China’s long-serving envoy to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, a staunch defender of closer UK-China economic ties and the imposition of new security laws in Hong Kong, is standing down, marking the end of an era in relations between the two countries that hit a high in 2015 but has since worsened markedly.
He is being replaced by his country’s vice-foreign minister, Zheng Zeguang, a former Cardiff University law student once tipped to become China’s ambassador to the US, and still seen as a candidate for that post in a couple of years’ time.
Liu, 64, has been ambassador since 2010, a marathon stint at a time when most ambassadors serve a four-year term.
He has been a fierce critic of the UK decision to ban the Chinese firm Huawei from its 5G networks, and also repeatedly denied that Uighur Muslims were being forced into detention camps in Xinjiang province.
The decline in UK-China relations was arguably under way before China imposed new sovereignty laws on Hong Kong in June, but the new laws, seen by Britain as a breach of the China-UK joint declaration, paved the way for a major change in relations.
Liu came to wider attention on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show when he was shown footage of Uighur Muslims blindfolded and kneeling, and claimed the images were “fake”.
During the furore over Huawei, Liu said Britain might “bear the consequences” of treating China as a hostile country, saying: “It has become questionable whether the UK can provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory business environment for companies from other countries.”
He also accused the British government of making “irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong”, insisting at a series of fiery press conferences that protests in the former British colony were not about freedom, but had been stirred up by irresponsible foreigners.
In his last set-piece speech to the third China-UK economic and trade forum, he said the decline in political relations had not been matched by a slowdown in economic relations. Liu said: “In 2019, trade volume between China and the UK hit a new record of $86.272bn [£64.4bn]. In the first 10 months of this year, trade in goods between our two countries increased by 2.8% year on year, faster than the growth rate of China’s overall foreign trade in the same period.” He was given the freedom of the City of London in 2018, a sign of the close links between British finance and China.
His personal high point will probably be when in 2015, President Xi Jinping paid a “super state visit” to the UK, and a golden era in relations was announced.
The new ambassador will be critical for UK-China discussions on the climate emergency, with the UK hosting the Cop26 in Glasgow next year and badly needing Chinese cooperation for the world to meet the more ambitious targets the UN will seek to set at the November conference.
The new ambassador will also have to handle the consequences of the UK offering Hong Kong citizens with British national (overseas) passports the right from 31 January to stay in Britain to work and study for up to five years. They may then apply for settled status and seek citizenship after the sixth year. The scheme also covers a BNO holder’s adult children, their spouses and their young children. Britain also ended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong in late July in protest at the Beijing-imposed security law. It has not, however, imposed sanctions on any Chinese officials responsible for the suppression in Hong Kong.
Zheng’s appointment, first reported in South China Morning Post but not formally announced in the UK, places a specialist on the recent US China confrontation at the helm of UK-China relations. He started his diplomatic career in 1986, and concentrated on US issues for more than two decades since 1990 before becoming an assistant minister in the foreign affairs department in late 2012, and then vice-minister in 2015.
He has been at the frontline of China’s efforts to fight back against the Trump administration’s attacks on China for its handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak, claiming that a handful of US politicians were turning America away from China.
Accusing the US of being the “biggest black hand” behind the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, he recently said: “It’s not true that the US cares about Hong Kong’s democracy, human rights and autonomy; it’s true they want to make a mess in Hong Kong and sabotage China’s stable development.” He described the US sanctions against Chinese communist officials involved in suppression of individual rights in Hong Kong as barbaric.
China expects the UK to suffer after Brexit and probably come under the wing of the US administration so his knowledge of US politics would stand him in good stead in dealing with Boris Johnson’s search for a new role as a “global Britain”.