Supported by a planeload of businessmen, Gordon Brown set out on his second visit to China last night, full of good intentions to strengthen political, economic and cultural ties with Beijing. They are the kind of intentions that have permeated British ministerial thinking since Margaret Thatcher first registered in the 80s that, post-Mao, the world’s slumbering giant was waking up.
Since 1997 Brown and Tony Blair have made all the right noises about the new China being an "opportunity, not a threat". Britain, the line has been, is a very open economy for Chinese exports and investment, not quasi-protectionist like some rivals. But ministers talk the talk better than they walk the walk.
After she left No 10 Thatcher flew over the vast São Paulo megalopolis and asked: "Why did no one tell me about this place?" "We did," replied the ambassador to Brazil. The Americans, French and Germans still do these things better, though the ministerial appointment of globe trotting Lord Digby Jones of CBI fame is meant to improve things.
In China (and on Monday in India) he will be at the PM’s side. China in particular is using this summer’s Olympics to celebrate its coming of age after 150 years of abortive attempts to catch up with the west. No longer. With the yuan so cheap Britain’s trade deficit now runs at around £1bn a month, China’s foreign exchange reserves – now £700bn – rise by £500m each day. Hence one pressing problem: how should the Brown government treat the emergence of pro-active "sovereign funds", Asian state-investment bodies awash with cash? The US has resisted them, but the credit crunch humbled it. "China is moving into our lives in overwhelming ways we can’t ignore. We should engage with the process and benefit, but also resist," says Dr Kerry Brown, sinologist at Chatham House. That means recognising that the emerging Beijing model of globalisation – state capitalism combined with consumerism and nationalism – is not our model. Chinese support for authoritarian regimes in places that provide vital raw materials, such as Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan, underlines that.
Brown plans to raise Darfur, Burma, and human rights. Cyber-terrorism, source of tension last year, is not on his agenda. Britain is already in conflict with Moscow: it is not seeking another one with its stronger neighbor. But not all the cards are in Chinese hands. Western experts dispute just how rich China really is, while China sees Europe as the other "core civilization" which could help it balance US power, if only the EU could get its collective act together.
Chinese studies (as distinct from 50,000 Chinese students) are pitiful in Britain. But Chinese footballers were at No 10 last week and the terracotta warriors are pulling crowds in the British Museum, which is providing exhibitions for China’s new middle class. They want to know how this tiny island did so well while China slept. ok well