Eve Norridge is a former political adviser to the Conservative Party. She recently spent five years living in Hong Kong.
This weekend Chinese communities around the world will welcome in the New Year of the Rooster with colourful, noisy and exotic celebrations. There will be dragon dances, lanterns, firecrackers and a fortune exchanged in red packets, as millions enjoy the biggest Chinese holiday of the year.
On the face of it, many parts of modern China do not look so different from the West these days, from the shiny new developments in major Chinese cities to the lifestyle of middle class Chinese consumers to the world-class infrastructure that the country is building. But at this time of year, more than any other, we are exposed to the otherness of Chinese culture and traditions. We catch a glimpse of a nation with a long history that is entirely different to ours. We realise that we spectate but we do not necessarily understand.
Western political leaders have long found China to be a difficult country to deal with, not least because of its oft-criticised record on human rights, and many different approaches have been tried. Donald Trump’s recent brash and aggressive rhetoric sits in sharp contrast to what was widely regarded as an extremely subservient attitude from Cameron and Osborne during Xi JinPing’s state visit to the UK in 2015. Yet, as we head for the bold new world of post-Brexit Britain, engaging well with the world’s second-largest economy is more important than ever. The trade deal that the Government wants with China will be one of the most challenging to achieve but one of the greatest prizes.
Early signs are that Theresa May will do less kow-towing than her predecessors. This is welcome because, despite the cultural gulf to cross, there are many reasons for confidence in the way our country approaches China. The show at the top of the Chinese state is, perhaps naturally, one of strength, patriotism and pride. This is particularly unsurprising given the importance of the concept of ‘face’ in Chinese culture – that maintaining one’s prestige and reputation in a social context is vital to one’s dignity and honour.
However, masked beneath the veneer of intergovernmental relations is the huge appeal that the West, its lifestyle and products hold for the Chinese population. China is a country where westerners are rolled out to advertise anything from holidays to cars to soy sauce and where having a white face on your team is seen as a sure-fire way to clinch a business deal.
As for our own country, Britain generally has a good reputation in China. It is seen as unpolluted, our history is respected, our food is safe, there is little corruption, and we speak English, which is being learnt at a great rate. As a result, many Chinese people are keen to live here, do business here, invest here and send their children to school and university here. All this provides an opportunity that our country should grasp with both hands in negotiating freer trade. Yes, many Chinese were proud of the strength which their leaders showed on their last state visit to Britain. But many were also surprised that the leaders of a country for which they have a high degree of admiration did not do more to reciprocate that show of strength.
However, while our country might confidently seek to trade more freely with China post Brexit, we should also do so wisely. Theresa May was courageous in her speech in Davos last week to emphasise that globalisation has brought downsides and disparity as well as benefits. The discontent that this has bred has been only too obvious in our own society lately. Concern amongst British workers about free movement within the EU is the issue that has hit us closest to home.
Another major aspect of globalisation, and one that has been more neglected in debate, is that, as consumers, we have been far too willing to purchase cheap goods from China (and lately places such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey) while ignoring the fact these goods are mostly produced in a way that is entirely contrary to the values that we have sought to install in our own society over decades and centuries.
The lower prices are not entirely accounted for by these places simply being lower cost economies. They also mask exhausting working hours, poor safety standards and environmental degradation. In China, for example, it is estimated that at least one fifth of farmland is toxically polluted due to poor manufacturing practices. Of course British manufacturing cannot be competitive under these circumstances.
As consumers, we need to stop turning a blind eye to conditions overseas. It would also help if the Government insisted on greater transparency from companies sourcing abroad and that those companies crack down on worker exploitation and environmental abuse in their supply chains.
Negotiating new trade deals with countries like China provides a fresh context in which to push for better international standards in many of these areas, even if they are beyond the scope of the deal itself. International progress on these issues would go some way to helping put British industry on a level playing field, not to mention the benefits it could bring to thousands of other workers around the world.