Icebreaking spirit to create a better opportunity for peaceful coexistence between China, UK
Published: Jan 23, 2024 07:53 PM
London Bridge in London and Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Photos: VCG

London Bridge in London and Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Photos: VCG

Editor's Note:

In 1954, the 48 Group Club was established after the first British trade delegation traveled to the newly formed People's Republic of China to initiate trade relations between the two countries. Seventy years later, China-UK relations face greater uncertainties and challenges. In an interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Ma Ruiqian, Chairman of the 48 Group Club, Stephen Perry (Perry), shared his views on the "icebreaking spirit," China-UK relations and the current hype surrounding the "China threat."

GT: Your father, Jack Perry, is acclaimed as one of the "icebreakers" in China-UK relations. What insights can be drawn from the "ice-breaking spirit" for today's China-UK relations?

It's a difficult world today. China is experiencing a great deal of resistance. The 48 Group Club experienced this as well when US former president Donald Trump became very concerned about the trade deficit and imposed tariffs. This was the beginning of a deterioration of the China-US and China-West relations. It was also the beginning of a deterioration of respect for each other. 

The icebreaking spirit is about breaking through the relationship between groups on each side, aiming to build something for the future. It means managing differences in culture, education and objectives, considering the 5,000 years of Chinese history compared to more than 1,000 years of British history. Despite these dramatic differences, it is worth it because of the lessons from the two World Wars, where millions were killed. If we don't want to see that again, we have to have better ways of dealing with misunderstandings and building a positive environment for global peace and development.

I believe that's what the icebreaking spirit is: I want to do this deal; I want to make some money out of it, but I also want to lay down tracks that enable better, more peaceful coexistence. My father once told me that many Chinese people overcame very difficult conditions, aiming to create a better world where trade and peaceful coexistence prevail, instead of wars. We need to find ways to understand each other and conduct business together. If we can establish more connections between Chinese businesses and the West, we stand a better chance of achieving peaceful coexistence. I think that's what the icebreaking spirit is - creating a better opportunity for peaceful coexistence so that people can grow and develop together.

GT: During the past year, the UK has intervened multiple times in the operations of Chinese companies in the country, citing security concerns. From a business perspective, do Chinese companies truly pose a threat to the world?

People do not understand how China has succeeded. They do not understand China's reform and opening-up. Let's go back to 1978 when the reform and opening-up began. The Chinese people, the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government were highly capable of transforming not only their internal system, including agriculture, manufacturing and service industries, but also being able to incorporate sophisticated new ideas from abroad. 

I think China has made the decision to transform itself. It needs to buy a lot of technology and take in many foreigners, but the essence is to do it themselves. China learned very early on that if they're going to do something, they have to learn how to do it themselves. They do not want to depend on those who, a century and a half ago, sought to take advantage of them. It doesn't mean that there's malice in China toward foreigners. China is big enough with a large enough population, and they can do it themselves. China achieved this by working with foreigners but not by being dependent on them.

GT: How do you think the UK should rationally manage its relationship with both China and the US?

The US' involvement with the UK is too deep and powerful. And the US believes it has to show China that it can stop China's progress in countries like the UK, bringing many things to a standstill. However, this is now beginning to change for two reasons. One is that the power of the US is not as powerful as it once was. Therefore, people are not so inhibited to challenge American views, regarding what should be done and how. The other significant change is the UK. The UK is now finding that the world is changing. Too many countries are growing, and any major, powerful country attempting to establish an empire is unlikely to succeed. So I think maybe we are headed toward the world of a global community of shared future, as advocated by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

We've had a long number of years benefiting from the special relationship with the US. I don't think that the UK is at that point of change. We will be cautious as a country, but we also have to participate with China. I think that the production forms of the world will change and that the UK will begin to realize that it can do lots of things in Asia with China and with other countries, making the UK feel a somewhat more independent than if works solely with China, which has 1.4 billion people and is the second-largest economy in the world.

GT: Many Western countries firmly believe that a strong China will inevitably seek hegemony, leading to the perception of China as a threat that needs to be contained. What is your view on this?

The West can benefit from working with China. It has nothing to benefit from a war or aggression. And if we use hegemony against China, it will weaken us.
There is no great long-term benefit that comes from hegemony. China knows that and it does not use hegemony, as it is not part of the Chinese culture. I think China knows that wisdom works much better in the long term, drawing from very old Confucian ideas. The Chinese way of doing things is different from the Western way of doing things. China just sits down and works out how to deal with issues.  
The Chinese history of 5,000 years has taught its people to do things and think things in ways that work well, especially in the big issues of the world. I believe what will happen in the world is that the ideas from President Xi, rooted in 5,000 years of Chinese history, will gradually become better understood in the West. This will introduce the notion that there are other ways of doing the big things in life that can benefit us all. It's not something for us to fear. When we get to know each other, the world becomes a much simpler place.

GT: In November, David Cameron returned to the British government as the Foreign Secretary. Do you hold an optimistic outlook for the China-UK relationship in 2024? In what areas can China and the UK deepen their relationship through common interests and collaboration opportunities?

I don't think Cameron returned to the government because of a plan to improve relationships with China. I believe Cameron came back to the UK government because it was facing internal difficulties within the Conservative Party and parliament on various issues. For instance, immigration became a powerful force for the people who were in favor of Brexit.

Cameron has moved into the international statesman's arena, walking the tightrope between the US and China. The best opportunities for the UK lie in trade and investment with China, but the historical relationship of the UK lies with the US. It's akin to having parents who are constantly arguing, leaving a child unsure of what to do or say. Cameron, I believe, has a pretty good idea of how to handle such diplomatic situations. He may be able to make a difference, but considering he might only be in office for less than a year, we shouldn't expect too much.

Is it a sign of a better attitude toward China? As I mentioned, I don't believe he was brought in specifically for the China issue. However, it is as significant that he was not avoided from this role due to his historical relationship with China. This suggests that within the British elites, he had the acceptance of his role coming into parliament and government again, signifying recognition. Also, I think China does have a role to play in the future of the UK. It is a sign that Britain takes its engagement with China seriously.