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Published: 09:44, February 06, 2023 | Updated: 10:44, February 07, 2023
UK needs to choose ‘Global Britain’ or ‘Little England’
By Richard Cullen
Published:09:44, February 06, 2023 Updated:10:44, February 07, 2023 By Richard Cullen

Certain opinion leaders in Global Britain seem to be having yet another serious anxiety attack over China. Recently, three shorter letters appeared adjacent to one another in The Times.

All were clearly written, but it felt like a relay-team effort given that, as a trio, they offered measurably interlaced, fulsome praise for a report in The Times (from two days earlier) that darkly explained how “Universities (in the UK) have ‘risky’ links to China”. One could be forgiven for wondering if this team of letter-writers had received an invitation from The Times to write in, expressing their resonating views on the relevant report. Though, surely, this is not the case.

One of the three, at about the same time, featured in a remarkably hair-raising China-focused article in The Telegraph arguing that “China can use people’s fridges and laptops to spy on them”. Here, the sky seemed to be falling at 100 miles per hour: Even Chinese light bulbs may be spying on you!

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal recently quoted one leading House of Commons member of Parliament arguing that Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, should “warn the Chinese government” that “the use of common law in Hong Kong will be taken away”. How this extraordinary punishment would be applied was not explained.

Last year (long after post-insurrection, political structure reforms had been introduced in Hong Kong), the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA-UK) issued an invitation to Hong Kong Legislative Council members to attend a Westminster Seminar on Effective Parliaments this coming March. Very recently, this invitation was, however, rather abruptly withdrawn by the CPA-UK.

This is all rather stirring stuff. The Chinese are seemingly out to get Britain by relying on countless sinister devices. There is a whiff of a fretful version of the St George spirit in the air. And an important part of the solution favored by those most feverishly concerned comprises winding up many general — and especially scientific — drawbridges to cut Britain off from all this tricky spying and undermining (though not from the annual flow of 140,000 Chinese fee-paying students). These developments bring to mind an article by John Crace in The Guardian in 2013. He argued then that the term “little Englander” had “become a byword for small-minded bigotry”.

But let’s consider a less-febrile perspective.

Hank Paulson, former US Treasury secretary, observed in a recent leading article in Foreign Affairs that China “has more than tripled the size of its economy since 2008”. Next, in a new, extended interview with Ezra Klein of The New York Times, Professor Yuen Yuen Ang, from Johns Hopkins University in the US, argued that the most “dominant political emotion” prompted by the rise of China, was “envy”. She did not hold back on her critical analysis of China, but she also stressed how China possesses manufacturing prowess and that “they are just doing things and making things happen. They’re building roads, building homes, building trains”. This is surely what has most galvanized the latest rash of British Sino-thumping: China has simply become much too successful in energizing its own extraordinary uplift.

Now, there is a strident Sinophobic perspective favored by a range of activists that has helped create a negative mood currently shaping far too much British thinking. It is hard to imagine that Needham, starting off today, would enjoy anything like the animating academic freedom that used to prevail even a decade or two ago in the UK

Consider some more specific aspects of that rise. In August last year, Nikkei Asia reported that “China tops US in quantity and quality of scientific papers”. At about the same time, The Guardian, relying on a Japanese ministerial report, noted that “China has overtaken the US as the world leader in both scientific research output and ‘high impact’ studies”. The Times Higher Education, World University Rankings, released in October 2022, meanwhile, saw US research pre-eminence weaken as Chinese universities continued to rise, “producing a greater quantity and higher quality of research than ever before”, according to The Wall Street Journal.

There are so many aspects of life where scientific research is pivotally important. One area of existential concern is climate change. China’s extraordinary manufacturing competence in building solution components — including, just for starters, wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles — is both unmatchable and indispensable. Behind all of this creation of globally needed, practical answers lies an immense amount of research.

Cutting Britain off from much of this growing, dynamic, highly relevant research is, ultimately, what The Times — and others like-minded — want to secure in order to placate their own, self-incubated, politically disturbed, national security concerns.

Of course, Chinese universities are massively focused on how to improve the scientific work they do and, thus, to support the betterment of the nation. But this is precisely what leading universities in the West, not least in the US and the UK, have done, successfully, for a very long time and, in doing so, a remarkable number have achieved the highest possible standing. Grown-up people know this. And they know that getting along with people we may at times envy, dislike, or disagree with strongly is a vital (two-way) component in forging successful geopolitical relationships.

Once upon a time, collective Sino-British scientific striving was immensely valued in both countries. Professor Joseph Needham, from Cambridge University (who lived to be 95), was an exemplar, for decades, in this regard. His joint work, including the extraordinary multivolume Science and Civilization in China (initiated in 1948 and still being written and published today), saw him elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1941, a fellow of the British Academy in 1971, and honored by the queen in 1992.

That was then. Now, there is a strident Sinophobic perspective favored by a range of activists that has helped create a negative mood currently shaping far too much British thinking. It is hard to imagine that Needham, starting off today, would enjoy anything like the animating academic freedom that used to prevail even a decade or two ago in the UK.

Overcooked local fears, shaped by the US-led security establishment, now overshadow British interaction with China on too many levels. There is scant signaling here of how Britain is stretching its newfound, post-EU global legs. What we see looks measurably more like an apprehensive, insular spiral back toward a Little England worldview.

The author is an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Law, Hong Kong University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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