China and the United Kingdom have a long history of relations—some contentious, some collaborative—with Hong Kong at the center. In the twenty-first century, both countries look toward cooperation.

China and the United Kingdom, two nations that have greatly affected regional and world affairs for centuries, seemed destined by history to interact on a grand scale. Relations between the two nations since the eighteenth century have, in turn, helped and hindered China.

Empire to Empire

For a major seafaring and exploring nation, Britain was a late arriver in China. The main European interests in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were from the Portuguese and to some extent the Dutch. But Britain’s interests, when they became more substantial in the eighteenth century, concentrated on trade. Britain sourced tea, silk, and spices in China and was part of what was largely viewed by the court of Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1735–1796) as unwelcome commercial foreign encroachment.

To defend its interests, Britain sent a trade mission in the late 1780s, which was aborted due to the illness of its main emissary. Britain sent a more successful and well-known mission under Lord Macartney in 1793. Macartney, a respected diplomat and statesman, was given tasks by the government of King George III of opening up the Chinese market and establishing some kind of embassy in Beijing. Summoned from Beijing to the emperor’s summer residence in Jahol, 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) northeast of the city, Macartney spent huge amounts of time and effort in negotiations with the Qing court on how he should kowtow before the emperor, finally agreeing to bow on one knee and not abase himself fully. In an early example of how an event is given “spin,” the Chinese account says that even having agreed to this, Macartney still fell to his knees when in the presence of the emperor, so overcome by awe was he. Conflicts regarding trade (and imperial protocol) were to become commonplace over the next two centuries and escalated when Britain’s requests were rebuffed. Qianlong famously responded that China had no need of Britain’s manufactures. This typified the empire’s inward-looking and somewhat conservative stance.

Britain’s interests in the next half century continued to be based on trade, but they would become increasingly fractious. The most highly industrialized and economically powerful nation at the time, Britain was keen to address what it saw as trade imbalances in China. Britain, part of the carefully controlled foreign presence in the open ports of Guangzhou (Canton), through its companies (particularly Jardine Matheson) became involved in the thriving opium trade, importing immense amounts into China. Dissatisfaction with this led to the Chinese government’s military opposition in 1839.

This First Opium War (1839–1842) escalated to full military conflict, which Britain, with its superior army and firepower, easily won. The Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, what has come to be called the first of the unequal treaties imposed on China, granted the island of Hong Kong to the British to house their warehouses and allowed them to continue trading in opium and other goods more freely.

Continued tensions over the freedoms granted to trading culminated in a second war in the early 1860s, which, like the first, resulted in China’s defeat and the granting to Britain of further land in Hong Kong (the Kowloon peninsula) and further trading privileges. In 1898 a ninety-nine-year lease was given for the rest of the Hong Kong area. British and the other European powers were attacked during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, resulting in massive reparations that financially crippled the Qing court. By 1911 the Qing era was over, although the emperor did not abdicate until 1912.

Modern Concerns

In the early part of the twentieth century, Britain was the largest investor in China, with massive interests, mostly headquartered in Shanghai, in energy and mining. Companies like British American Tobacco and Shell were already active. Britain controlled almost 70 percent of China’s energy supply through coal and electricity production. The British concession in Shanghai was the home to British entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and, to an increasing extent as the century went on, artists. This era of openness in China’s history was to result in a tragic outcome, however, when the war with Japan in 1937 created massive refugee issues and swept away much of the business community. By 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), most of the business infrastructure (including banks) had been either eradicated or dramatically scaled down.

Britain was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC, in 1950, if only to preserve its key interests in Hong Kong, which remained under British control. For the next half century, this protectorate remained Britain’s priority, and Hong Kong became one of the world’s important business centers, something that the increasingly radical government of the PRC was to tolerate in view of the economic lifeline it gave to the rest of the world. By the late 1960s, even with the Cultural Revolution spilling over into Hong Kong and causing disruption and riots there—notably the sacking of the British Embassy Office by the Red Guards in 1967, when the Chinese demanded that the British release individuals convicted of perpetrating terrorist attacks in Hong Kong—the importance of this trade link was still recognized by Beijing. In 1971 Hong Kong–related trade accounted for almost all of the PRC’s foreign business. The visit by President Nixon in 1972, reopening relations between the United States and China, was quickly followed up by a visit from British prime minister Edward Heath, who also upgraded relations to the ambassadorial level.

New “Lease on Life” for Hong Kong

While the issue had been put on hold during the uncertainties of the 1970s, the arrival of a more liberal leadership under Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) in 1974 raised the question of what would be done about the ninety-nine-year lease agreed on Hong Kong in 1898. Tentative enquiries in the early 1980s by British officials about the possibility of simply extending the lease by another ninety years were met with firm rebuttals. Deng suggested a one country, two systems arrangement, whereby Hong Kong’s unique political and economic structure be respected and the region be returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The Basic Law, which acted as a de facto constitution, was promulgated in the late 1980s. The shock of the Tiananmen Square riots in 1989, while causing panic and consternation in Hong Kong, did not prevent the final agreement for the full return of Hong Kong on time on 30 June 1997. The final five years under the reforming governorship of British politician Chris Patten, with whom the Chinese had strained relations, had not derailed the agreement. With the return of Hong Kong to China, one of the largest and most contentious issues between Britain and China had been resolved.

Since 1997, the government in Beijing has kept its side of the agreement, interfering very little in Hong Kong, allowing it to govern itself, and acting only in foreign affairs and military issues.

Trade Relations

In the meantime, Britain’s main interests in China have reverted to trade. Britain has continued to be China’s main investor from Europe, with more than 6,000 joint ventures with Chinese companies and almost $25 billion of contracted investment in every province and autonomous r
egion. The largest British companies investing in China include energy companies BP and Shell, telecommunications company Vodafone, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and retailers like Tesco, B and Q, and Marks and Spencer.

Since 2003, China has also increased its investments in the United Kingdom, with more than 350 companies now active there, ranging from the Bank of China to the telecommunications giant Huawei. China has also invested through its State Administration for Foreign Exchange in more than 100 London-listed companies and bought a 3 percent stake in Barclays Bank. China’s role as an investor in the United Kingdom is likely to increase dramatically in the years ahead.

Nevertheless, Britain shares with the rest of Europe and the United States concerns over the trade imbalance with China. In June 2008, while it increased its exports to China to $800 million a month, this still ran at a massive deficit, with China exporting back to the UK over $2 billion worth of goods. Britain undertook most of its negotiations on the trade deficit through the European Union.

Education Exchange

Chinese students have been attending British universities in increasing numbers, rising from 3,000 in 1998 to more than 70,000 in 2007. The British universities of Liverpool and Nottingham have set up educational joint ventures in China, with Nottingham having the only foreign university campus in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province.

Britain remains one of the key international centers for the study of both ancient and modern China, with large, thriving academic centers at Oxford, Cambridge, London, Leeds, Edinburgh, and Nottingham.

Toward an Understanding

While relations have remained warm since 1997, history continues to leave a stain. Arguments within and outside China continue over the role that Britain played during what has been labeled China’s century of humiliation. Some historians argue that the Qing empire was complacent and that it overreacted to foreign overtures for greater links. If China had been sharper and more sensible in its reaction, it might have used these links to make itself more secure and stronger. Others argue that economic and social development in China, particularly in Hong Kong, was established and expanded by the Chinese with little help from the British.

In one particular area, Tibet, Britain’s colonial past still reverberates: Britain is the only country in the world that does not recognize Chinese sovereignty in the region.

In spite of, or because of, past connections, Britain and China have expressed the desire for continued relations. Britain has become a destination for large numbers of Chinese tourists, though the fact that it is not yet part of the European Schengen visa zone (and unlikely to be one for the foreseeable future) has kept these numbers limited. In 2007 British prime minister Gordon Brown and Chinese premier Wen Jiabao agreed to joint efforts in further developing Sino-British cooperation in economic, educational, and cultural matters.

Further Reading

Carroll, J. M. (2007). A concise history of Hong Kong. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Hoare, J. E. (1999). Embassies in the East: The Story of the British and their embassies in China, Japan and Korea from 1859 to the present. London: Routledge.

Cradock, P. (1994). Experiences of China. London: John Murray.

Bickers, R. (1999). Britain in China: Community, culture and colonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Welsh, F. (1997). A history of Hong Kong. London: Harper Collins.

Source: Brown, Kerry. (2009). United Kingdom–China Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2341–2344. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Ferry pier on Hong Kong Island, central Hong Kong is on the left. Hong Kong, having been under British rule since 1842, was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The owner of a Chinese clothing store poses with former British prime minister Tony Blair and his wife. This photo is proudly displayed in the window of her shop. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

United Kingdom–China Relations (Y?ng-Zh?ng wàiji?o gu?nxì ??????)|Y?ng-Zh?ng wàiji?o gu?nxì ?????? (United Kingdom–China Relations)

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