan Smith, Nusrat Ghani and Tom Tugendhat.  They have all been especially vocal on the issue of these human rights injustices in the province. One of the nine sanctioned is Joanne Smith Finley, an academic at Newcastle university, who has been banned from entering China by the Chinese Communist Party. Finley, who was also targeted for spreading “lies and disinformation,” is regarded as an expert on the mistreatment of Uighurs in China. These sanctions can therefore be seen as an assault on the political liberty of nations but also the academic liberty of individuals. 

This comes at the same time as a Chinese backlash against Burberry. Although Burberry have made no official comments on the region, the fact that they have confirmed previously that they do not get their cotton from Xinjiang, which produces a fifth of the worlds cotton, is enough to cause the threat of a Chinese backlash against the firm. This could be devastating for the firm as China accounts for 40% of its customers. The power of this potential boycott is clear with the threat of it causing a 4.6% drop in share price in just one day. Zhou Dongyu, a famous Chinese actor has ended her contract with Burberry off the back of them not “clearly and publicly stating their stance on cotton from Xinjiang.” 

These actions show the Chinese communist party’s willingness to powerfully attack any who look to oppose its regime. The Burberry case acts as a microcosm for the effect China can have on markets with it being the world’s largest trading nation with its trade surplus being at $422bn in 2019. The UK needs to be extremely cautious, with its recent foreign policy review regarding China as “the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security.” 

The UK must be seen to challenge China publicly in order to for it to not merely pay lip service to its commitment to Human rights around the world. However, this challenge could manifest in many ways. Boris’ recent sanctions along with the US, Canada and the EU’s present a firm hand from a unified west. However, whether this firm hand is persevered with as standard foreign policy to the region is yet to be decided. 

China poses a much greater threat than Russia has ever done with Russia’s economy being significantly smaller than the UKs and so China requires a much more sophisticated diplomatic approach. The vastness of its economy, shown by the failure of Trump’s US protectionism, shows that China will not be bullied into submission through economic sanction. It is not just the vastness of its economy which changes the approach, but the interconnected nature of China in the modern global economy. For example, the belt and road initiative, which has invested in 52 out of the 54 African nations. This will mean that China may have enough backing from the countries it has invested in to disregard the opinions of the west. To change the behaviour of this nation will require strong diplomatic influence. Whether this pressure is best applied as an ally or as a foe to China is not clear. Britain may have to do both over the coming decades. One thing is clear, how the UK deals with China over this period will shape its place on the global stage and so how it approaches this is of great significance.

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