the Chinese view of Britain – my piece for the BBC radio

How Do the Chinese View Britain?

By Lijia Zhang

“Is London still foggy?” People always ask me this question when I tell them that I lived there for a few years. Many ordinary Chinese formed such an impression from Dickens’ Oliver Twist or An Orphan In the Foggy Capital, as it’s calledin Chinese.

Apart from certain ignorance, there’s fascination here with Britain, with its royal family, its colonial past and its advanced technology. But such fascination is often mixed with suspicion which stems from history.

At school, we learnt that ever since the Opium War in 1840, the western capitalist powers reduced China to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. Our authorities deliberately built up this ‘national humiliation’ narrative, perhaps in an attempt to make the citizens grateful to the Chinese Communist Party for putting our misery to an end.

During Cameron’s first visit to Beijing back in November 2010, he refused to take off the Remembrance Day Poppy when his hosts requested him to do so. Though I understand his refusal, I think the Prime Minister didn’t quite appreciate how poppy is regarded as a symbol of humiliation China suffered at the hands of the European powers, Britain in particular, during the Opium War. Naturally, Cameron didn’t endear himself to the hosts.

Then last May, the Prime Minister received the Dalai Lama, which halted Sino-Britain relationship. Now not wishing to lose the race in courting China to its European partners, Cameron came over to mend the fence this week.

On Monday, the day of his arrival, the official newspaper Global Times ran a front page op-ed, questioning his sincerity and pointing out that the British Royal Navy’s Chief of Staff has expressed his support for Japan’s stance toward China’s recently declared Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.

“The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study,” the oped continued.

True, a lot of Chinese like to joke that the United States has two running dogs. The one in the east is Japan and the other in the west is Britain.

Does Britain still matter to the Chinese? Yes, to a certain degree.

Britain can offer far more than a travel and study destination. Personally it amazes me that the tiny island can still exerts such influence in the world. Last year, despite the frozen diplomatic link, China’s imports from Britain increased 15.5 per cent.

Given China’s troubled relationship with the United States, it needs to forge deeper ties with Europe and other parts of the world.

I think a warmer liaison between China and Britain will do both a great deal of good. Before that, there’s still plenty of fog to be cleared away.

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