In October 2020, Dame Caroline Wilson became the UK’s ambassador to China, succeeding Dame Barbara Woodward, who held the role from 2015 and left to become UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations – here’s what you need to know about her
Arriving in Beijing amid tensions related to Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Chinese communications giant Huawei, Wilson said she would bring a “human touch” to UK-China diplomacy.
Wilson gained an MA in law from the University of Cambridge’s Downing College. She then earned a Master’s degree in European Community Law at Université Libre de Bruxelles.
Having qualified as a barrister-at-law, in 1995 she joined the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). She studied Mandarin language at Beijing Normal University and also speaks Cantonese, Russian, French and German.
It’s a difficult time and I sometimes have to manage differences and controversial, sensitive aspects of the relationship
Her work with the FCDO (formerly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) took her to Brussels in 2001, where she represented the UK to the EU, before working as private secretary to the foreign secretary from 2004 to 2006. From 2008 to 2012 she was minister counsellor at the British Embassy in Moscow, then consul general to Hong Kong and Macau from 2012 to 2016. From 2016 to 2019 she served as Europe Director at the FCDO in London.
Formally accepting the ambassador post in October 2020, Wilson vowed to take the relationship between the UK and China forward. She had already stoked fears that she might go soft on Beijing. In September 2020 she Tweeted a photo of her and Liu Xiaoming, her outgoing Chinese counterpart, holding a copy of Xi Jinping’s book, “The Governance of China”, prompting online criticism.
In March 2021, Wilson made a less pro-Beijing move on social media. Following Chinese state media TV channel CGTN being banned in the UK, and BBC World News subsequently being banned in China, she posted about press freedom, earning a public rebuke from China’s foreign ministry.
Other contentious diplomatic issues she’s dealing with include Hong Kong, the area she focused on from 2012 to 2016, Huawei, and her government cracking down on companies using forced labour in Xinjiang.
“It’s a difficult time and I sometimes have to manage differences and controversial, sensitive aspects of the relationship,” Wilson said at a Fortune event in Shanghai in December 2020. She added that conditions called for “the human touch – showing that we are all human and that we have more interests in common than divide us.”
Public health and climate change are two less divisive diplomatic topics Wilson has been keen to focus on. She has promoted Race to Zero – a campaign for ‘net zero’ pollution initiatives – in Shenzhen, and talked of the setting up of a UK-China tech lab for offshore wind, in Guangdong province.
In 2015, Britain’s chancellor George Osbourne announced a trade-based ‘golden relationship’ between the UK and China. Political differences have caused that shine to fade, making Wilson’s stint as ambassador a potentially challenging one.
“We’re not always going to be able to agree on everything, but basically there’s so much that we have to do together,” she said at the December 2020 Forbes event.