Written by Michael Reilly.

This week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister), George Osborne, made a flying visit to Urumqi following the meeting of the China-UK Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In doing so, he became the first British Minister to visit China’s restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

According to the Financial Times, in March this year Osborne ignored both Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) objections and US opposition, and had the UK apply to be a founding member of China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The newspaper quoted a former head of the IMF’s China division as saying that “apart from gaining favour with China it is not immediately obvious what the UK interest is in joining this bank.” Did he also ignore any concerns the FCO raised about this visit? Even if that is the case, he surely cannot have been unaware of the widespread unease about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Inter-ethnic tension in Xinjiang is not new.

One western traveller in the region in the 1930s summed up Han attitudes towards the Uighurs as “invariably contemptuous and invariably afraid”, a description that continues to resonate today, including in aspects of policy.1 The current Chinese government policy response was set out by President Xi Jinping in a speech in Urumqi in May of 2014, in which he called for tighter state control over religion and greater assimilation of Uighurs into Chinese society, including by moving them to other regions of China.

Specific aspects include a prohibition on men under 70 years old from growing beards, female government workers from wearing veils, and government officials from fasting during Ramadan. Random police spot checks on the streets of Kashgar and Urumqi are a common sight. The government appears unwilling to tolerate any dissent or criticism of this approach. For example, late last year, Ilham Tohti, a moderate Uighur academic who advocated greater dialogue and mutual respect, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In the absence any statement to the contrary, we must assume that the Chancellor did not raise any concerns about such practices during his visit. His avowed purpose in going to Xinjiang was to promote bilateral trade and investment, but this too seems an odd choice given alternative possibilities. China is indeed spending large sums on infrastructure in the region, especially in connection with its new Silk Road projects. But it has need of neither foreign capital nor foreign construction companies in pursuing these projects, so it is not obvious what the UK might offer.

Energy is one area where China would, and does, welcome foreign companies to Xinjiang, given its considerable oil and gas reserves and the need for foreign technology to help exploit them. But policy decisions in this strategic area are taken at central government level. (In December of 2014, Nur Bekri, a former long-serving and respected governor of Xinjiang, was promoted to head the National Energy Agency.) Discussions about this would therefore be better conducted in Beijing. In any case, foreign oil companies, including Shell, already have well-established joint ventures with their Chinese state-owned counterparts to pursue such projects.

Other business opportunities undoubtedly exist and the Xinjiang authorities have been anxious to promote them, not least through the China-Eurasia Expo, a major trade fair-cum-conference, held annually in Urumqi since 2011. But until now, UK involvement has been left to quasi-non-government organisations such as the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI); UK government officials from neither the British embassy nor UKTI have seen fit to attend. That hardly suggests that UK companies are thirsting to sign business deals in the region and are waiting only for a high level politician to jet in, either to confirm the deals or unblock political obstacles to them.

So the justification for Osborne’s visit remains a puzzle. It also raises questions about the coherence of UK policy. Arguably, this has now become too wide-ranging and complex to be managed by FCO career diplomats. If so, perhaps the UK would benefit by following the US practice and appointing a senior political figure as ambassador to China—someone with the clout and influence to persuade UK political figures to listen, but also the seniority to command the respect of Chinese leaders.

As for Mr Osborne, presumably his aim is to build the bilateral relationship. If so, he would do well to heed China’s own experience in Myanmar, Afghanistan and increasingly in Africa, which shows that a ‘values-free’ approach to diplomacy can all too easily come unstuck in the long-term.

Michael Reilly is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the CPI, a former Director of the British Trade and Cultural office in Taipei and until recently the chief representative in China of a major international aerospace company.
 Image credit: CC by HM Treasury/Flickr.

1 Peter Fleming, News from Tartary (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936), 200.