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Home > Embassy News > 2012
History Tells
Speech by H.E. Ambassador Liu Xiaoming at the Oxford Union

President-Elect John Lee,

Young friends,

It is a real pleasure for me to be invited to speak here today.

The Oxford Union is a prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford and for the cut and thrust of its debate.

So, it is indeed an honour for me to be with you.

Also, I am delighted to have this opportunity to exchange ideas with you young friends here.

This is my second speech at Oxford. Two years ago I was invited to speak about contemporary Chinese foreign policy at the Said Business School. That was a straight forward task as obviously I should know about the subject!

Now back in Oxford, I face a tough challenge.

This is because President Lee has kindly suggested that I choose whatever topic for this speech. This is not an easy choice in such a famous forum!

Imagine that you walk into a restaurant. You then ask the chef to cook whatever tastes great. The chef will be at loss for he does not know what kind of food will please your palate.

So I have given some serious thought about how to appeal to your appetite!

In choosing today's topic, I have drawn inspiration from this great university.

Many people ask about what might be the most advantageous degree to study at Oxford University. Some say philosophy, politics and economics, commonly known as PPE.

But, I think one gentleman gave a truly authoritative answer.

He said that history was the best subject to study at Oxford. This answer has much authority as it comes from Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University.

Perhaps Lord Patten gave that answer as he studied history here!

So I am going to talk about history - the history of China-Britain relations, not because I want to teach fish how to swim, but because I believe history tells a lot.

Relations between China and Britain started over two centuries ago.

It is a long and complicated relationship and has gone through many ups and downs.

But, in five phrases we can capture the headlines:

· It started with a failed diplomatic mission;

· There was an unjust war;

· Then a well-timed diplomatic upgrading;

· This led to a historic negotiation

· And finally, a new partnership.

Let me explain them one by one.

First, a failed diplomatic mission.

In 1792, King George III sent a delegation to China. This was the famous Macartney Mission.

It was the first ever diplomatic mission that Britain, and even the entire Western world, had dispatched to China. It was the prelude of official contacts between China and Britain.

The purpose of the Macartney Mission was to launch diplomatic relations between the two countries. The driving motivation of the British was commercial. The rising industrial might of the UK needed new markets. So it was an obvious step to try and open Chinese markets for British products.

Macartney made several requests to the Qing government. One request was the establishment of a permanent British embassy in China. Another petition was opening some Chinese ports for trade.

Lord Macartney failed to attain his goals. His requests and proposals were declined. Emperor Qianlong wrote in his reply letter to King George III:

"Appointing a representative at my Court is a request contrary to our Imperial Dynastic rules and traditions, and is utterly impracticable."

Emperor Qian Long added:

"Our Imperial virtue has penetrated into every country under heaven. Kings of all nations have offered their richest tributes by land and sea……and we have no use for your country's manufactures."

Lord Macartney attributed his failure to poor translation.

Of course the best known story about this diplomatic failure was the behavior of Lord Macartney. The court officials of the Emperor made great efforts to brief Lord Macartney about Chinese court etiquette. Despite this advice Lord Macartney refused to drop his knees when having an audience with Emperor Qian Long.

So was it a failure of communication as Lord Macartney thought?

Some compared this encounter to a dialogue between a blind man and a deaf man.

I think the answer is rather deeper. This was a failure of a fundamental clash of ideas. On one side was an established power and on the other was a rising power. There was no mutual respect or trust – a theme I will talk about later.

At that time, Britain was a capitalist country where industrial revolution was forging ahead. It had little knowledge about China at that time which was a closed and agrarian society.

In addition, China was proud of being a 'celestial imperial dynasty'. At that time China had no interest or motivation to deal with the rapidly ascending Britain. China's leaders did not think there was any need to adapt to the changing world.

Maybe I should also mention the second-in-command of the Macartney Mission. This is Sir George Staunton. Two years before he set out for China, Oxford conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law.

Let me turn to the second historical headline - an unjust war.

In 1840 a war broke out between China and Britain. This war might be seen as a very minor incident in the British history of external relations. It is known to British people as the first Anglo-Chinese war. It was a war triggered by conflicting trade interests.

But, if British history books record this as a minor foot note – it does not excuse the major unjust nature of the war. This was a fight based on the British Government defence of the trade in opium smuggling. Even some UK politicians were appalled by the actions of the British Government. In a debate at the House of Commons, a young Tory MP, William Gladstone, spoke fervently against it. He said:

"I do not know a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace."

This unjust war ended with the defeat of China. Britain imposed an unequal treaty and forced China to concede Hong Kong and open five ports for trade. Britain achieved with gunboats what the Macartney Mission failed to secure.

The Opium War has had a deep and long impact on China. It is widely accepted by historians as the beginning of China's contemporary history.

In the 100 years that followed China sank to appalling levels of poverty and chaos. In 1840 China had 30% share of global GDP; by 1940 this had collapsed to under 5%.

Following the Opium War China was plagued by both foreign aggression and civil war. Its sovereignty was violated. Its land was occupied. As a result, the China-Britain relationship for a long time was not on an equal footing.

Every coin has two sides, so does history.

The dire perils triggered by the Opium War helped wake up the Chinese people. They became aware that China must adapt to a changing world. The Industrial Revolution that started in Britain meant that every nation had to change.

After many bitter sufferings Chinese people learned the lesson:

· They started to 'open wide their eyes and look around the world'.

· They began the search for a way to save and revive the Chinese nation.

It was in this context that a revolution broke in China.

The monarchy was overthrown and a republic was born. But, it took another four decades before the foundations of stability were laid. This was with the foundation in 1949 of the People's Republic of China.

The struggle to win that foundation was a bitter battle:

· It required Chinese people to study and accept European and American modern science and ideas of democracy.

· Chinese people had to fight Japanese aggression for eight years to win national independence.

· China imported Marxism and established the Chinese Communist Party and under its leadership found the People's Republic.

The symbolism of this struggle is at the heart of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The inscriptions on the massive Monument to the People's Heroes reads:

"Long live the people's heroes over the years since 1840 who had fallen in the fights against internal and external enemies and for the independence of the Chinese nation and happiness of the Chinese people! "

Note the specific reference to 1840 - the starting year by Britain of the unjust 'Opium War'.

We now reach the third historical headline - a well-timed diplomatic upgrading.

After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, China and Britain exchanged charges d'affaires in 1954. It was not a normal diplomatic relationship. It was referred to by historians as "half diplomatic relationship". Such a relationship was the product of the 'Cold War.' It was also due to some obstacles caused by the question of Taiwan.

In 1972 great changes took place in the global landscape. A key event was the visit to China by President Nixon.

The visit meant that the thick ice between China and the US was broken. At the same time China-Britain relations were thawing.

Britain acknowledged the position of the Chinese Government that Taiwan was a province of the People's Republic of China. The two countries signed the Joint Communiqué. This document was of great moment. It raised China-Britain relations to ambassadorial level. This normalized China-Britain relations.

This was a vital turning point in Sino-UK ties. It symbolised a fresh start of mutual respect and equal exchanges between the two countries.

This year marks the 40 years since those full diplomatic relations between China and the UK were established. Both sides have hosted many celebrations.

When speaking at the reception hosted by the Chinese embassy, I particularly mentioned a British leader the former Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath.

Sir Edward deserves great credit for his huge role in making China-UK ambassadorial relations a reality. He also visited China 26 times in his lifetime. His dedication to China-Britain friendship earned him in China the title 'people's envoy of friendship.'

You will know from the records and minutes of your Oxford Union that Sir Edward was both your Secretary and Librarian. In addition, I believe he made his mark as a debater here in the Union. Like so many others before, your Union was the political cradle for him – just as it has been for many great political leaders. Perhaps it was here that he learned the values that inspired his very significant contribution to Sino-UK relations.

We now reach the fourth headline - a historic negotiation.

In spite of the establishment of ambassadorial relations, there was still an outstanding issue between the two countries-Hong Kong. This was an issue left over from the Opium War that I mentioned earlier.

The thrust of the issue was that China wanted Hong Kong back. But, Britain wanted to maintain its interests in Hong Kong.

After 22 rounds of hard negotiations, the two governments signed in Beijing in 1984 the Joint Declaration over Hong Kong. It provided that China would resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong on 1 July 1997. There was also the policy of "one country two systems" that would be applied in Hong Kong after its return.

The resolution of the Hong Kong question was a major milestone in China-UK relations. It is important in many ways:

· First, it resolved a big historical issue that went back to the Opium War. It laid the foundation for the long term growth of our relations.

· Second, it created a model for China's peaceful reunification. After the Hong Kong model, China and Portugal smoothly resolved the Macao issue.

· Third, it set a record of settling international disputes through peaceful negotiations.

For two countries like China and Britain, resolving a sensitive and complex territorial issue through peaceful negotiation was a remarkable achievement. It has far-reaching historical significance to China and Britain. It is also highly relevant and instructive to the world today.

For example, one Asian country is attempting to challenge the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and post-war international order.

Its unilateral actions have violated the consensus reached between the related countries on peaceful settlement of territorial disputes.

This Asian country should be inspired by the success story created by China and Britain.

In the historic settlement of Hong Kong question, another alumna of Oxford played a prominent role with her wisdom and decisiveness. This was Prime Minister Thatcher, the Iron Lady. I know that she also shared her wisdom here as a guest speaker at your Oxford Union.

Finally we have the fifth headline - a new type of partnership.

Since the dawn of the new century the world has witnessed extraordinary events in China. The result has brought about great changes in the economic strength, international status and role of China.

Thanks to the hard efforts over the three decades since reform and opening up, China has surged to be the world's second largest economy. For over three decades China has sustained an annual growth rate of 9.9%. This is an unmatched success that the world economy has ever known.

At the same time China has taken an active part in international affairs.

China has risen from a regional power, as the developed countries used to see it, to a global power.

As a result it is now inconceivable that any major global issue could be resolved without the active participation and support of China.

Against such a backdrop, despite the divergence in history, culture, development stage and social system, our two countries have come remarkably close in our relations. The breakthrough was the establishment of a new type of partnership.

In 1998 China and Britain embarked on a 'Comprehensive Partnership.'

In 2004 it was further enriched and elevated to a 'Comprehensive Strategic Partnership'.

Our relationship is based on our shared interests. This approach answers the call of the age we live in.

Today Sino-UK relations are flourishing.

· China and Britain have put in place:

· The Economic and Financial Dialogue;

· The Strategic Dialogue and High Level People-to-People Dialogue.

They are the three pillars of our relations.

Our economic ties are growing fast. In 2011 China-UK bilateral trade in goods totaled nearly 60 billion US dollars. That was 200 times of that in 1972.

Every year more than one million of our people visit each other's country for travel, work or study. China has become the number one source of foreign students in Britain.

Of course our two countries do not see eye to eye with each other on every issue. However, we can resolve issues as we maintain close communication and consultation. Our relationship has never been so deep and extensive.

Talking about our new partnership, I must mention another graduate of Oxford. This is former Prime Minister Tony Blair. I am told he was active in the Oxford Union and like Sir Edward an office holder.

During Tony Blair's 11 years as Prime Minister, development of China-UK relations was both fast and positive. He recognised the strategic significance by establishing his Prime Minister's China Task Force. Of course, we should not forget that the incumbent Prime Minister is also from Oxford.

Young friends,

So far I have given you an overview of the multi-faceted China-Britain relations with five headlines.

This year is the 220th anniversary of the Macartney Mission to China. From 220 years of China-Britain exchanges we witness an upward trajectory that moved from:

· estrangement to understanding;

· from hostility to friendship;

· from rivalry to cooperation

· and from negative to positive.

It is not a straight line, because our relations went through ups and downs. But this did not, and cannot change the overriding trend of Sino-UK ties.

A very famous ancient Chinese saying is:

"Take history as a mirror and you will understand why dynasties rise and fall."

Coming to Europe, Victor Hugo said:

"What is history? An echo of the past in the future, a reflex from the future on the past."

Both these Chinese and European quotations reflect similar thinking.

So taking a historical view, what lessons can we learn as we take stock of China-Britain relations over the past more than two centuries?

In my view, the most important lesson we should learn is mutual respect and treating each other as equals.

This is also a fundamental principle that China upholds and insists on in its foreign policy.

All unpleasant memories of China-Britain relations show lack of respect and equality. This is the basis of the failure of the Macartney Mission and the tragedy of the Opium War.

All positive progress of our relations were achieved through mutual respect and equality. These are seen in the diplomatic upgrading, the smooth handover of Hong Kong and the launch of a new partnership. So we may well conclude that respect and equality is the heart and soul of China-Britain relations.

Then how can China and Britain truly respect each other and treat each other as equals in the world today? I believe it is essential to do the following.

First, respect each other's national realities, such as history, culture, development stage and social system.

There are many differences in the evolution of our two nations:

· China has a history of 5000 years.

· Britain was the pathfinder of modern industrialisation.

· Confucianism is deep in Chinese people's genes.

· Britons have a tradition of pragmatism.

· Britain is the birthplace of modern capitalism and is a developed Western nation.

· China follows socialism with Chinese characteristics.

· China is the largest developing country.

These are the basic facts of the two countries.

We must be aware of and respect our differences. We should respect each other's development path. We should respect our respective choices.

Only through this kind of respect can China and Britain become equal partners.

Only through this kind of regard can our countries establish and develop a comprehensive strategic partnership between two countries like China and Britain that differ in history, culture, social and political systems.

The second essential as we move forward is, respect each other's interests, especially core interests.

You will all be familiar with the famous song Rule Britannia. This song is almost like a national anthem for Britons. In one of the verses the song says:

"Britons never, never, never shall be slaves."

Both our nations reflect pride in our culture and a resistance to domination by others. So it should not surprise that the first line of China's national anthem March of the Volunteers says:

"Arise, you people who refuse to be slaves!"

These words reflect how Chinese people refused to accept the humiliation and loss of sovereignty that followed from the Opium War.

Following the Opium War, China had been brought to its knees and the Chinese nation endured untold sufferings. Today's China and Chinese people cherish national independence and freedom. We value sovereignty and territorial integrity more than anything else.

China does not allow violation and interference from anyone on issues that concern China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, because these are our core interests. There were more than enough such historical lessons between China and Britain. We must prevent reoccurrence of such unfortunate incidents.

History is an essential guide. One famous British historian, Arnold Toynbee was also an alumnus of Oxford University.

Arnold Toynbee predicted that the 21st century would be the Chinese century.

Of course, this should not be interpreted as the 21st century belongs solely to China. Rather it means China will accomplish more in the 21st century.

I am confident that as China increasingly prospers, the future of China-Britain relations will have more opportunities.

We should be committed to a new type of China-Britain partnership I have described. In summary, these are the crucial points to define that relationship:

· Political mutual respect;

· Shared trust;

· An economic win-win cooperation;

· Reciprocal learning about each others cultures;

· And greater coordination and cooperation in international affairs.

If these goals are realised then the pattern of history suggests that our two countries and peoples will benefit enormously.

220 years ago, King George III wrote in his letter to Chinese Emperor Qianlong:

"No time can be so propitious for extending the bounds of friendship and benevolence, and for proposing to communicate and receive those benefits which must result from an unreserved and amicable intercourse, between such great and civilized nations as China and Great Britain."

Due to the confines of historical conditions, King George's wish did not come true!

But in this new era, great nations such as China and Britain have much to offer the world. Both countries should use their immense skills and resources to deliver a common goal. This is the shared objective of creating a sustainable and peaceful world for all humanity.

Oxonians have been critical to the past of China- Britain relations. I do believe you, students of Oxford, also have a huge role to play in this relationship's future. This is why I have joined you here.

I hope my reflections on history may inspire you to follow the spirit of the times and undertake your responsibilities and mission. I hope you will work with the young generation of China to compose new chapters of China-Britain relations.

Thank you ! I would be glad to take your questions.

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