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Ambassador Liu Xiaoming Answers Questions from Sir Sherard at the CBBC Webinar

On 5 May 2020, Ambassador Liu Xiaoming attended a webinar hosted by China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) and delivered a keynote speech entitled Join Hands to Turn Crisis into Opportunities for a Brighter Future. This was followed by Q&A with online participants.The full transcript of the Q&A session is as follows:

Sir Sherard: Thank you, Ambassador, very much indeed for those opening remarks. We have a record attendance at this CBBC webinar, nearly 500 people. The seminar is open to the wider world, and it's being watched by sky television, CGTN and other media outlets as well. The first question is about those who call for an inquiry into the origins of the pandemic. What would you say to the people calling for the inquiry?

Ambassador Liu: First, as I said in my speech, China has been open and transparent in informing both the WHO and other countries with regard to the pathogen and the genetic sequence of the virus. There is no cover-up, no hiding, at all. We are transparent and open, and that has been spoken highly of by the WHO, by their leading experts and scientists, and also by many countries in the world, including by British scientists. Professor Powis(National Medical Director for England), said in the daily briefings that because of the early identification of the virus, and because China has shared this information very quickly at a very early stage, the world has time to study and do research on the vaccine. So that has been truly recognized. That’s my first point to the question.

Second, the noise about the so-called “inquiry” is mainly from the United States, and echoed by some western countries. Very few. I think these calls are politically motivated. As I said, the international community is focusing on the fight against COVID-19. The virus is still ravaging the world, taking lives in many countries, especially in the United States and also in this country. Instead of focusing on the fight against the virus, and instead of saving lives, they want to do some inquiry. I think they have ulterior motives. They want to pass the buck of their lack of response, work and efforts in containing the virus to China. This is a game of blaming, scapegoating. It’s no help for the international response to the virus.

Third, I would say that with regard to the origin of the virus, it’s up to the scientists. This is a matter of science, not a matter for politicians to decide. I think politicians should focus on how to mobilize their countries to fight against the virus. We should trust scientists, doctors and experts in their search for the origin of the virus. Of course any country should reflect on the effectiveness of their response. No country is perfect, but this is not a time for this. We also admit that we can do even better. We are open and transparent with regard to how to draw lessons from the response to the virus, and we can compare notes with other countries. As a matter of fact, we did it. I think that is different from a politically motivated call for the so-called inquiry.

Sir Sherard: Thank you Ambassador very much. Now, I'm on the business side. We've got a lot of questions from people asking when would it be possible to travel back to China. We have some good news this morning that the 13 China Britain Business Council offices across China are now all fully open. And I think your government has announced this morning that people possessing a green card can now freely enter China. Would you like to say something about the free flow of people now between China and the United Kingdom in particular, but also the outside world.

Ambassador Liu: Our top priority is still to keep this virus under control, and more concerns now are about imported cases. So we still have to be vigilant about imported cases. We need to make sure that there will be no rebound of this virus and no second wave. And so we still have to guard against this. So the restrictive measures are still in place, but it’s improving, it's loosening as the situation improves. So I'm very pleased to hear the good news about your staff going back to China. And I believe that as the situation improves with regard to control of the virus, the situation will be better, will be improved. I just heard the good news that the confirmed cases in China now is below 500. As we have more good news like this, more restrictions will be lifted.

Sir Sherard: Good, thank you, Ambassador. We've gotten a number of questions from people in the education sector. I’m aware that before this pandemic, there were 200,000 Chinese students at British universities. I think at one university in particular, Edinburgh University, there was 30% rise in applications from China for the autumn. Many in the university sector, the higher education sector here are worried about the effect that this will have on the willingness of Chinese students to travel to the United Kingdom for their studies this autumn, and about traveling the other direction. Can you say something to people in the education sector at both ends of this vitally important relationship, about when and how you see those links resuming?

Ambassador Liu: I quite agree with you that education is a very important sector linking our two countries. As a matter of fact, Chinese students in the UK, as you said, about 200,000 are the largest Chinese student group in Europe, and second in the world. There are a lot of concerns at the beginning of the outbreak among the Chinese students, and we try to reach out to them. I have several online webinars like this with the Chinese students across the UK. The Chinese government is very much concerned about the health and safety of Chinese students. President Xi Jinping said on many occasions that we attach great importance to the safety and health of Chinese living overseas, especially Chinese students. And in addressing their concerns, the government provided what we call Health Package, and I did a presentation ceremony at the Embassy. We reached out to about 100,000 of Chinese students. Some of them left. And we also worked with the aviation authorities back in China to arrange charter planes to take back some young pupils who live with British families at weekends and during spring break, and those who have encountered difficulties.

So that is a grave concern. That's for sure. But I'm still confident that the fundamentals of the education collaboration between China and the UK are still there. It's just a matter of time. The situation is not very encouraging here in the UK. But still, we received many inquiries from families, from young students about the future enrollment in British schools. I also should mention that in the past few weeks, I wrote letters to Vice-Chancellors of 154 universities that host Chinese students. While expressing my concerns about the safety and health of the Chinese students, I encouraged the school authorities to take good care of them. I also expressed our commitment to stronger relationship between Chinese universities and British universities. So I believe that the fundamental is still there. And once the pandemic is over, we can resume our cooperation. The education section of my Embassy keeps very close contact with over 100 British universities. I myself also keep close contact with the Secretary of Education of the UK Government and the Director General, we exchanged letters about how China and the UK can strengthen the education cooperation.

Sir Sherard: Thank you very much. Now, there are still a lot of questions about the sort of anti-China sentiment in parts of the media here and in parts of particularly the Conservative Party. Perhaps I could ask you another version of the same question which is: When you are talking to Chinese investors in the UK, the large number of important Chinese investors, likely to become even more important in the future, what do you, as China's ambassador, say to them about, reassuring them about, some of these voices in British politics and media, in order to encourage them to continue to invest in the United Kingdom?

Ambassador Liu: First, we have to separate those anti-China sentiments from what the official position of the UK Government, and the broad consensus among the UK society towards China. So when you say that there are many anti-China sentiments, I do not believe they represent the UK government's position. They do not represent the broader consensus among the businesses in the UK, including CBBC, 48 Group Club and others like CBI. I'm going to have another webinar in two weeks’ time with Chairman Allan, and his members. It will be a much larger group. I believe that the UK Government and Prime Minister Johnson are still committed to a stronger relationship with China. In his two phone conversations and in his exchange of letters with the Chinese leaders, President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Johnson reaffirmed his commitment and his government’s commitment to a stronger relationship with China, to the Golden Era with China. And I believe the business community in this country also welcome Chinese businesses, support stronger relationship and partnership with China. And so I'm not worried, you know, when I was asked this question in HARDtalk, whether I'm concerned about China-UK relations, my answer is yes and no. When I say no, I mean I feel confident that we can work with the UK Government across-the-board, in addition to the joint fight against the virus. Also, we have a very busy agenda in front of us, bilaterally and multilaterally. And I engaged very actively with the business community. Education sector is another area. And even when it comes to the media, I think they are not all that bad. At the very beginning, I read some balanced report in many media about China's fight, China's sacrifice, China's efforts to have bought the time for the world. But, once the United States started this campaign of disinformation and scapegoating against China, some media followed suit. They dance to the tune of American politicians, American media. I do not want to be that critical, I do not want them to be friendly towards China. I just want them to be objective and balanced in their reporting about China. So, I agree with you, this kind of noise of media and some politicians are few. I do not believe they represent the government position, and they do not even represent the Parliament. The main theme of China-UK relations is partnership, cooperation and friendship. This Cold War mindset does not represent the main stream of today.

Sir Sherard: Well, thank you very much. I think it was Premier Zhou Enlai who first said we should seek common ground while setting aside differences, and that’s the sentiment that has been repeated over the years. But I want to move back to economic issues which are the primary concern of the China Britain Business Council. We’ve had three or four questions from members asking about the return of demand in China. You spoke about the return of supply and the return of the big manufacturers to work, but how do you see the demand returning both inside China and in China's overseas markets? Is that not going to slow economic recovery?

Ambassador Liu: Everybody would agree that the epidemic has impacts not only on China's domestic economy but also on trade and investment as well. But the government attaches great importance to the recovery of the economy. Even before we had the epidemic completely under control, President Xi said we were fighting on two fronts. Front one is against the virus and front two is resumption of production of the economy.

The government has introduced many measures, especially what we call the Six Stabilizing Measures and the Six Protection Measures. The Six Stabilizing Measures are to stabilize employment, financial market, foreign trade, investment, FDI and expectation. The Six Protection Measures were about protecting the employment, basic livelihood, market entities, food and energy security, stable industrial supply chain and normal operation of grassroot communities. These measures have already shown effect.

And as I said in my speech, we are still committed to deepening reform and opening up. The Foreign Investment Law has gone into effect at the beginning of this year. And there are many new laws and regulations which open up the market wider to the rest of the world, especially in the financial sectors, like insurance. It offers a lot of opportunities, especially for UK businesses, which is stronger in financial, legal and insurance services. There will be more pilot Free Trade Zones. The government is committed to shorten the negative list further. So there are a lot of new measures which are preferential to foreign businesses.

Sir Sherard: There are a lot of questions coming in about digital, artificial intelligence, 5G. In your opening remarks, you spoke about this pandemic changing the way the world works, in terms of work, education, health, digital delivery. China is already a highly digital society. I remember learning earlier this year at a seminar about possible British offers to Alibaba, which has 800 million customers in China, each one of whom on average visits its website 27 times a day. Can you say something a bit more about the digital offer in China, British businesses taking advantage of that and the way in which we Britain can learn from China’s highly digitalized approach to business?

Ambassador Liu: I quite agree with you that digital economy is offering huge potential for collaboration between China and the UK. In the first quarter of this year, although China’s economy has contracted by 6.8%, the lowest since 1992 when we started this statistics, the digital economy shows strong growth. In March, on-line sales of goods increased by 5.9%, accounting for 23.6% of total consumption. The UK is the inventor of World Wide Web and has strength, cutting edge, in digital, in AI and in many areas. I think China and the UK should work together on these sectors as well.

Many UK companies are already operating in China. They know even better than you and I with regard to what the specifics they should work on. But I can only say, China offers a huge market. When we talk about China's contribution, many people focus on China as a factory of the world. Yes, we are the largest producer of many products in the world. We will continue to be that way. But you also have to remember China is a huge market, the second largest consumer country in the world. I think very soon we will be the largest consumer country in the world. So, the digital economy has enormous opportunities and great prospects in China, and for China-UK cooperation.

Sir Sherard: Now, there are a number of questions coming in about Chinese foreign direct investment to the UK, particularly in the “Red Wall”, not the Great Wall of China behind you, but in what are called the “Red Wall” seats area, the seats Boris Johnson won for the Conservative Party the first time in a very long time indeed, the “Red Wall” seats across the North and the Midlands of the United Kingdom. In front of me there are at least three questions about Chinese investment in projects such as Boris Johnson's gigabyte economy, and projects like HS2, HS3, across northern England, and other such projects. Can you say something? Is that something that will be affected by what’s happened? What's your forecast for that?

Ambassador Liu: We encourage more collaboration between different regions in China and the UK. If it were not for this COVID-19, we would have the sub-national summit, which involved about 700 local leaders. 300 of them already signed up from China and almost 500 from the UK. This event was supposed to be held in Birmingham in February, from the British side, organized by Sir John Peace, who is chairman of the Midlands Engine. And we were working very closely with him on this conference. There is enormous interest back in China.

I think there are complementary interests, between different development strategies of our two countries. You have the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. In China we have development of the Yangtze River Economic Belt, construction of the Guangdong- Hong Kong- Macao Greater Bay Area and coordinated development of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. We can dovetail the economic strategies.

You're right that the Chinese businesses are very ambitious about making new efforts in places outside London. And they have been successful in this respect. In March, even during the high time of the pandemic in China, and also at the start of the outbreak in the UK, I attended the acquisition event of British Steel by Hebei Jingye Group. The acquisition of British steel was a very good example of Chinese business commitment to the UK market, despite this COVID-19 and despite Brexit. I was joined by Secretary Sharma. We both spoke highly of this event. Jingye Group is not the largest Chinese steel enterprise, but it’s one of the most successful Chinese steel companies. As a result of this acquisition, they not only saved 3200 jobs, but also they committed 1.2 billion pounds for the next 10 years to upgrade British Steel. So, I think they will make their contribution to the transformation and upgrading of the steel industry in the UK. I learned that their operation now was impacted by COVID-19, because of the industrial supply chain problem. But they still feel confident that they will come back, and they believe they made the right decision.

Sir Sherard: Thank you, Ambassador. As I'm sure everyone knows, Lord Grimstone has been made Minister for Investment. I didn't know if Lord Grimstone is listening to this call, but some of his officials certainly are. And he will also, I imagine, be piloting through the House of Lords the new National Security and Investment Bill. I just wondered, Ambassador, what you would say to the British government about efforts to strengthen the national security controls on investment into the United Kingdom. Is that something that China understands, fears, disagrees with? What would be your message to Lord Grimstone?

Ambassador Liu: I did have a good communication with Lord Grimstone, though we didn't touch on the security review issue. I understand that every country has national security to take care of, not only here in this country but also in China. National security is also one of the top priorities of the state and the national government. But the important thing is, I think, whatever policies or laws you're going to pass, it has to be fair, has to be non-discriminatory. You can’t single out China as a target or a security threat. That is unfair. That will send a very bad message, not only to the world, but also to China. And I think we understand, as the world becomes more globalized, and people have new concerns about the security, but it has to be non-discriminatory. It has to be transparent. It has to be fact-based. It has to be fair. That is very important because the UK is known for its free, transparent, business friendly environment. The last thing I’d like to see is the UK scaring away foreign businesses, including Chinese businesses by the so-called “strengthening security measures against foreign businesses”.

Sir Sherard: Great, thank you Ambassador. If you agree, we perhaps will run on for a few more minutes. I've got at least a couple of more questions to ask you, if you were able to stay on for a few more minutes. Is that possible?

Ambassador Liu: No problem.

Sir Sherard: Good. Well, the first of the two questions was about climate security, as some of us were hoping that we would have had a very senior Chinese visitor to come to COP26 in Glasgow in November. COP26 has now been postponed, but could you say something about the cooperation between Britain and China in the field of climate security? Simon McDonald, the head of the Foreign Office told the Foreign Affairs Committee recently that there were few global problems that could be solved without the participation of China. And certainly, dealing with climate change seems to be one of them in which there have been exchanges of technologies and expertise between Britain and China.

Ambassador Liu: China is very committed to environmental protection and committed to Paris Agreement. We have faithfully implemented our obligations, and we are very much a contributor to what happens with regard to fighting against climate change. The year 2020 is supposed to be remembered as a collaboration year between China and the UK in environmental protection and climate change, because the two countries are planning to host COP15 and COP26. We have very close collaboration and both governments designated, you call it “President” and we call it “Sherpa”, I think. Our Minister, the new Minister of Environmental Protection, Minister Huang looks forward to engaging with Secretary Sharma. I have had several exchanges with Secretary Sharma, with regard to how China and the UK can work together to make these two conferences, COP15 and COP26, a great success, not only for the benefits of our two countries, but also to show our leadership in this very important area. When we talk about COP15 and COP26, we really have to think in the long term, how we can make this world a better place. Although they have been postponed because of the pandemic, our two governments still keep very close contact online, and the working groups are engaging each other. And we look forward to more productive and active engagement with the British team. So once this pandemic is over, we can resume our work and carry on our efforts.

Sir Sherard: Thank you, Ambassador. We have three more questions before we wind up. One about health care, one about Sino-British friendship and what can be done to reinforce it, and then one about the cultural links between Britain and China, bearing in mind that Peppa Pig and William Shakespeare are two of our greatest cultural exports to China. You have been here for 10 years. I just wanted to end by asking on a lighter note about the cultural links between the two countries.

Let's start with health care. There have been a number of questions about that. You use this intriguing phrase the Healthcare Silk Road. We know that many billions of pounds worth of health supplies have been shipped to the United Kingdom from China in the last few weeks. But what does the Healthcare Silk Road mean for Britain, apart from emergency supplies and PPEs or ventilators?

Ambassador Liu: PPEs and ventilators are just one part of our collaboration. I am pleased that, during the two telephone conversations between President Xi and Prime Minister Johnson, in addition to focusing on the current fight against the virus, they also attached great importance to the collaboration between our two countries on science and joint efforts on vaccine and medicines. They expressed their support for the scientists of our two countries to work together on this very important area. Also on the ministerial level, as I said in my speech, Secretary Hancock kept close contact with his counterpart, Minister Ma. In addition to telephone conversation, they had an exchange of letters to express their views with regard to how to deepen the collaboration between our two countries bilaterally and also multilaterally. So on the government level, on the policy level, we have very close policy communication and contact. And on the ground, we have this mutual assistance and support in providing medical supplies and ventilators, PPEs, as you said. And also we share the experience. We share the success of the treatment of cases. When the Chinese medical team was here, they had an online meeting with their British counterparts. And also the scientists from universities, companies like GSK and others are working with their counterparts in China on vaccine and medicines. I think, at the end of the day, it will be vaccine that will provide the final solution to claim the final victory against this virus.

And also in the international arena, China and the UK are good partners. We both support the important role of the WHO. We both support international response to the virus, and improving the global public health. Yesterday at the conference hosted by the EU and the UK, our ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming represented the Chinese government, and spoke highly of the efforts by the EU, Britain and other countries and reaffirmed our commitment to international efforts, and our support, especially for the developing, poor countries. I think in the public health area, China and the UK have a lot to cooperate.

Culturally, China and the UK have time honored history. China has a civilization of 5000 years, uninterrupted civilization, and the UK also has a very rich culture and civilization. Every year since I came here, we have hundreds of cultural groups, exchange of visits between the two countries. The Edinburgh Art Festival is a big hit in China, and attracts many hundreds of Chinese groups of dancers, performers, players. As for Shakespeare, I attended several of RSC events. In fact I encouraged the collaboration between Royal Shakespeare Company and their partners in China, both in terms of translating Shakespeare’s works, and also in translating Chinese classics. And there's a new version of Hamlet staging in China, and I got an invitation when I was on home leave. But unfortunately, I got last minute official business and I couldn’t go. Some actors of the Hamlet cast are good friends of mine and I believe probably they are doing this online.

So I think the opportunities are still there; the potential is still there. And I believe that our cultural people, the artists, are talking with each other online. And if they have a problem, including communicating with each other, just let me know. I can speak on line to the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, if they have a problem in communicating with their friends, their colleagues in Beijing, just let us know. We certainly will do our job to facilitate this communication.

Sir Sherard: Thank you, Ambassador, that's been a tour de raison and also a tour de force if I may say so. I've been spending the lockdown rereading Jonathan Spencer's wonderful book, The Search for Modern China. (Ambassador Liu: It was quite an old book. I read it when I was in the United States, we need a more modern book and we look forward to your book about China-UK relationship.) But the point is, 150 years ago we in the West knew more about China than China knew about the West. Now I think China understands more about us. We in Britain think we know about America and France, but we still know little about China, and I would like to end by putting to you the proposition that the task isn't to increase Britain’s cultural exports to China, although I welcome that, but the task is to make sure that there's more understanding in Britain of the depth, the range and extent of Chinese culture and civilization, something which I think is still a work in progress.

Anyhow, we're extremely grateful to you for giving us an hour and a quarter of your time for ranging so widely, dealing with some very difficult and sensitive questions that will remain with us I fear for months, and indeed, years ahead. We should all remember Zhou Enlai’s great remark that “We must seek common ground while acknowledging our differences, and respecting each other's core interests.” There are still nearly 300 people on this call. Way overtime. Thank you. As The Queen said the other day, Vera Lynn sang, on VE Day, which we celebrate on Friday this week, we will meet again.

Ambassador Liu: Look forward to meeting you soon. Thank you.

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