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Celebrating 50 years of UK-China relations at the ambassadorial level

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Half a century of ambassadorial relations between the UK and China presents us with a chance to both celebrate and reflect, writes Chris Boobier

For six years, Chris Boobier led the Chevening Programme in China – the UK government’s international awards programme aimed at developing global leaders. Through this, he met hundreds of inspiring industry professionals from every province across the country working to bridge the UK and China, build people-to-people links and build lasting positive relations with the UK.  

‘Trust and understanding’

In 1950, the UK recognised the People’s Republic of China, the first major Western country to do so. Twenty-two years later, on 13 March 1972, the first British Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Sir John Mansfield Addis, met with acting chairman of the PRC, Dong Biwu, to establish full diplomatic ties. This is the anniversary that we celebrate this year. 

The ongoing agreements between high-level leaders and politicians since the raising of diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level have been formative in driving forward collaboration across all areas of society, bringing us closer, and developing trust and understanding on both sides. More than anything, these exchanges and dialogues give people, businesses and organisations confidence and direction. Through the dialogue itself and the actions and commitment that follow, they inspire and embed goodwill.

Since 1972, China has sent 12 Ambassadors to London and the UK has sent 13 Ambassadors to Beijing. Year by year, decade by decade, we have seen trade and tourism grow, dialogue and exchange deepen and intensify. 

In December 1984, Margaret Thatcher travelled to Beijing to meet Deng Xiaoping. Following the signing of the Sino-British Agreement – an agreement ensuring that the sovereignty of Hong Kong would return to China in 1997.

A plaque marking the magnolia tree planted in the grounds of the British Embassy by the queen during her visit to China in 1986

In 1986, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, became the first British sovereign to visit China. Photos of the queen standing on the Great Wall alongside the Duke of Edinburgh to this day line the walls and meeting rooms within the British Embassy in Beijing.

During the State Visit of President Xi Jinping and his wife Madame Peng Liyuan to the UK in 2015, The queen spoke fondly of her previous visit to China and the “warm and longstanding friendship” between the UK and China. The queen talked about the privilege of being able to experience China’s rich history and culture, and of being captivated by the energy, ambition and enthusiasm of the Chinese people. 

These words epitomise the role that diplomacy at the highest possible level plays in forging the strong people to people and business to business relationships that governments seek to build. They will undoubtedly have struck a tone with the Chinese people also. To be able to walk among the only recently excavated and restored Terracotta Warriors is the rarest and most special of privileges. To this day the Warriors act as symbols of trust across borders. 

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A timeline of China-UK Ambassadorial Relations: The 1970s

‘The unsung heroes’

State visits such as these, as well as the vast numbers of high-level dialogues and meetings that have been ever-present throughout the bilateral relationship, are important. But the true and arguably unsung heroes of the strengthening of diplomatic ties between the UK and China are the people and businesses, the students and academics; the artists and sportspersons; the entrepreneurs across China’s provinces, regional Britain and in third-countries.

The true and arguably unsung heroes of the strengthening of diplomatic ties between the UK and China are the people and businesses, the students and academics; the artists and sportspersons…

The commitment between government and business is one that is mutual. They allow for engagement and therefore assurance across all levels, sectors and geographies that ensure our relationship is balanced and diverse. Business delegations on both sides should take great pride in the roles they play in forming and reinforcing both trade and diplomatic relationships, adding great substance and shaping views. 

In the last few years of change, the number of dialogues and bilateral exchanges may have lessened in frequency but not in significance. In November 2021, the UK’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid and China’s Health Minister Ma Xiaowei acknowledged the challenges both sides have faced during Covid-19 and agreed to strengthen exchanges. 

Cooperation continues to occur at the global level. In November 2021, the UK hosted COP26 in Glasgow and earlier in the year China hosted COP15 on biodiversity in Kunming. These platforms allow for differences in worldview to be acknowledged and divergence in opinion to be shared and discussed. Crucially, outcomes of discussions reaffirm that there is more space for agreement than divergence when facing global challenges such as climate change.

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‘A legacy of commitment to dialogue’

Every year around this time, a magnolia tree that was planted by Queen Elizabeth in the garden of the Residence of the British Ambassador in Beijing will bloom. A symbol of endurance, hope and love, this acts as a reminder to us all as to the true value of a centuries-long bilateral relationship. 

The 50th anniversary is an important landmark in our shared history – a history with participation from people encompassing a diverse range of backgrounds, all acting as UK-China ambassadors well-versed in facing complexity and in demonstrating resilience and pragmatism. 

It is this historical legacy of commitment and ongoing drive for dialogue that will continue to inspire goodwill all across society, to seek trust and understanding for the benefit of future generations. Celebration and reflection are therefore, on balance, important for us all. 

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