The announcement from the organisers of the event at which newly arrived Chinese ambassador was to have spoken at Parliament early in September was curt. The event had, unfortunately, and for unforeseen reasons, had to be postponed. What did this mean in terms of relations between the UK and China?
A little later all was revealed. The Speakers of both the House of Lords and the House of Commons had, in concert, banned the ambassador from the People’s Republic because of the sanctions on a number of Members of Parliament issued by China in the summer.
Formally, Sir Lindsay Hoyle and his counterpart in the Lords have the right to allow who they wish on the premises. After all, Hoyle’s predecessor John Bercow did bar President Donald Trump from speaking during his visit to the UK in 2017. This is clearly their prerogative. The statement from the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson made that clear.
Even so, in the larger context, it is an indication of just how difficult the balancing act for Johnson – with his ‘I am not a sinophobe’ pragmatic posture – is becoming.
In November this year, if things go according to plan, COP26, hosted in the UK, will aim to do something about an issue that most agree is the most important facing humanity at the moment – climate change.
For once, the US, Europe and others broadly agree that China is a major partner in this. And, to add to the good news, China’s position is broadly aligned with theirs: Xi Jinping wholly agrees that combatting climate change is a priority. He has made a number of announcements in the last few years since the Paris Convention in 2015 underlining this.
The Chinese government at some level might know that there is a difference between the position of Parliament and the government.
They may also understand Johnson’s plight, dealing with a large arm of his Party that have increasing muscular views on how to deal with China which may well be at odds with that of the government: see, for instance, the work put out by the China Research Group.
But with the same disarming rapidity from which she shifted from being an opponent of Brexit to a supporter of it, she has in recent months been harsher in her tone. It will be interesting to see how she manages this in her new role.
It is true that the whole issue of imposing sanctions originated with the US, Europe and the UK. It was an attempt earlier in the year to do something, at least, about the rising, and valid, concerns about systemic human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region of north west China.
In many ways, however, imposing sanctions on the Chinese officials linked with this region only underlined how limited options are in doing anything about this issue. China’s response was an escalation, slapping retaliatory sanctions on not just parliamentarians but also academics and lawyers.
The sanctioning of parliamentarians is a thorny issue. In many ways, the division between officials and politicians in China and the UK is completely different. In China, the line between the two blurs.
An official is, almost per se, a politician in China, almost always a member of the Chinese Communist Party. In the UK, of course, the key difference is that officials are appointed, and politicians elected. That means that to start slapping sanctions on them in many ways can be interpreted as an attack on the people, and the system, that elected them. This is a hugely sensitive issue.
This is a lamentable situation. No one is wholly in the right. The UK and China, before one of the potentially most significant international fora of recent years, are engaged in squabbling that demeans them both.
It is still unclear whether Xi Jinping will attend COP26. It would be a tragedy if he were not there because of the decisions made in Westminster this month.
And while the pique of the British politicians who were sanctioned by China is understandable, it is a good time for them to think a bit deeper about the bigger picture their reactions are happening in. They need to take a more strategic and thoughtful view.
At the moment, they are spoiling for a fight they don’t need to engage in, and they wouldn’t win even if they were able to get into it – something only underlined by the puzzling insertion of the UK into the Australia and US defence pact AUSUK a few days later.
By Kerry Brown, Professor of China Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.