The UK and China were once good friends. Or so we were led to believe. Speaking at the Shanghai Stock Exchange in September 2015, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, spoke about creating a ‘golden age’ in Sino-British relations.
A month later, President Ji Xinping paid a state visit to Britain which included a ride down The Mall with The Queen and a lavish banquet in his honour at Buckingham Palace. Ensconced between The Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge at the banquet, President Xi could justifiably feel that his country had found its bestie in the West.
In 2018, the Chinese Ambassador to London talked about turbocharging relations even further. He wanted to put the golden age into “higher gear”, he claimed, and build “an even brighter future for the people of our two countries”.
It all seemed so rosy and the future for investors looked so promising.
But fast forward to 2022 and the geo-political landscape is unrecognisable. The Golden Age has turned into an Ice Age – a period of recriminations, grievances and conversations labelled ‘frank’ in diplomatic circles. Investors would be right to be wary.
Demonstrations in Hong Kong, concerns over Huawei’s proposed investment in strategic infrastructure, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the Covid-19 pandemic, and scenes of the Chinese police beating a BBC journalist are hardly propitious foundations for friendship. President Xi, who has secured an unprecedented third term as leader, has also doubled down on an assertive foreign policy. He rails against so-called Western ‘bullying’ and is pushing a repressive domestic agenda intent on eradicating Covid-19. The two governments now view each other with grave mistrust, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stating that the “golden era is over, along with the naïve idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform.”
The politics, in short, bode badly for the future. The economics, however, tell a different tale.
Trade volumes between the UK and China have increased by 27% over the last four years. Total trade in 2018 stood at £73.2 billion, rising to £86.8 billion in 2019 before falling during the pandemic and rising again to £93.1 billion in 2021.
Maybe that’s because the UK and China can’t afford to let political fights upset their economic relationship. The downturn in the UK economy is well documented. GDP growth fell 0.3% between July and August and the UK economy is smaller now than at the start of the year. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ efforts to turn the tide were met with widespread disruption in the financial markets, with the Bank of England stepping in to support the bond markets, and mortgage interest rates rising to their highest level in 14 years. It’s also a difficult time for private markets: the UK economy is officially in recession.
If things are bad in the UK, prospects in China are not much better.
The Chinese economy used to be the thing of myth, with growth that made Western leaders salivate at the prospect of getting a slice of the pie. Annual growth in the Middle Kingdom saw a clear upward trajectory in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reaching a peak of 14.2% in 2007. But ever since, the Chinese economy has been distinctly less appealing. China has recorded a steady decline in annual GDP growth since 2007, falling to 6% in 2019 and temporarily plunging to 2.2% in 2020 – the pandemic year. While growth of 6% in 2019 (and over 8% in 2021) may still sound tempting to some Western leaders, there is more trouble looming.
This year, the yuan fell to its lowest rate since 2008 and the national youth jobless rate hit almost 20% in July. Even official statistics shows that China’s manufacturing PMI has only been above 50% for four months of 2022 – any figure below 50% shows a reduction in activity – with manufacturing PMI in October standing at 49.2%. JP Morgan also forecasts year-on-year GDP growth in the final quarter of the year to stand at 2.7%, down from a previous forecast of 3.4%.
The property market in China is in turmoil too. Year-on-year, property sales fell by over 23% in October and property investment has declined by 16%. In August, house prices fell by 1.3% – their fastest decline in seven years. Chinese policymakers have attempted to sweeten the market by cutting the five-year loan prime rate that underpins mortgage lending to 4.3% and relaxing the floor on mortgage rates for some first-time buyers. But the bitter taste of an undercooked pie still lingers. The property crisis took a trillion dollars off the value of the sector last year.
But investors should steady their nerve. As their economies stutter at home, the UK and China need to keep in with their economic partners overseas. The Prime Minister may continue to view China as a “systemic challenge to our values and interests” but he also claims that we “cannot simply ignore China’s significance in world affairs”. Significant material restrictions in trade have yet to materialise, despite tensions between London and Beijing. Economic reality, it seems, trumps political posturing. UK firms exposed to Chinese investment will be able to rely on firm support from their Asian trading partner for the foreseeable future and trade between the UK and China will continue to boom. Even if President Xi won’t be enjoying another carriage ride down The Mall anytime soon.