Last week’s sudden outbreak of verbal hostilities with China, triggered by violent clashes in Hong Kong, provided a disturbing glimpse of post-Brexit Britain’s isolated and impotent future in a world of more muscular adversaries. It also underlined a dilemma facing all the western democracies in their dealings with Beijing: what matters most – liberal values or money-making?
Like bullies sensing weakness, Chinese officials let rip after Britain dared defend the demonstrators’ right to protest against the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. The row released tensions largely suppressed since the former colony was handed back in 1997. The depth of China’s pent-up fury was cautionary.
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador, led the charge, demanding Britain keep its “hands off Hong Kong”. Liu misrepresented the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s public support for the protesters as implying support for violence. Another official was personally insulting, accusing Hunt of “basking in the faded glory of British colonialism”.