| Global Times | 2012-6-14 20:30:02
By James Palmer
Illustration: Sun Ying
In tough times, countries normally have two reactions to the outside world. One, like China in the late 1970s, is to open up and embrace change. The other is to retreat into xenophobia and pull up the drawbridges. Unfortunately, the UK's coalition government is choosing the latter option.
They're not entirely to blame. Anti-migrant feeling has been whipped up by the tabloids for over a decade, and the previous Labour government often pandered to such feelings.
But the new Conservative-driven policies, spearheaded by wildly unpopular Home Secretary Theresa May, now frequently booed in public, are shaping up to be not only a moral but also an economic disaster.
The British ambassador to China, Sebastian Wood, recently wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron in which he accused the UK authorities of having "self-defeating" policies as "Chinese tourists can easily be taken in by the 'Fortress UK' caricature and take their tourism dollars elsewhere."
But the UK's poor visa image in China isn't a creation, as Wood claims in the letter, of Chinese propaganda. For one thing, why should China particularly target the UK? Such stories don't keep money or talent in China, they merely divert it to more welcoming Western nations.
Chinese tourist numbers in the UK are a fraction of other European countries, partially because the UK refuses to accede to a "Schengen visa" which would allow entry to multiple nations. If you want to go to Hungary, France, and Germany, it's one visa, add the UK and you have to negotiate a whole new system. As a result, the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics, received a mere 147,000 Chinese tourists last year, compared to 1.2 million in France.
Chinese friends who've attempted to obtain tourist visas to the UK report a paranoid, deliberately obstructive system obsessed with finding reasons to turn down even legitimate visitors.
One acquaintance had her initial application refused because her residence permit didn't match the city she worked in. That's a situation which is the case for a majority of young Chinese graduates, but which didn't stop the UK visa authorities from essentially accusing her of lying about her job.
Ufi Ibrahim, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, echoed such worries last week, stating "The UK spends many millions of pounds encouraging inbound tourism, yet a similar amount of money is spent discouraging those same visitors based in potential the richest source countries."
And the situation is only set to get worse. Student visas have already tightened, shooting the higher education sector in the foot. May has just announced even more reactionary new policies designed to make it incredibly difficult for British citizens to bring their foreign husbands or wives into the country.
Now, if you want to settle in the UK with your foreign partner, you'll typically have to show you have an annual income of £25,000 ($38,000) - a sum which excludes two-third of British families.
For young British who marry Chinese partners, all this will do is force them to make a choice between family and country.
The Chinese-speaking, culturally-knowledgeable individuals that the UK claims it wants to educate in order to prosper in the new Asian century will be exactly those who these policies drive away. And Chinese wives or husbands who's told they and their kids are no longer welcome are hardly going to help ease the "Fortress UK" image.
May's latest nonsense will probably be shut down by the European Court of Human Rights, but not before it's done even more damage to the UK's image overseas.
With its cultural, educational, and linguistic heritage, the UK is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the new world order, but instead seems determined to throw it all away to pander to bigots.
The author is a copy editor with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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