Boris Johnson calls out Xi Jinping

  • + Johnson’s past wonderful opinion of China has drastically changed over the last year. 
  • + Xi Jinping is willing to protect his sovereignty at all costs. 
  • + The international community might be forced to take a stance in the conflict between the leaders. 

Why is Boris Johnson at war with Xi Jinping?

Answer: Johnson has taken a final step by leading a UN statement against China’s disregard of Human Rights.

At the beginning of his tenure British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, could proudly say that the UK was China’s best western ally and that he was focused on continuing down this road. Proof of the good relation between the countries, is that the UK was the first western nation to join the Chinese-funded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Johnson also insisted that the UK would be open to Chinese investments and that the country would also be keen on participating in the development of the One Belt One Road Initiative. 

However, things have changed drastically since then, and in the past year Johnson has become one of the strongest critics when it comes to China and Xi Jinping’s policies. Johnson and Jinping’s fallout hasn’t come from one single issue, but several. 

Firstly, Johnson infuriated Jinping by banning the Chinese tech giant, Huawei, from the British 5G network, alleging the possibility of the company being a cover for illegal espionage activities. By doing this, Johnson provoked that other countries followed his lead, and the US, Australia and New Zealand, all members of the Five Eyes initiative, have taken similar measures against the Chinese company.

Secondly, there is the Hong Kong issue, which became a huge international and diplomatic crisis. Hong Kong is a former British colony that went back to China in 1997, however, before the UK renounced its control over the island, an agreement was signed between the two countries, in order to introduce the “one country, two systems” strategy. 

Basically, what this meant was that Hong Kong would become a part of China but, it would maintain its capitalist system, alongside having its own legal system, borders and rights, such as freedom of assembly, speech and press. A set of laws and rights completely different to that of the mainland. This agreement was set to last up until 2047. 

Yet, problems arose when in early 2019, Xi Jinping passed a new extradition law that allowed Hongkongners to be extradited to jurisdictions with which they did not have previous extradition agreements. This led into months of protests and violence in the streets of Hong Kong. As a response to Jinping’s actions, Boris Johnson stated that this new law undermined the agreement between the countries and that put the 3000 000 UK nationals living in the island at risk. This led to an escalation in tensions between the leaders, as both saw the situation as an interference of the other part in their country’s affairs. 

Last but not least, last month several British Members of Parliament (MPs) and individuals were directly sanctioned by the Chinese government due to their defence of the Uyghur Muslims. 

The Uyghur people are a mostly Muslim ethnic group that live in the Xinjiang province, in China’s west-end. During the past years, there have been talks about the situation of this community, more specifically, about the concentration camps in which they are imprisoned and the persecution they face because of their way of life.

Although this was known throughout the whole international community, little had been done, until Johnson’s government led the first-ever joint UN statement about the issue. Therefore, putting Jinping’s government in the spotlight of the international community. 

What does Boris Johnson want?

Answer: Johnson is trying to maintain the UK’s status as an essential player. 

In spite of Johnson’s actions showing otherwise, the British Prime Minister is at a crossroads.

On the internal side, different sectors within his own party, the Conservatives, are coming together in order to demand a tougher line of action towards China’s latest policies. This particular coalition inside the Conservative Party is mainly conformed by pro-American MPs who are worried about the possible effect the UK-China relationship might have on their deal with the US. It also counts with human rights advocates, concerned about the situation of the Uyghurs and northern English MPs concerned with the effect that China might have in the area, the most industrialized within Britain. 

However, this growing skepticism towards Jinping’s government is not shared by all, there are some who argue that the UK cannot afford to lose Chinese investments, that will be greatly needed after the pandemic. Johnson’s vision of a “Global Britain” post-Brexit where the UK was supposed to take a leading role in all aspects of the international arena had as one of its essential pillars a much greater trade with China. So, from this point of view, it seems unwise to disengage with a country that can offer so much. 

Continuing on this line of thought, the fact that the next world climate summit (COP26) will take place in Glasgow cannot be omitted. With China being both, biggest greenhouse gas emitter and the biggest renewable energy investor, it is essential for Boris Johnson to get Jinping to participate in the Summit if he wants it to be a success. 

On the international side, Johnson has to deal with the new Biden administration and their new foreign policy which appears to be quite hostile against China. However, at the same time Johnson has to consider the UK’s relationship with the EU which is not at its best time either. With the UK being outside of the EU and therefore, alone, it is important to consider if Johnson can actually risk infuriating the few possible strong partners he has left. 

In summary, what Johnson wants is to get the UK back to its feet and for it to become an essential player in the international arena. However, it seems like he is trying to play both sides and be friends with everyone when it seems quite clear that the interests of these “friends” are completely opposed. So, for the time being, what rests for Johnson is to see how strong Jinping’s reaction will be.  

What does Xi Jinping want?

Answer: Jinping is paving the road for China to become the international superpower.

China’s international influence has been growing exponentially, as a result of this, decisions coming from Beijing can condition the world’s policies. World leaders are not particularly happy about China’s influence which has led them to question China’s and Xi Jinping’s intentions. 

China’s foreign policy since the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been constructed around two main ideas: nationalism and the retrieval of all of the territories that China controlled before the colonization process and the final goal of becoming an international superpower.

In order to achieve these goals, Xi Jinping has been testing the waters for the last years, cutting off Taiwan from the rest of the international community, repressing the Tibetan separatist movements, trying to get a harder grip over Hong Kong and breaking Uyghur roots to build new and better Chinese citizens. At the same time, he has been trying to limit foreign interference in Chinese society and culture.  

Finally, Xi Jinping seems to have entered the final steps of his plan to establish China as the world’s leading power and regain the top position in the international hierarchy that, according to tradition, they deserve. 

By sanctioning UK MPs and individuals, over an essential issue such as the violation of Human Rights, Jinping is responding to what he perceives to be a threat coming from the UK and, at the same time, he is sending a clear message to the rest of the international community. Xi Jinping is determined to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests above anything else. 

What is Xi Jinping doing?

Answer: Balancing soft and hard skills to keep foreign powers in line.

Xi Jinping’s actions cannot be interpreted on their own, as they are all intertwined and directed towards the achievement of Jinping’s final plan, the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”. National unification and the rejection of any kind of intervention by foreign powers are essential pillars of this project. 

It can be seen how he is carrying out the national unification plan in his attempt to erase the Uyghur culture from the inhabitants of Xinjiang and regarding the intervention of foreign powers, it seems like Jinping has chosen to go for a balance between hard and soft power

Xi Jinping managed to get the world to its knees this last year. Firstly, the coronavirus that stopped the world originated in the Chinese province of Wuhan and, although we can only take a guess here, the Asian superpower seems to have been one of the least affected by it. Also, due to the lack of medical supplies that the countries, especially the EU ones, suffered during the first months of the pandemic, China proved to what level these states depended on it. 

It is true that in order to repair some of the damage that Covid-19 had done to China’s international image, Jinping sent aid in the form of doctors and supplies to some of the most affected countries during the first months. However, was this done out of the good of his heart or was it another way of showing the western nation how profound their dependence on China goes? 

Moreover, Xi Jinping is playing another game at the diplomacy level, different to what we had been used to. This new diplomatic offensive is known as the “Chinese wolf-warriors” and they represent a completely different kind of diplomat, unlike the bland Chinese foreign representatives that the world had known in the past, these new “warriors” use Twitter and other social media to attack at anyone that criticizes China or the Communist Party. Sanctioning MPs from countries that disagree with Chinese policies is just another way of showing strength.  

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: too early to say, but either way, we can expect major implications in the international arena

At this point it is hard to establish a winner and a loser. Clearly the conflict hasn’t reached its peak yet and there are many players involved that still need to make a statement towards one side or another. 

Johnson’s position and the result of this conflict will highly depend on the responses of other powers. Yes, he has managed to get New Zealand, Canada and the US to ban Huawei’s technology, the EU to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and has led the UN statement on the Uyghur crisis. However, we have yet to see if all these actions have an actual repercussion and if the heads of those states are willing to go all the way. If not, Johnson might find himself and the UK in quite a delicate position. 

On XI Jinping’s side, even if the sanctions on China are largely symbolic, the fact that countries that usually try to maintain a neutral position towards the Asian superpower are willing to make a statement is something worth thinking about. 

The pandemic has also made some countries reluctant of their dependency of China and because of that, they’ll try to turn into their internal markets more often. This could mean that Jinping could lose some of his influence in the international sphere.

What does this mean to you? If you are a British national, the fact that the UK does not have a strong partner to support it in the international sphere could lead to some setbacks both economically and politically. 

On a wider scope, we could be witnessing a new Cold War between the West and China, which would have severe geopolitical implications. However, China’s good relations with western and central Asia and Africa might force the West to stop and reconsider.