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Analysis
Chinese worries about Brexit

Chinese worries about Brexit

Running away from Europe on fire

by Ben Shenglin in Beijing

Wed 16 Mar 2016

Britain has done a wonderful job in negotiating the best terms to stay in the European Union with ‘special status’. But perhaps it has been too skilful. Continental Europeans (and the rest of the world) may perceive the Brits as too clever by half.

The debate over British membership comes at a bad time. The ‘House of European Union’ is on fire. The last thing the other residents need is a footloose member of the community heading for the exit.

In my early years as a student, and later as an executive working for western companies, I was taught that, when there is a fire, true leadership dictates that you run towards it and try to put it out. You don’t run away from it.

From an Asian perspective, loyalty and trust are considered critical for solid and sustainable friendship. In the West, too, there is a saying: ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.’

Britain has undoubtedly been doing what it considers best for its own short-term national interest. Yet no one should underestimate Brexit’s potential negative impact on Britain’s relationship with Europe and its wider international reputation.

Most of us like smart people around us as friends. Yet we don’t want them to be over-clever. We are wary of crafty people who take advantage of others’ vulnerability. We cherish friends who are reliable and helpful.

Of course, the debate over Britain and the EU has to be put into perspective. When you type ‘tuo-ou’ (脱欧), the invented Chinese expression for ‘Brexit’, into Baidu, China’s Google, you get 5.7m hits. As a comparison, a similar Google search for ‘Brexit’ in English would lead to 25.8m items. By contrast, typing ‘lianghui’ (两会), the annual National People’s Congress meeting, into Baidu results in more than 75m leads.

These numbers indicate the relative importance of Brexit inside and outside China. Naturally enough, the Chinese are much more focused on domestic issues such as lianghui. After all, we are a large country in transition, with a lot more pressing issues to talk and worry about than Britain’s European future.

Beyond this, though, we Chinese do care about Europe and the dynamics of a possible British departure. Europe is China’s most important trade partner. China-Europe investment flows, in both directions, account for a significant part of each partner’s total. A strong and united Europe is good for China and the world.

From our distant vantage point, the Chinese are perplexed about the intricacy of the UK-European relationship. Is Britain part of Europe? Do the Brits consider themselves Europeans?

Nations do not deal with each other exactly the same way as individuals. I do not advocate it, either. Yet some government leaders, elected in democracies, focus too much on their country’s short-term goals or, even worse, their own electability. Despite these caveats, whatever Britain does in Europe has to be done with due international sensitivity.

The UK’s leaders have to engage with British voters, but they must also communicate better with continental Europeans and the wider international community. They must make clear that the British are, after all, Europeans. Most of all, they must tell the world that they will remain reliable partners.

To read the article in Chinese, please click here.

Ben Shenglin is Professor of Banking & Finance, Dean of Academy of Internet Finance, Zhejiang University and Executive Director, International Monetary Institute, Renmin University of China, in Beijing. This is No.13 in the series.

OMFIF's series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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