Kowtow is a word of Chinese origin, and according to the Oxford dictionary, it means prostration, in which one kneels “in worship or submission” contemporaneously acting “in [an] excessively subservient manner.”
And Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain where he promised large investments really showcased the right way to go about a kowtow regimen. Historically, Chinese emperors received the deepest kowtow as a mark of great respect, which was kneeling three times while touching the head on the ground three times. At the end of the 18th century, the first British ambassadors chose not to do that and were consequently denied a meeting with Emperor Quianlong, who later sent a letter to King George III which explained his point of view about foreign “barbarians” who the emperor thought to be inferior to China.
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Following that event, Britain did not have an embassy in China until, with the help of the French, it beat China into submission during the First (1839-42) and Second (1856-60) Opium Wars. As part of the share of spoils, Hong Kong was ceded to the British. For decades after these two wars, the U.K. was the most powerful empire on earth and like is the case in history, the country made sure that the Chinese people were humiliated at every opportunity.
Tables turn as UK forced to bow down
Today, the tables have turned, and the U.K. might be feeling the same feelings it exacted on China all those decades ago. Now, kowtow is used in its first meaning. As he arrived in the U.K., Xi was given the highest honors a British state can bestow upon foreign emissaries and diplomats. A banquet was thrown for the Chinese premier by Queen Elizabeth II, while Xi was provided a luxury suite in Buckingham Palace. Moreover, the Chinese supremo addressed Parliament, and wherever he went, he was either attended by the queen or by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Such extravagant shows of respect are definitely in order, considering the fact that China is seeking to invest up to $46 billion in various projects, including around $12 billion in a new nuclear power station (with France). In the near future, China will also use the city of London for international banking and currency and other trading in a deal that will help Britain with its importing services.
In what should be called a new-found friendship, Britain has not even spoken a little about the human or civil rights issues China has had to face in several international platforms. There were no lectures on the imprisonment of dissidents, suppression of freedom of press or the well-documented issues of corruption that still plague the country. Indeed, this silence, an uncharacteristic one, for that matter, is Britain’s shame, and one that it has taken on its chin quite well.
Steve Hilton, who at one stage used to be one of Cameron’s closest advisers, has clearly been shaken up by his former boss’ appeasement towards his opposite number and has called it “one of the worst national humiliations we’ve seen since we went cap-in-hand to the IMF in the 1970s” (In 1976, the International Monetary Fund loaned a near-bankrupt U.K. $4 billion).
Ai Weiwei, a dissident artist who is now settled in London, believes that the Chinese people of today, who are becoming more aware of their rights, will be left disappointed after seeing Cameron cast China’s issues aside in such a manner. These polemics will surely fade into the background when the real discussions of the Chinese president’s visit kick off.
U.K. and U.S. fail the biggest test of the century?
For more than a century, Britain has considered itself to be the United States’ best friend and indeed has proven its value to Washington in times of need. In bygone years, tests of time were passed with flying colors by both nations, but it appears that they might not be able to pass this new and unique test as the international system experiences a shift in the overall dynamics.
However, this new shift was going to happen one way or the other. Following some U.S. officials’ deploring of cuts to the U.K.’s defense budget, the U.K. headed the list of Western states to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure bank back in March. The United States did not really like the new partnership, and one senior official blatantly spoke about Britain’s constant accommodation of China.
It appears that the highest levels of the U.K. government have already decided that they are going to give way to Chinese charms and will maintain good relations with Beijing in what is definitely a very un-British thing to do. Another un-British thing that has been done has been to take the U.S. out of the equation and pursue an Asian angle in a way that has indeed offended the White House.
Indeed, London has decided to place its bets on a still-rising power in light of recent economic maneuvers that have seen the United States being surpassed by China. This major rethink was orchestrated by the chancellor, George Osborne, Cameron’s likely successor, and has been driven by shift in U.S. politics.
Britain’s economy is growing at around 2.5 percent but as things stand, latest figures show signs of stagnation which is why the East with its wealth, is a lucrative destination. It might be a huge shift in the U.K.’s international posture and will have consequences not only for London but also for Washington.
The other side of the coin
However, all this might also be something different. This new-found amity between China and the U.K. may also prove to be the latter acting as a bridge, not only between Europe and the United States but also between China and the United States, just like Margaret Thatcher was between the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev and the U.S. under Ronald Reagan.
And although Weiwei is very pessimistic about the chances of anything good coming out of this new partnership, it is safe to say that eventually, the U.K. will be forced to face aggressive questions from its own journalists–something that Xi Jinping doesn’t in his own backyard.
Moreover, despite the fact that it appears obviously easy to conclude the new tidings as an end to the long and historic relationship between London and Washington, there definitely is another meaning behind it, and it will be indeed shocking to see if Britain has really sold out its values and beliefs, which Obama lauded a few years back for the sake of a lot of money.