Written by Niv Horesh.

Widely billed as “historic” and “strategic”, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 4-day state visit to the UK last week helped cement trade and investment deals reportedly worth a whopping £30 billion. By and large, the visit won bipartisan support in Westminster. And if the floodgates of Chinese investment in the UK do eventually open up over the next couple of years as a result, it may go down as a turning point not just in bilateral relations but also in global geo-politics.

Yet, it used to be the job of academics in publicly-funded institutions in the West to sometimes poke the media fanfare and double-check historical analogies. Unfortunately, the China discourse in the British media has been too often hijacked by lobby groups, and as a result the kind of commentary one finds there is binary: either extreme “panda bashing” or extreme “panda hugging”.

The newspeak of research “impact” and casualization of academic employment are also beginning to emasculate real debate. Increasingly, British universities are being turned into civil-service flunkies, or a poor echo of the media’s binary approach. At the same time, researchers’ autonomy, headspace and job security are being eroded left right and centre, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, as salary and even cultural gaps between academic executives and active researchers widen. Cynics might jubilantly observe in that context that the gap between UK and Chinese academe is indeed narrowing, only that in China somehow education is a higher priority when it comes to government funding.

To be sure, inherent tensions between academe, the media and civil service can still on occasion produce feisty, independent commentary on the fringes. The problem is much of the criticism levelled at Xi last week predictably and emotively centred on human-rights issues where China is to be preached to. That criticism was not always research-backed, and at times assumed all too comfortably British seniority and benevolence. It elided for the most part a serious discussion of China as a country from whose reform experience one can learn from, and whose human rights record ought to be more sensibly compared with countries like India, not the West.

Perhaps one of the best examples for that was the BBC’s Carrie Gracie labelling Xi on her blog “a more ruthless authoritarian than any Chinese leader since Chairman Mao”. The problem with such labelling is its superficiality as much as the timing. That Gracie would opt to portray Xi in such light on the eve of his visit borders on sensationalism. Has she got confused as to precisely who ordered the tanks to roll into Tiananmen back in June 1989? And if Xi’s current anti-corruption campaign is proving so “ruthless” as compared with his predecessors’ approach to the problem, can Gracie adduce data to show how unpopular this “ruthlessness” is among ordinary Chinese?

It seems the British public could by and large see through the superficiality of such observations, and recognise what high-stakes this visit represents. YouGov polling methodology may not be orthodox, but in the absence of other data one cannot but note that a majority of Britons at present may have come to believe China would be the UK’s most “valuable” trading partner in 20 years’ time. In much the same vein, Chinese dissidents Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng’s rebukes of George Osborne as having “cosied up” to tyrants were politely brushed off, and Tata Steel claims — made merely a day before Xi arrived — of being forced to sack British workers due to Chinese dumping practices, did not gain much traction even in Labour circles.

The argument I make here is that, had we steered clear for a moment from sensationalism and self-righteousness, relevant lessons could have been instigated on the occasion of Xi’s visit even if China is another kettle of fish. After all, to reduce the visit’s rationale and motivation to ‘Chinese cash for British silence on human rights’ makes for lean academic analysis.

Chinese future investment in the aging Hinkley Point nuclear plant has rightly invited scrutiny on safety, environmental-protection and national-security grounds. But few commentators paused to ask how it is that a country like Britain, which had until the 1970s been a world leader in nuclear-energy development, is having to rely on technology provided by a French-Chinese consortium. There is an inconvenient truth underlying the story, and it goes much beyond “revanchist” national pride or human-rights “hush money”. The fact of the matter is that both France and China have taken a radically different approach to utilities ownership and, contrary to what Anglo-American economic textbooks might predict, both France and China have forged a modicum of technological advancement and market success as result.

Over a decade since Mrs Thatcher lost power, there is still a strong current of belief among London movers and shakers that governments simply can’t pick winners. France’s record may be one all too easy to dismiss on these shores. But the realisation among economic historians is beginning to sink in, following the successes of the East Asian developmental states, that the private sector cannot be trusted with nation building in the long run.

So while one has to credit Ms Thatcher, from a global standpoint, with helping rid the planet of the Soviet menace and ushering in democracy into Eastern Europe, one should question her economic legacy with newly-acquired policy insights. Naturally, doubts here extend to privatised train and bus services. Have service standards improved in the UK since privatisation? What are passenger and end-consumer energy costs here compared with China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or mainland Europe? And why, more generally, is the infrastructure here widely said to be “ageing” when all the text books had primed us to believe it would pan out otherwise?

In sum, George Osborne may have good reason to be satisfied with the outcome of Xi’s visit. He thereby acquired the mantle of true statesman and positioned himself in a good spot from which to succeed David Cameron. But, equally, China is a foil against which his austerity narrative can be poorly judged. China has taken a different approach to the US and the UK since the Global Financial Crisis, and this week even Ben Bernanke, former Chairman of the US Federal reserve, seems to acknowledge — at least indirectly — that this could serve as food for thought. There are sharp differences among Western economists as to precisely how well (or poorly) the Chinese economy is faring at the moment. If, however, near 7% growth rates can be maintained in China over the next few years, Osborne’s approach should merit not just praise for geopolitical foresight, but also some tough questions about his budget-cut narrative at home.

Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute. Image credit: CC by Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr