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U.K.-China Relations Take A Hit Over Security Measure For Hong Kong


The United Kingdom has expressed deep concern over China's plans to impose a so-called national security law on Hong Kong. Hong Kong, remember, a former British colony. This is just the latest dispute between two countries that not so long ago had declared a new golden era in relations. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.


FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In 2015, the queen accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping in a horse-drawn carriage to Buckingham Palace during a visit that marked closer economic ties.


QUEEN ELIZABETH II: The relationship between the United Kingdom and China is now truly a global partnership.

LANGFITT: In London today, the tone is totally different.

CHARLIE PARTON: I think the reaction in the U.K. is, to be honest, one of anger.

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: I think the Chinese have shown a remarkable ability to shoot themselves in the feet.

RANA MITTER: No doubt, overall, there is much more hostility to China in Britain right now than there was, for instance, just three months ago in January.

LANGFITT: That was Charlie Parton, a retired British diplomat, Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, and Rana Mitter, who runs the University of Oxford's China Centre. And here's Tom Tugendhat.

TOM TUGENDHAT: I chair the Foreign Affairs Committee of Parliament.

LANGFITT: Tugendhat says relations have deteriorated in recent years as Chinese diplomats have become more aggressive. He cites a time in 2017 when he says Liu Xiaoming, Beijing's ambassador to the U.K., tried to dictate terms of a parliamentary trip to China.

TUGENDHAT: He attempted to tell us who we could and couldn't take on the visit. The bullying by the Chinese ambassador has actually rather revealed the nature of the regime.

LANGFITT: Tugendhat said relations worsened after it emerged that officials in Wuhan tried to cover up discovery of the coronavirus. In February, a U.S. senator suggested, without evidence, the virus had come from a Wuhan lab, which China denied. The next month, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested, also without evidence, that the American military brought the virus to China.

TUGENDHAT: We're seeing, effectively, a concerted attempt to use propaganda to change the narrative.

LANGFITT: Mitter, the author of the upcoming book "China's Good War: How World War II Is Shaping A New Nationalism," said Beijing's initial handling of the crisis hurt China's standing here.

MITTER: I think that that has sowed doubt in people's minds about how reliable China is as a partner.

LANGFITT: China insists it's been transparent, and critics are smearing it. During a video session with London's Asia House, Ambassador Liu invoked the colonial era.


LIU XIAOMING: Some people want to play world police. This is not the era, you know, of gunboat diplomacy. They think they can bully China.

LANGFITT: Under global pressure, Beijing says it will support a World Health Organization investigation into the virus's origins - just not now. Regardless, some lawmakers here say the U.K. needs a new approach to China. For starters, Tom Tugendhat says Britain must eventually eject Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, from the U.K.'s 5G system. Charlie Parton says continuing to let a Chinese company work on critical infrastructure could leave Britain beholden to Beijing.

PARTON: Can we make decisions in other areas unrelated to 5G and telecommunications in which China looms large? And we think, well, actually, we'd better be careful because, ultimately, they could cause us real problems.

LANGFITT: Parton says politicians here should tone down the rhetoric, as the U.K. still relies on China for medical supplies, among other things. Any change in Britain's relationship with the world's second-largest economy will have to be weighed against the economic damage of the pandemic and Brexit. Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.