David Cameron, who was then British Prime Minister, has a pint with Chinese President Xi Jinping in The Plough pub during his state visit to the UK in 2015. Photo: AFP

It was an autumn day in October 2015 when then British Prime Minister David Cameron popped out to the pub with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Taking a break from his state visit to the United Kingdom, Xi tucked into fish and chips, washed down by a pint of IPA, in The Plough at Cadsden, which is close to the PM’s traditional Chequers retreat in Buckinghamshire.

Most visitors to the UK would struggle to find the hamlet, which is in the southeast of England, on the map. But as they smiled for the cameras and exchanged small talk, this was a high-water mark for the new “Golden Age” of British-Sino relations.

The phrase had been coined by George Osborne, a close ally of Cameron and the chancellor of the exchequer or finance minister in the Conservative government at the time.

Fast forward nearly five years and the “Golden Age” is now distinctly tarnished.

“In recent days, China-UK ties have started to deteriorate due to friction in areas such as the novel coronavirus, national security legislation for [the] Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the UK drawing up a three-year plan to ditch Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from its 5G networks,” Cui Hongjian, the director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, wrote in a commentary for the state-run tabloid Global Times.

Earlier this week, chasm-sized cracks in the relationship appeared after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed his government was willing to allow more than 2.8 million people from Hong Kong to live and work in Britain. 

British territory

The offer was made after China decided to impose a controversial national security law in the former British territory to silence the city’s pro-democracy movement.

“This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in history. If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly. If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not walk away; instead, we will honor our obligations and provide an alternative,” he said.

Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy outlined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.

But that has been eroded by Beijing as it grapples with rising disenchantment with Xi’s administration in one of the world’s major financial centers, triggering last year’s summer of discontent. 

YouTube video

In response, China’s Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming has warned British politicians to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian has since upped the ante. 

“China expresses strong dissatisfaction with this and firmly opposes it. We have made solemn representations to the British side. The UK has no sovereignty, governance or supervision over the returned Hong Kong,” he said.

Slightly less than 24 hours later, Johnson appeared to rip up his policy to allow Huawei to take part in Britain’s plans to roll out 5G broadband across the country.

Media reports claimed that the UK government had become more skeptical of China since the Covid-19 pandemic, and had reached out to South Korea’s Samsung and Japan’s NEC.

In January, Johnson announced that Huawei would be included in Britain’s new super-fast, nationwide networks.

Broader clampdown

The decision angered President Donald Trump’s administration after banning the telecom company in the US as part of a broader clampdown on Chinese high-tech groups because of national security issues.

“NEC is currently involved in various 5G activities in different parts of the world but we are not able to comment on this specific [UK] project,” a spokesperson for NEC told Bloomberg News.

Relations between London and Beijing started to sour amid the coronavirus crisis.

Initially, China tried to cover up the outbreak in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, which reported the first case of Covid-19 in December. 

“I think there absolutely needs to be a very, very deep dive review of the lessons – including of the outbreak of the virus – and I don’t think we can flinch from that at all,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in April.

Still, this is a far cry from that day in October 2015 and the fish chip bromance between Cameron and Xi. But then, The Plough, a 16th-century inn, has since been sold … to SinoFortone Investment, a Chinese company. Expect the “For Sale” sign to go up in the not too distant future.