Before long, China will become the world’s biggest economy, so it was natural to pull out the stops for President Xi’s visit. The Duchess of Cambridge’s tiara; the golden coach; the speech to Parliament – all much to be expected. Even Chinese Investment in our nuclear power plants is tolerable, though I doubt its wisdom.
Of course, everyone knows that China calls the shots. The closure of steel plants in Redcar and Scunthorpe shows that Britain is at the mercy of global economic trends. Even China, with all its economic strength, has to adjust to them. In bilateral trade, especially in manufacturing, the UK will always be the poor relation, but we function in a global market place and must try to carve out a place for ourselves, playing to our strengths and grasping opportunities as they arise. That’s what President Xi’s visit was all about.
A more pressing anxiety is cultural, rather than economic. The history and values that underlie Chinese economic and political life are very different from ours. That doesn’t mean we cannot have a productive relationship, but it does mean we need to be careful to protect what is most precious to us. Freedom of expression and belief, democracy and equality before the law are vital cultural values that have been won with difficulty over the centuries – to a large extent the product of our Christian heritage. They are in danger of being sidelined for the sake of money if we embrace economic partnerships too enthusiastically. If our leaders avoid speaking too publicly about human rights, and attempt to stifle those who try, in order to avoid offence, it won’t be long before they disappear from public discourse altogether. If they become purely private matters, there will be little to distinguish us from China itself.
Economically, our relations with Europe are a mixture of competition and co-operation, but culturally we share a common heritage, not determined by national boundaries, like trade agreements and treaties. If it is not to be sacrificed to the materialistic gods of global capitalism, it needs to be celebrated and nurtured. Above all, it is in Europe that our political and moral values were fought for, and exported to many other parts of the world. There is no room for feeling superior or self satisfied, as Europe has exported many far less desirable things, and we don’t always live by those values ourselves, but we should all the same be proud of that part of our heritage. It is not to be bought and sold for money, but that makes it more, rather than less valuable.
Economic considerations dominate our conversations with China in the pursuit of our national interests. But there are other considerations, even more fundamental. They are also more fragile. We need to maintain our common European identity and heritage in order to help protect them from the threats that they face today – not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the people of China who seek them, and for the sake of those who live in other countries even more vulnerable to the power of money in international relations.