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British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (L) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shake hands before a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on August 30, 2023. (Photo by FLORENCE LO / POOL / AFP) (Photo by FLORENCE LO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Can Britain work with China?

Can Britain work with China?


Last week James Cleverly was the first British foreign secretary to visit China for five years. What does the trip say about the UK’s relationship with Beijing?

James Cleverly met with China’s foreign minister and vice president last week. It was the first visit to Beijing by a UK foreign secretary for 5 years and might smooth the way for a meeting between UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and Chinese president Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting in India this week. 

But back in Westminster some MPs were critical. Whilst James Cleverly was on his way to Beijing the foreign affairs select committee, chaired by China-sceptic Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, published a report that called on the government to take a tougher stance. 

The Chinese Communist party (CCP) is “seeking to silence criticism of its human rights abuses, and impose its foreign policy and Xi Jinping’s thought beyond its own borders”, it said. “This is a challenge to the functioning of democracies globally.”

Ian Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative party and a vocal critic of China, told Channel 4 News that the foreign secretary’s visit made the UK’s China policy look “weakened” in a period where “China’s abuses are growing”.

The UK has a complicated relationship with China because the ruling CCP is responsible for human rights abuses, censorship and repression, but also presides over the world’s second largest economy. 

James Cleverly insisted that he “raised the issues where we disagree”, including the abuse of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang and censorship and repression in Hong Kong. But he said it was important to engage in diplomacy with China to discuss global problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and the war in Ukraine. 

It’s an approach also adopted by the US government, which has restated its support for Taiwan in light of recent Chinese threats but has also sent four cabinet-level officials to China since high-level exchanges resumed in June. A sign that the West needs to find a way to do business with China whilst trying not to cross red lines on national security and human rights.

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Ella Hill.