The 50th anniversary of ambassadorial relations between the UK and China presents us with a chance to both celebrate and reflect. Here, former Chinese Ambassador to the UK (2007-2010), Madam Fu Ying, discusses the most significant diplomatic moments between the two countries during her tenure
Can you tell us about some of your most enjoyable moments during your time as ambassador to the UK?
During my term, I took every opportunity to explore cities and places of interest, and made many friends, from colleagues in the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and other government departments, to people from all walks of life. I enjoyed my life in Britain so much that even before my return to China in January 2010, I confessed at my farewell reception at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel that I was already missing this country.
My time in the UK had many enjoyable moments. I have been fond of British literature since I was a student of the English language. I was curious about the background of those fascinating stories and the changing times portrayed in the novels. One of my hobbies in the UK was seeking out where those literary masters grew up, their residences and the surroundings. Such trips took most of my spare time. I visited Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown, Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum, and the poet William Wordsworth’s residence in the Lake District, to name a few. I was disappointed that Thomas Hardy’s Cottage was under renovation when I finally found the place on a Sunday afternoon. But I walked around the place, trying to picture in my mind how the scenes Hardy depicted in his stories may have looked like at that time.
In 2007, I came upon the Jane Austen Museum in Winchester during a trip. Walking through the corridors, I tried to feel the atmosphere in the rooms where she and her sisters spent their lives. There were laminated pamphlets placed in every room for the visitors to read as guides. My driver, Mr. Wei, did not know English, so I acted as translator for him. The curator of the private museum noticed us. As we were leaving, he approached me and said, “I am wondering if it is possible for you to help us translate these pamphlets into Chinese?” He noticed that I was interpreting for Wei. He explained that the Museum has started receiving Chinese visitors, and he would like to provide them with better service. I accepted the request, brought those pamphlets back, had them translated and then mailed back. Now, there are more and more Chinese visitors going there out of admiration for Jane Austen. Obviously, the curator had a good sense of what was to come.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than one million Chinese tourists visited the UK in the year 2019 alone, five times more than the number in 2009. In the academic year 2018-2019, there were 120,000 Chinese students studying in the UK. In 2020, among the Chinese youngsters who sought overseas education, 42% went to the UK, which surpassed the US to become the top destination for overseas Chinese students.
What were the biggest ambassadorial successes during your time as ambassador to the UK?
The UK was my third ambassadorial post. Prior to the UK, I served as the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines and Australia. The term of Chinese diplomats stationed abroad is usually three to four years. Apart from loads of routine affairs to handle, I would try to identify the focus of my endeavours during my term in order to add my contributions to bilateral relations in the limited time of my term. To achieve this, I needed to find the right target and make proper planning.
Before assuming an ambassadorial post, a must-do for me was to research the host country. I would read a few books to learn about the history and unique aspects of the country and talk with my predecessors to learn more about the relationship. I would also meet Chinese government officials in various areas and learn about their expectations for China-UK ties. All this was an important first step but it was never enough. After arriving at my post, I would spend the first three months trying to find the focus by reaching out to different communities and visiting cities, companies, and cultural and educational institutions. These visits would give me lots of food for thought as I reflected on where I should focus my efforts during my term as the Ambassador.
When I arrived in London to take up my office in April 2007, it was one year away from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and preparations for this greatest sporting event had been well underway. The Chinese people were very enthusiastic about hosting the Olympics. They wanted to open their arms to welcome the world’s participation and support. However, in London, I could sense some negative sentiments from the British media and in the general discourse about China. China was portrayed in the media with biased tones and poorly researched facts.
Indeed, as a developing country, China was far from perfect and was confronted with difficulties in its economic and social development. But much of those negative views propagated under the spotlight were not even close to capturing the real challenges we were addressing. Sometimes the views about China were irrational, if not downright paranoid. I could see that such misrepresentation of China was drawing a backlash against British arrogance among the people in China. While one of the reasons behind such media negativity about China could be traced back to historical misperceptions, the ineffective channels of communications was also to blame as firsthand information about China was hard to come by in the British society.
The world around us has been witnessing rising turmoil and uncertainties. However, there is no reason to be pessimistic about the future of China-UK relations, as the foundation of our cooperation remains solid
Acknowledging that mutual objective knowledge and friendly feelings among the two peoples provides a solid foundation for developing sound economic and trade relations as well as people-to-people exchanges between our countries, I decided to take media communications as my main area of focus in the UK. With this in mind, I first learned about the British media by reading about its history, visiting some news outlets and talking with the editors. Having laid the groundwork, I started to take interviews and contribute articles to British media.
For me, this was immensely challenging, as it not only required good knowledge of my own country, its policies, progress and difficulties, but also a good grasp of the British people’s perception and interests about China, and most of all, a capacity to craft and present China’s perspectives and messages in a positive and convincing way to a Western audience. I needed training on dealing with the media to equip myself for tough interviews.
These efforts paid off. When issues about China were drawing international attention, or even became hotly debated by the media, the ability of the Chinese Embassy to promptly provide firsthand information and authoritative views would go a long way to building up China’s international image. The more the outside world knows about China, the easier it is for us to communicate with one another.
During my term as Chinese Ambassador to the UK, my colleagues and I made great efforts to promote such communication and exchanges and our work was met with positive responses.
What were the most significant diplomatic moments between the two countries during your time as ambassador to the UK？
The relationship between China and the UK is a comprehensive one, involving dynamic exchanges at all levels and across multiple areas. There was never a lack of highlights or significant moments between our countries. So it would be hard to single out the most important one. One of the moments that left a lasting impression on me was the overwhelming support China received after the magnitude 8.0 earthquake that struck Wenchuan in Sichuan Province, on 12 May 2008.
The earthquake caused terrible human casualties and property damages. China was fully mobilised. From the government to the military, from businesses to the general public, everyone joined the rescue and relief effort under the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China. People pitched in from all over the country in an all-out effort to save lives. The unity and heroism demonstrated by the Chinese nation in the face of adversity touched the hearts of many.
In an information era, the disaster relief operation in Wenchuan was carried out with the whole world looking on. The international community not only learned about the scale of the disaster in real-time but also shared the deep sorrows of the Chinese people and marvelled at their bravery and perseverance. The people of the UK showed deep sympathy and support to us. In London, my Embassy was flooded by offerings of support and donations from British society, including large donations given by leading companies and contributions from the general public. Children from kindergartens led by their teachers came to the Embassy and put coins from their small hands on the table. A group of 13 policemen raised donations by biking 114 miles from Birmingham to London. A 19-year-old boy called Isaac Louis walked from 240 miles from Wales collecting donations all the way, and sent the money to the Embassy.
On the afternoon of 20 May 2008, a memorial service for the victims of the earthquake was held at the Embassy. Mr Gordon Brown, the then British Prime Minister, came in person to offer his condolences and observe a moment of silence together with us. In the condolences book, he wrote, “On behalf of the British people my sincere condolences to the Chinese people who have suffered.” During the service, children of the embassy staff, holding candles in their hands, read aloud a poem with their tender and youthful voices to commemorate the children lost in the earthquake. Many attendees shed tears at this touching sight. At this moment, the hearts of the Chinese and British peoples were beating as one, which was a scene forever imprinted on my mind. The compassion and generosity of the British people boosted my confidence for pressing ahead with China-UK relations. It led me to believe, no matter what difficulties lay ahead, with candour and sincerity, we would always work out a way to deal with challenges while promoting cooperation.
How do you think CBBC helped UK-China business relations during your time as ambassador to the UK?
The China-Britain Business Council (CBBC), which enjoys the support of both the British government and the private sector, has served an important role in boosting bilateral trade and economic and technological cooperation. It acts as an indispensable facilitator, participant, and supporter of our economic and trade cooperation throughout the ups and downs of our bilateral ties.
I remember the many workshops, visits and events the CBBC organised during my term as the Chinese Ambassador to the UK. These efforts have helped to enhance confidence and trust among the business communities, facilitate exchanges, address difficulties and encourage people-to-people linkages. The CBBC has played an irreplaceable role and made significant contributions to elevating our bilateral relations to a higher level.
In 2007, the year I took office, trade between our two countries was USD 54.15 billion. In 2021, the figure surpassed USD 110 billion, making China the largest trading partner of the UK in Asia. Cumulative two-way investment reached about USD 50 billion. Booming trade and investment flows have ushered in a golden period of cooperation between our countries.
The world around us has been witnessing rising turmoil and uncertainty. Anti-globalisation and de-globalisation waves are impacting the trend of peace and development that has emerged alongside globalisation. However, there is no reason to be pessimistic about the future of China-UK relations, as the foundation of our cooperation remains solid. There is still great potential and room for expanding our economic and trade relations and multi-dimensional cooperation. What is required of the two sides is to muster the wisdom and courage to come to an objective and rational understanding of each other’s perspectives and positions, to respect the different ways of thinking and achievements which are rooted in their different history and culture, and to protect bilateral cooperation from disruptions as much as possible. During his phone call with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 25 March, President Xi Jinping reaffirmed China’s candid, open and inclusive approach toward dialogue and cooperation with the UK. He called on the UK to view China and China-UK relations in an objective and impartial light and work with China to keep moving bilateral ties forward.