Most readers will regard what follows as fantastic in the pejorative sense. There’s not much I can do about that beyond pointing out that the alternatives are hopelessly inadequate.
Asia is, for the time being – and certainly the lifespan of most people alive today – the future. Easily the biggest-consuming market there is China. There are two Asian-Pacific countries with whom our relationship should be much closer. China is by far the biggest.
The golden opportunity presenting itself to post-austerity Britain is to be China’s cypher and specialist supplier in the West. No other national ‘brand’ has such appeal there.
Of all the fangwoi (white foreign devils) that have dealt with China over the last 300 years, Britain is the one still felt by the Chinese to command some degree of respect. We had an empire that dealt with them harshly, but that doesn’t diminish Chinese respect: on the contrary, many Chinese thinkers regard us as the toughest – and certainly the most civilised – nation after them. More people read Shakespeare in China than in the whole of the Americas and Europe put together.
As the Chinese middle class began to develop properly a decade ago, the first must-haves were….English antiques. Mao Tse Tung worked in London as a young man. London and Liverpool have enormous Chinatowns. The Singapore/Hong Kong relationship remains as the remnant of a once-great empire. On taking Hong Kong back in 1997, many expected Beijing to ride roughshod over democracy. This hasn’t happened: the “one country, two systems” formula still offers more civil liberties than in mainland China, and if anything (I’m informed) the Chinese leadership in private feels that it has learned much from watching British institutions in our former Colony.
I know a little about the Chinese approach to the Westerner. My father traded in cloth with them for many years, and as a young man I had a long and passionate affair with a Chinese woman. I know enough to understand they are racial supremacists (hakwoi or black foreign devils are regarded as barely human) but also enough to grasp that they do not say ‘they all look the same to me’. They see most Russians as barbarians, and Americans as fork-tongued. (Lest we forget, they regard native Americans as their own race). They may not like us – but there is a degree of admiration and respect. After all, English is second only to Chinese as a global language.
To see us as ‘partners’ really would be over-egging the pudding. But the maths are irresistible to anyone genuinely interested in reviving Britain. The Chinese have a population 200 times the size of ours. We could sell high-margin products to just three wealthy CPR citizens in a thousand, and wipe out our global trade gap overnight. You do not need free-trade areas to sell desirable products: the Scots selling Whisky to Japan have proved that.
There has been much talk in recent times of Britain selling marketing, branding and financial services to China, but this is merely patronising bollocks: the Chinese are far too bright to need this for long. An enriched, intelligent population is going to want the chique, the unique and the oblique it can’t find in China itself: and this is where Brand Britain would come into play.
But there’s more to this than just selling. The relationship would be all about affinity. The EU has protectionism masquerading as marketing, the US has process masquerading as innovation, and the Russians have fossil fuels masquerading as an economy. We’re smart and – if we can just bury the pc-fluffy bollocks of the last fifteen years – still capable of the sort of innovation/pedigree mix that would play well with the Chinese: our two nations are both thinkers and doers – a rare combination.
Above all, we have no need to approach China with any ‘advisory-role’ bullshit. Of course we can be a cypher for them in the West….but we can wait for them to ask us about that. The future of diplomacy will not be about naked power and sheer size. Rather, it will revolve around intelligence and creativity. You can explain process, but having once done that you can’t keep on charging for it. Present evidence of ingenuity, and you can market the promise of more where that came from.
Chinese thinking can educate us, and British democracy might one day inform a newly expanding China about the benefits of educating subject nations in the art of cultural economics.
In this new Asia, another major player can, however, be a genuine partner in our dealings with Asia. For more on this (as they used to say in the old days of broadcast media) tune in tomorrow.