Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the UK, took questions from CBBC members over a webinar on May 5th, and discussed the obstacles the world now faces following the Covid-19 pandemic and the opportunities it offers UK-China relations. Below is a transcript from the speech he gave and follow up questions from CBBC’s Chair, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles.
Thanks to modern technology, we are able to exchange views online, on some very important issues to both our countries in this difficult time. The spread of Covid-19 around the world poses a grave challenge to human society. It seriously threatens the safety and health of the people, strikes a heavy blow to global production and demand, and severely undermines the economy and our societies.
The public health crisis is a major test for all countries of the world. It is leading proof that the world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century and that in this world, we all belong to a community with a shared future.
In the face of this crisis, how is China responding? China is the first country in the world to report the epidemic to the WHO. The first to identify the pathogen of the virus, the first to share the full genetic sequence of the virus with WHO and other countries. The first to adopt comprehensive and effective measures of prevention and control, the first to achieve preliminary but important success in containing the virus. The first to bring economic activities back to normal across the country. In this battle against the virus, China has followed three principles:
Saving lives The People are the focus of all other efforts. President Xi Jinping has reiterated that we should always regard the safety and health of the people as a top priority. Acting responsibly in record time after the outbreak, the Chinese government established an all-dimensional and multilayer network of prevention and control that involved everyone from the central government down to the grassroots communities. The measures that were taken were the most comprehensive, strict and firm, that the world has ever seen. The principles of early diagnosis, early reporting, early quarantine and early treatment have been followed. Covid-19 patients were admitted into designated hospitals that offered the best experts, sufficient resources and timely and tailored treatment. Facts prove that these measures were timely, decisive and effective. The whole nation was under overall planning and fully mobilised to meet the crisis head-on and bring the virus under control.
Helping each other. China has acted responsibly, not only for the safety and health of the Chinese people but also with the global public health in mind. From the very beginning of the outbreak, China has been sharing what we know with the international community. From reporting the epidemic, providing a full genetic sequence, to sharing experience of prevention, control and treatment. China has also sent 19 medical teams to 17 countries, and donated much needed medical supplies such as masks, protective gowns, testing kits and ventilators to more than 150 countries and international organisations including the UK. This public health crisis proves that helping each other is the only way to a final victory over the virus.
Standing in solidarity. According to IMF estimation, the world economy will contract by three percent in 2020. The slide will be much worse than that caused by the international financial crisis in 2008. In the face of the grave situation, only solidarity can tide us over and prevent economic slowdown from evolving into an economic recession. At an extraordinary G20 leaders’ summit two months ago, President Xi Jinping said, at such a moment, it is imperative for the international community to strengthen confidence, act with unity and work together in a collective response. He also said that we need to enhance the international micro-economic policy coordination and take collective actions, cutting tariffs, removing barriers and facilitating the unfettered flow of trade so as to restore confidence of a global economic recovery.
China and the UK are partners in the battle against Covid-19. In a matter of one month, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Johnson had two telephone conversations in which they reached an important agreement on China-UK joint response to the virus. Many of our senior ministers are talking with Ministers from the UK, and China and the UK have engaged in close cooperation and overall China-UK relations. There have been frequent telephone conversations between Vice Premier Hu Jinhua and Chancellor Sunak. Between Director Yang Jiechi and Sir Mark Sedwill. Between Councillor Wang Yi and Foreign Secretary Raab and between Health Minister Ma Xiaowei and health secretary Matt Hancock. I myself have close communication with the UK government secretaries, ministers and senior officials here in London.
China and the UK have engaged in close coordination and cooperation in fighting against the epidemic. We have provided each other medical supplies, shared information and experience and conducted joint R&D on vaccines and medicines.
China and the UK are both strong advocates of multilateralism. We support important roles for the WHO in the global response to the virus, stand for stronger cooperation, and the framework of the G20 and the work to improve global public health governance.
Both China and the UK are important participants, facilitators and beneficiaries of economic globalisation and trade liberalisation. In this difficult time, it is important that our two countries uphold open and win-win cooperation and support free trade, safeguard multilateralism and ensure a global industry, and that supply chains are open, stable and safe.
While the international community is focusing on fighting against Covid-19, some US politicians are busy spreading rumours and slanders and turning a blind eye to China’s enormous efforts, sacrifices and contributions, by politicising public health issues, by sticking the virus label on a specific region and stigmatising China.
Regrettably, a few politicians in the UK have been addicted to the Cold War mentality. They compare China to the former Soviet Union and urge a review of the China-U.K. relationship, and even call for a new Cold War. Such talks are a political virus. If they go unchecked they will poison the China-UK joint effort, and even international solidarity, just as it’s needed most in the battle we are fighting.
They also undermine UK-China political mutual trust and cooperation across the board. We must stay on high alert and say no to these remarks. We should make it clear to the trumpeters of such a fallacy that China is not a former Soviet Union and the Cold War has ended for good. Peace and development are the saying of our times and also the common goal of China and the United Kingdom.
Chinese and British businesses have always played an important role in developing China-UK friendship and cooperation and promoting prosperity and stability in the world. The outbreak of Covid-19 has caused a temporary slide in China-UK trade. Some companies may encounter difficulties in payment, collection and logistics. On the brighter side, the positive factors of China-UK relations remains unchanged. The economies of our two countries are still highly complementary, the foundation for economic, trade and investment collaboration is still solid. Our businesses are still confident in China-UK cooperation. The Chinese word for “crisis” is a combination of two meanings, namely “crisis” and “opportunities”. In the face of a crisis, we always focus on finding opportunities in the crisis and turning the crisis into opportunities. In this time of difficulty, how do we turn this crisis into opportunities and speed up development?
Here are three suggestions:
As China’s economy takes the lead to recover there will be opportunities up for grabs. China has Covid-19 under control and continues to consolidate the initial success. Its economy is showing a steady momentum of recovery. As of the end of April, 99 percent of large-scale enterprises have reopened and 95 percent of staff and workers are back to work. Manufacturing PMI was above the threshold in both March and April, reaching 50.8 percent in April. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Commerce covering more than 8,200 key foreign companies in China, 76.6 percent had powered up 70 percent of their production capacity by April 28th.
That battle against Covid-19 has also created opportunities for China’s economic transformation and upgrading. It has given rise to a ‘stay at home’ economy, cloud office, digital economy, Artificial Intelligence and healthcare. The potential for further growth in these areas will be huge.
China has become a major global supplier of medical products. This represents China’s contribution to the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic and helps transit the industrial and supply chains for these products in the future. China will continue to be the factory and the market of the world. China will remain an important powerhouse for world economic growth. It is my hope that British Business will seize opportunities in China’s economy and take the lead in global economic recovery once the pandemic is over.
As China pursues a more open world economy, there will be opportunities up for grabs. China’s enormous success in the past 40 plus years is attributed to reform and opening up. Going forward, deeper reform and further opening will continue to enable China to achieve even greater success.
China will continue deepening reform and opening its market wider to the world. This will not be held back by Covid-19. The Chinese government is implementing fully the policy of a pre-establishment, national treatment, plus an active list. It is also working on shortening that list and promoting the building of pilot free trade zones and free trade ports. The 127th China Import and Export Fair will take place online in June. The 3rd International Import Expo will be held in November. Both events will create valuable opportunities for the mutually beneficial cooperation between China and the rest of the world. We look forward to seeing you all at this important event.
Moreover, China and the UK are engaging in discussions on arrangements for a Free Trade Agreement. China is now the third-largest export market for goods from the UK. The UK is the third-largest trading partner for China in the EU. It is also the largest destination for investment in Europe. I believe that in building an open world economy, China and the UK will find new impetus for trade and economic cooperation in the future. Our two countries can also identify important opportunities for revitalising the world economy.
The opportunities in building a Silk Road of public health will be up for grabs. The ongoing battle against Covid-19 tells us that we must make long term plans for global public health. We want to be well prepared for and gain an advantage in any future outbreaks. This means we should improve governance and in doing so we must enhance the leading role of the UN and the WHO. We must come together as a community. The Belt and Road Initiative offers important routes to building a community of public health. With its goal of promoting economic growth along the routes, safeguarding regional and global peace and stability, BRI can help partners to build stronger and more efficient public health. Building a Silk Road of public health could contribute to building and improving global health governance. In turn, it could open up more space for high-quality cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative.
In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, China Railway Express opened a green channel for medical supplies and daily necessities to reach Europe in time and hassle-free. Amidst shrinking global trade, China Railway Express will facilitate the movement of goods across borders between China and Europe to alleviate the impact of the epidemic on industrial and supply chains.
I’m confident China and the UK could benefit from tapping the potential of BRI. The UK’s experience, knowledge and creative ideas will complement China’s capital technology and commercialisation capability. Together we can go for win-win results.
Covid-19 is a major test, which will bring major changes. In the face of this test, countries of the world must respond to a series of questions. Do we embrace economic globalisation or reject it? Do we stay open or hide behind the closed doors? Do we work together or fight each other? Do we go for multilateralism or resort to unilateralism? I’m sure China and the UK will have the same answers to these questions. I’m confident that as long as we stand firm, come to each other’s aid, turn crises into opportunities and deepen cooperation, we will claim final victory over the virus and create a better and brighter future for our world.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles: People have been calling for an inquiry into the origins of the outbreak. What do you say to that?
China has been open, transparent and informed both the WHO and other countries with regards to the pathogen and genetic sequence. There is no cover-up, no hiding at all. We are transparent, we are open. That has been spoken of by the WHO, by their leading experts and scientists, and also by countries around the world, British scientists have confirmed this. Britain has said that due to early discovery of the virus and because of China’s sharing information very quickly and at an early stage, the world has time to study, to do research on a vaccine and to gain time for that. That has been fully recognised.
This inquiry, these noises and the so-called requests, mainly come from America and are also echoed by some Western countries, though very few. I think these calls are politically motivated while the international community is focusing on fighting the virus, whilst the virus is still ravaging the world, taking lives in many countries – especially the United States and also in this country. Instead of focusing on fighting the virus, instead of saving lives, they want to hold an inquiry. I don’t know. I think they have an ulterior motive. They want to pass the buck on their lack of response, lack of work and effort to contain the virus – to China. It’s a blame game, scapegoating. It’s not helpful for an international response to this virus.
With regards to the origin, it is up to the scientists. This is a matter for science. It is not for the politicians to decide. Politicians should be focused on how to mobilise the country to fight against the virus. We should trust scientists and doctors – the experts – in their search for the origin of the virus. Of course, every country should reflect on its response’s effectiveness. No country is perfect. But this is not the time for this. We also admit we can do even better. We are open and transparent with regard to how to draw lessons from the response to the virus. We can compare notes with other countries – we did as a matter of fact. We are open and transparent. That is different from the politically motivated calls for a so-called inquiry.
People are asking about the movement of people between the UK and China, are travel restrictions going to relax?
Our top priority is to keep the virus under control. There are more concerns now about imported cases so we still have to be vigilant about them to make sure there will be no rebound or second wave. We still have to guard against this. The measures and restrictions are still in place, but it is improving and loosening as the situation improves.
I believe as the situation improves with regards to control of the virus, that the travel situation will get better and be improved. I just heard that the confirmed cases in China now is below 500. As we have more good news like this, the more we can relax restrictions.
Prior to the pandemic, there were 200,000 Chinese university students in the UK. Might students in China now be worried about coming to study in the UK?
I agree with you that education is an important sector linking our two countries. The UK is the largest Chinese student group in Europe and second in the world.
There was a lot of concern at the beginning of the outbreak among Chinese students. I had several online webinars with students across the UK. The Chinese government is very much concerned about the health and safety of Chinese students. President Xi Jinping said on a number of occasions that we attach great importance to the safety and health of Chinese living overseas, especially Chinese students. In addressing our concerns our government provided what we call a ‘health package.’ I did a presentation ceremony at the embassy and we reached out to 100,000 Chinese students who remained in the UK. We also worked with the aviation authorities in China to arrange a charter plane to take back some young pupils who were dependent on British families for their weekends and spring break.
I’m still confident that the basics, the fundamentals of education collaboration between the UK and China 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 enquiries from students and their families about future enrolment in British schools.
In the past weeks, I wrote letters to 154 vice chancellors of 154 universities that home Chinese students. While expressing my concerns about their safety and the health of these Chinese students, I encouraged the school authorities to take good care of them and also expressed my commitment, our commitment, to stronger relationships between Chinese universities and British universities. I believe the fundamentals are still there and once the pandemic is over we can resume our cooperation so we still keep close contact with the universities.
My embassy education section 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 with the Director General – we exchange letters about how China and the UK can strengthen education cooperation.
When talking to Chinese investors in the UK, what do you say to reassure them, given some of the British voices in politics and the media who are critical of China?
First, we have to separate the official position of the government and the broad consensus among UK society towards China. So when you say there is a lot of anti-China rhetoric, I do not believe it represents the UK government’s position. They do not represent the broader consensus among the businesses in the UK, including CBBC and CBI, and I believe that the UK government under Prime Minister Johnson are still committed to a stronger relationship with China. In his two telephone conversations and his exchange of letters with the Chinese leaders, Prime Minister Johnson reaffirmed his government’s commitment to a stronger relationship with China, to a golden era with China.
I believe the business community here in this country also welcomes Chinese businesses, and supports stronger partnerships with China, so I’m not worried. When asked this question on Hard Talk, whether I am concerned about China-UK relations, my answer was yes and no. When I say yes, I am confident that we can work with the UK government across the board, in addition to joining the fight against the virus. Also, we have a busy agenda in front of us laterally and multilaterally, and I engage very actively with the business community. The education sector is another area. Even when it comes to the media, I think they are not all bad. At the beginning I read some balanced reports about China’s fight, China’s sacrifices, China’s service to buy the world time and to make enormous scarifies in many media. But once the Americans started this campaign of disinformation, some media followed suit. They dance to the tune of some American politicians and American media. Maybe there are some connections, culturally, I don’t want to be that critical. I do not want them to be friendly towards China, I just want them to be balanced and objective in their reporting of China.
But I agree with you. These kinds of noises – and there are also some from politicians – but they are few and I do not believe they represent the government position. They do not even represent the parliament. I think the main theme of China-UK relations is partnership, cooperation, friendship. This Cold War rhetoric doesn’t represent the mainstream of today.
We are now seeing a return of supply, but how do you see demand returning (both inside China and in China’s overseas markets). Will it slow the economic recovery?
Everyone agrees that the epidemic has had an impact on China’s economy. Not just on China’s domestic economy but also trade investment as well. But the government attaches great importance to the recovery of the economy. Even before we had the epidemic under complete control, President Xi said we were fighting on two fronts: One, against the virus; and two, resumption of production of the economy.
The government has introduced many measures, including what we call ‘six stabilising measures’ and ‘six protection measures.’ The six stabilising measures are: to stabilise employment, financial markets, foreign trade, trade, FDI, and expectations. Measures were taken to protect: employment, basic livelihoods, market entities, food security, stable industrial supply chains, and normal operations of grassroots communities. These measures are already showing effectiveness. We are still committed to deepening reform and opening up. The foreign investment law has taken effect as of the beginning of this year.
Many new laws and regulations which open the market wider to the rest of the world – especially in the financial sector and insurance. – these offer a lot of opportunities for UK businesses that have strengths in legal, financial and insurance services. There will be more pilot free trade zones. So there are a lot of measures which are preferential to foreign businesses.
What digital changes will we see and what can we learn from China’s highly digitised approach to business?
The digital economy has a huge potential for cooperation between China and the UK. In the first quarter of this year, although the Chinese economy contracted by 6.8 percent – the lowest since 1992 when we started the statistics – the digital economy showed strong growth. On average, it increased by 20 percent in online sales, online business and the digital economy. The UK is the inventor of the Internet and has cutting-edge strengths in AI and many areas. China and the UK should work together in this sector as well. There are many UK companies already operating in China who know well how to work. But I would say China offers a huge market. Many people focus on China as the factory of the world – and yes we are the largest producer of many products and it will continue to be that way – but you have to remember that China is a huge market. It is the second-largest consumer country in the world and very soon will be the largest in the world. So the digital economy has enormous opportunities and great prospects for China-UK cooperation.
Will China continue with investment in China’s large projects such as the gigabit economy, HS2, HS3 and other projects?
We encourage more collaboration between different regions in China and the UK. If it weren’t for Covid-19, we would have a regional summit involving about 700 local leaders. This event was supposed to be held in Birmingham in February with John Peace, Chairman of the Midland Engine, and the Chinese embassy setting up this conference. There is enormous interest back in China. There are complementary features between the two countries. The UK has The Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine. We have the Greater Bay Area, Jingjinji Economic Zone the Yangtze Economic Belt, so we can dovetail the different strategies. And you are right that Chinese businesses are very ambitious about making new efforts outside of London and they have been successful in this respect.
In March, during the high time of the pandemic in China and at the start of the outbreak in the UK, I attended the acquisition event of British Steel by Jingye, a Hebei factory. That was a good example of Chinese business’ commitment to the UK market, despite Brexit and Covid-19. I was joined by Secretary Sharma, we spoke highly of this event. Jingye is not the largest Chinese steel company, but one of the most successful. As a result of the acquisition, they not only saved 3,200 jobs, but also they have committed £1.2 billion investment over the next 10 years to upgrade British Steel. I think they will make a great contribution to the transformation and upgrading of the British steel industry. I heard their operation has now been affected by Covid-19 because of industrial supply chain problems, but they feel confident it will come around and they believe they made the right decision.
Does China understand the recent requests to strengthen national security controls on investment into the UK?
I understand that every country has national security to take care of. Not only here but also in China. National security is a top priority of the state of the national government. It has to be, whatever policies or laws will be passed, it has to be fair. You can’t single out China as a target for a security threat. That is unfair and it will send out a very bad message not only to China, but to the world.
We understand that the world has become more globalised and people have new concerns about security, but it has to be indiscriminate, it has to be transparent, it has to be fact-based, it has to be fair. The UK is known for its free, transparent, business-friendly environment. The last thing I would like to see is the UK scare away foreign or Chinese businesses by strengthening so-called security measures about foreign businesses.
The climate conference COP26 has now been postponed, but will cooperation between China and the UK on climate security continue? It has been said that there are few global problems that can be solved without the participation of China and dealing with climate change certainly is one of them.
China is committed to environmental protection and committed to the Paris Agreement. We have faithfully implemented our obligations and are very much a contributor to world efforts with regards to climate change. 2020 is supposed to be remembered as a collaboration between China and the UK in environmental protection and climate change. Because our two countries are planning to host COP26, we have a very close collaboration and our 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 – the COP15 and COP26 – a great success, and not only for the benefit of the two countries, but also to show our leadership in this very important area.
When we talk about Covid-19 we have to think in the long term how we make this world a better place. Although it has been postponed, our two governments remain in close contact, the working groups are engaging with each other and we look for more productive and active engagement with the British team. Once the pandemic is over we can resume our work and carry on our efforts.
What might the Healthcare Silk Road mean for Britain?
PPE and ventilators are just one part of our collaboration. I am very pleased that even 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 talk about the importance of collaboration between the two countries on science, and joint efforts on the vaccine, medicine. They expressed support for scientists to work together in this area. Also on a ministerial level, secretary Matt Hancock is in close contact with his counterpart Minister Ma. In addition to telephone conversations, they have an exchange of letters to express their views on how to deepen the collaboration between our two countries bilaterally and also multilaterally.
On the government level, at a policy level, we have very close communication, and on the ground, we have this mutual assistance and support in providing medical suppliers – ventilators, PPE – and also we share experience and we share the success of the treatment cases. One Chinese medical team was here in the UK and they had online calls with their British counterparts. Scientists at universities and companies like GSK and others are working with counterparts in China to find a vaccine. At the end of the day, I think it will be a vaccine that will provide the final solution.
In the international arena I think China and the UK are good partners. We both support the important role played by the WHO and both support the international response and improvement of global public health. Yesterday in a conference hosted by the EU and the UK, our EU ambassador Zhang Ming spoke highly of the efforts of the EU and Britain and other countries and reaffirmed our commitment to the international effort and our support for developing countries. In the public health area, China and the UK have a lot to cooperate on.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity