The Lion, the Wolf Warrior and the Crossroads: UK-China Relations at a Turning Point

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 3

UK and PRC flags on display (source: UK Parliament)


In early 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May visited China with a British business delegation, seeking a free trade deal and expressing optimism over Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula for governing Hong Kong (Global Times, January 31, 2018; Zaobao, January 31, 2018). In her first foreign trip since moving into 10 Downing Street, she promised that the “golden era of relations” between the UK and China would be even better after Brexit (Xinhua, February 1, 2018). Since May’s visit, however, a great deal has happened to move UK-China relations in the opposite direction, with the PRC’s suppression of mass demonstrations in Hong Kong (Global Times, July 29, 2020); the implementation of the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law that London sees as a breach of “one country, two systems” (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC], June 12, 2020); the British riposte in offering a path to citizenship for Hong Kongers (, April 14, 2021); and the escalation of tensions between China and its trading partners, particularly the UK’s closest ally, America (FMPRC, September 24, 2021; Xinhua, October 5, 2021).

The British establishment, like their American cousins, have changed tack on China of late. In June 2022, MI5 Director Ken McCallum and FBI Director Chris Wray gave a joint address warning business and academic leaders in Britain of the “massive shared challenge” posed by China (MI5, July 6, 2022). Two years earlier, McCallum said that if Russian behavior is like “bursts of bad weather,” then “China is changing the climate” (CIGI, June 2, 2022). Last November, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, referring to UK-China relations, said that “the so-called ‘golden era’ is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform” in the People’s Republic (ThePrint, November 29. 2022). Even the pro-engagement business weekly Beijing to Britain admits that no one in the UK Parliament “believes that an enriched Chinese middle class will steer the country towards democracy” (Beijing to Britain, January 24, 2021).

Britain’s conundrum in stabilizing commercial relations with Beijing while heeding American sensibilities is as difficult as at any time since Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972. Meanwhile in Beijing, the decades-old ordeal of striving to play the British off against the Americans has become an increasingly uphill battle. In fact, much of today’s menu of bilateral issues between London and Beijing, with the Washington factor always hovering in the background, might be familiar to Clement Atlee, Winston Churchill, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. That brings some predictability to the rollercoaster ride of UK-China relations, but unsettling variables have changed the course of relations and pushed London, not to mention the rest of NATO, ever closer to Washington. Specific aspects of the PRC’s increasingly destabilizing and aggressive policies that have rankled London include the removal of Hong Kong as a centerpiece of the UK-China bilateral relationship; and Beijing’s announcement immediately prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, that “the Sino-Russian cooperation has no limits, no exclusion zone, no ceiling” (中俄合作没有止境 ,没有禁区,没有上限) (Global Times, December 24, 2021;, February 4, 2022).

Moralism and Outrage in Beijing

On the Chinese side, sensibilities regarding the UK are shaped in part by historical memories of China’s “Century of National Humiliation” (百年国耻), which began with the defeat of the Qing Dynasty by Britain in the First Opium War (Sohu, March 26, 2021). Following this first of many disasters, British military muscle carved out not only Hong Kong as a Crown Colony but huge “spheres of influence” that grew like cancer for the rest of the 1800s (Alpha History, December 20, 2022). Other foreign powers followed suit, culminating in the defeat of China by the despised Japanese in 1894-95, which was followed by Imperial Japan’s eventual takeover of China’s entire northeast in the early 20th century. That string of humiliations is, by all accounts, the root cause of the occasional, sudden popular outrage against foreigners in China, even today.

China’s chance to redress the humiliation arose as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched to victory in 1948-49. When they took the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, Mao decided, at Stalin’s suggestion, to place the U.S. consulate staff under house arrest for over a year (ADST, September 12, 2012). He considered America to be China’s most dangerous enemy since they had sided with the Chinese Nationalists, though Britain was less dangerous as they had been neutral in the Chinese Civil War. America, Mao said, had to change its behavior in order to have diplomatic relations with China. Washington was outraged at the detention of its diplomats, which at the time caused just as much public furor as the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80. But Washington could do little in response without an inconceivable military commitment. [1]

Pragmatism in London and Beijing

By contrast, London’s interests in China were deeper than those of America, albeit only marginally less troubled. The British had something that Beijing wanted: a diplomatic, commercial, and espionage window on the world in Hong Kong. The nascent People’s Republic of China (PRC) agreed not to reclaim Hong Kong—as the Nationalist Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek had threatened. In exchange, the British promised continued tolerance of CCP Underground (地下党) activity in the Crown Colony, further bolstering an agreement from 1938. For Beijing, this was a pragmatic policy they termed “fully utilize (what one has now) and plan for the long run” (长期打算充分利用). [2]

An occasionally workable UK-CCP relationship was set in motion. Its origins dated back to World War II, when the CCP Underground, intelligence, and guerilla organizations worked with the British against Japanese forces in Hong Kong and elsewhere. [3] Hong Kong and Macau became highly useful to CCP Intelligence in the decades that followed (, July 30, 2017). [4]

Britain may have been a close ally of Beijing’s main enemy in Washington, but the CCP realized that London could be swayed based on its desire to maintain Hong Kong as a Crown Colony, Britain’s extensive commercial interests on the mainland, the belief that the de facto ruler of China should be recognized and previous Anglo-American disagreements over China policy. In January 1950, the British proposed establishing diplomatic relations with China. [5] Beijing eventually accepted but held London at arm’s length, at what the Chinese termed “half relations” (半外交), acknowledging Humphrey Trevelyan, the British head of mission in the Chinese capital, not as an ambassador or even as chargé d’affaires, but as “the head of the British delegation for negotiations for the establishment of diplomatic relations.” [6]

UK-China relations froze with the Korean War (1950-53). At the time, perhaps an equally important irritant was the realization in Beijing that the British would not completely sever relations with the Nationalist government on Taiwan, out of deference to Washington. But rapprochement followed in 1955, when the two sides exchanged chargés. At the Geneva Conference one year prior, Zhou Enlai “excelled in playing British and French realism off against the rigidity and inflexibility of American Cold War policies,” epitomizing the United Front strategy that remains a hallmark today of PRC foreign policy: unite with all possible forces to isolate the most dangerous enemy. [7] This is somewhat reminiscent of Washington’s current struggle to convince Britain and other nations to eschew Huawei telecommunication equipment out of fear that it would be used for espionage.

Geopolitics, Moralism and Hard Cash

CCP United Front work combined with conflicting UK and U.S. interests in Asia contributed to “tension and mistrust” in the Anglo-American relationship during the 1950s. The British were disturbed by the American nuclear deterrence posture against China and their commitment to defend the offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu. Washington’s policy toward China was heavily colored by emotional issues: the “Who Lost China” debate, the Red Scare, the Korean War, the question of Taiwan and the pro-KMT “China Lobby.” By contrast, Britain’s Foreign Office had no “China Lobby” to contend with other than the pro-engagement business community.

UK-China commercial relations began growing in ways that their American allies could not have imagined themselves pursuing. The example of aerospace sales by Britain to China is instructive: such exports are particularly lucrative, generate well-paid jobs, and always raise dual-use export control concerns. The 1963 sale of British Vickers Viscount turboprop aircraft was an opening gambit, albeit interrupted by the manic period of the Cultural Revolution (1966-69) (BAE Systems). But in 1971 China negotiated the purchase of nine British Trident jets, including one that served as Premier Zhou’s official aircraft, with others allocated to the PLA Air Force (NYT, August 9, 1972; South China Morning Post [SCMP], April 9, 2017). Ironically, one of the planes was immediately lost in September of that year when Marshal Lin Biao fled China onboard a new Trident, which ran out of fuel and crashed in Mongolia (SCMP, September 12, 2016).

The promise of substantial export sales for Britain and technology acquisitions for Beijing beckoned both sides. From March 1971 to March 1972, London and Beijing improved relations in a series of steps. Zhou Enlai formally apologized to the British Chargé for the invasion and burning by Red Guards of the British Mission in 1967, blaming it on extremists, though it would be another decade before anyone was charged with a crime connected to the incident. [8] During a full year of negotiations, Beijing drove a hard bargain on the sensitive issue of Taiwan, insisting that the British first close their consular office on the island. London eventually agreed, and the two sides established full diplomatic relations in March 1972, a month after Nixon’s trip to China (GOV.UK, March 13, 2017; FMPRC, March 29, 2017).In the decades since, UK-China bilateral trade has steadily grown decade after decade to reach a record level in 2022 (CIIE, March 14, 2022). But tensions have also gradually mounted.

Hard Bargaining, Hard Luck

The Thatcher government’s attempt to retain the island of Hong Kong “in perpetuity” while returning the rest of the colony to China at the end of its 99-year lease was flatly rejected by China’s then paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. As a result, PM Margaret Thatcher, the same British leader who went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and emerged victorious, realized that Britain was powerless to resist China’s demand to return the entire territory —and that America was not about to anger Beijing as it strove to keep China onside against the Soviet Union.

The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration to restore Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong contained a promise by China to preserve the territory’s system for 50 years after the 1997 handover. However, before that period was halfway over, Beijing scrapped it with the passage of the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law after a series of moves that tightened Beijing’s grip, leading up to the massive 2019-2020 protests (GOV.UK, May 28, 2020;, December 20, 2021). Ho-Fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University, a scholar of Hong Kong politics, makes a persuasive argument that Deng Xiaoping’s promise of “one country, two systems” was a ploy to lull Hong Kongers and the British into accepting a gradually hardening set of CCP policies. Hung points out that Deng Xiaoping, in the 1950s, crafted a remarkably similar set of initial promises and tactics in Tibet, eventually leading to a harsh crackdown and an exodus by Tibetans with the ability to flee, a situation echoed recently in Hong Kong. [9]

London’s value to Beijing as a partner in maintaining the stability of Hong Kong precipitously declined after the 1997 handover: the CCP no longer needed London to keep that window on the world open. Partly as a tactic to make Hong Kong less irreplaceable, the Party moved to advantage Shanghai as an alternate Chinese center for international finance (, July 24, 2020). Early signs arose of less than reconcilable political differences between the UK and China. Between 1994 and 2006, China generally voted against the UK and U.S. in the UN General Assembly, which considers international political and social questions, aligning itself instead with Brazil, India, Iran, and Russia. [10]

More dramatic signs of instability and decline in the UK-China relationship followed, picking up steam in the late 2000s. They are too numerous to list here, but examples included pro-Tibet protests in London along the Olympic torch route in April, 2008, infuriating Beijing on the eve of it hosting the Olympics; gradual crackdowns against free speech and free association in Hong Kong, leading up to kidnappings in Hong Kong by CCP agents of dissident booksellers and others in 2015 (BBC Chinese, November 11, 2015); British suspension of its extradition treaty with China following the imposition by Beijing of the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law (Straits Times, July 21, 2020); the attack by Chinese diplomats against peaceful demonstrators at the Chinese Consulate in Manchester in October 2022, participated in by the Consul general himself (RFI, October 19, 2022); and the assault a month later by Chinese police in Shanghai of a BBC journalist covering anti-lockdown protests (CPJ, November 28, 2022).

Advantage, Wolf?

As Beijing grew stronger and more influential, London found it more difficult to tolerate China’s increasingly assertive policies and aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, even while trade boomed (People’s Daily, June 10, 2021). Charles Parton, OBE, a longtime UK Foreign Office observer of China, wrote in 2019 that “threats and bullying, particularly related to economic ties, are becoming an increasingly common method for the CCP to get its way in foreign relations—to give way to it would, in the long run, lead to greater dependency and a weakened ability to support UK values, security, and prosperity” (RUSI, February 2019).

After PM Rishi Sunak’s speech in November, another British China expert, Nigel Inkster, CMG, the former Director for Operations and Intelligence at MI-6, now Senior Advisor for Cyber Security and China at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told BBC Radio 4 that he did not think the UK-China “golden era” was ever a viable and real concept (BBC, November 29, 2022). “It attempted to focus on economic relations while putting geopolitics to one side, and experience shows you simply cannot do that.”

The CCP might agree, and see an advantage for China in this arena.

Compared to the UK and other democracies, the PRC can more easily balance and shape economic goals to geopolitical ones. The CCP’s monopoly on political power and imperfect yet strong control over industry, S&T, the arts, and the telling of history has reached the height of authoritarian efficiency. They have no credible opposition, no “Britain lobby” nor “America lobby,” although they do see a society full of enemies–Tibetans, Uyghurs, activists, traitors to the Chinese race and turncoats, all to be suppressed.

For decades, the CCP has striven to reach industrial and technological parity with the UK and U.S., and in many ways has succeeded. As a ruling party and government, they lead the world in monitoring and surveillance of their population. Their sophisticated and practiced international influence machinery coordinates misleading messaging such as “one country, two systems” that has successfully lulled large numbers of people initially outside of the CCP’s control, such as Tibetans and “spoiled Hong Kongers”, into grudging acceptance of enormous changes in their lives (FP, September 12, 2019).

Beijing’s relationship with London, however, is fraught with new difficulties. The PRC has struggled to deal with a torrent of negative reaction to its policies at home and abroad. Meanwhile, the UK is re-evaluating its strategy toward China. In 2020, Charles Parton recommended that London seek to better understand the CCP and its actual goals, formulate policies that bring consistency between differing UK interests, and “unite with like-minded democracies, not just the U.S. and ‘Five Eyes’ allies, but EU nations, India, Japan, and other Asian countries” (King’s College London, June 2020).

If bilateral issues continue to fester between Beijing and London, a British reevaluation of relations with China will likely continue, pushing the UK closer still to the U.S., along with their NATO allies. It remains to be seen if Beijing can reverse a bad situation by its usual tactics of dialing down the wolf, turning on the charm and sweetening the business relationship. That sort of approach might work once again. Or it may be too late. Time will tell.

Matthew Brazil is a non-resident Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He worked in Asia for over 20 years as a U.S. Army officer, American diplomat, and corporate security manager. He has taught Chinese and Asian history at the university level and studied Chinese politics at Berkeley, Harvard, and Sydney. His PhD dissertation at the University of Sydney (2013) described the place in the Chinese Communist Party of their intelligence organs. He is the coauthor of Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer (2019). Matt is also the author of the China chapter in the Handbook of Asian Intelligence Cultures ( 2022).


[1] Qiang Zhai, The Dragon, the Lion, and the Eagle, Chinese / British / American Relations, 1949-1958 (Kent, Ohio, The Kent State University Press, 1994), 24-27.

[2] 郝在今, 中国秘密  [Hao Zaijin, China’s Secret War] (Beijing: Zuojia Chubanshe, 2004).  7. 王俊彦, 廖承志传 [Wang Junyan, The Biography of Liao Chengzhi] (Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2006), 43-44, 91. Ho-Fung Hung, City on the Edge, Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 47.

[3] Chan Sui-jeung, East River Column, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009) 41-43, 50, 51-55.

[4] Interview with James Lilley, Washington, DC, 2004.

[5] 王红续 [Wang Hongxu] 七十年代来的中英关系 [Sino-British Relations Since the 1970s] (哈尔滨: 黑龙江教育出版社 [Haerbin: Heilongjiang Educational Publishing], 18.

[6] Qiang Zhai, The Dragon, the Lion, and the Eagle, 44-45, 146

[7] Qiang Zhai, The Dragon, the Lion, and the Eagle, 12, 14-16, 19-21; Qiang Zhai, “China and the Geneva Conference of 1954,” in The China Quarterly, vol. 129, 103-122. doi:10.1017/S0305741000041242

 [8] Anne-Marie Brady, Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s Republic (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2003), 184-185.

[9] Ho-Fung Hung, City on the Edge, 110-121.

[10] David Shambaugh, China Goes Global, the Partial Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 140-141.