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Brexit: Views from China


“What impact would Brexit have on China?” had asked the title of a widely discussed article on the social media site QQ. Below, it showed a picture of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s head, crudely Photoshopped onto the body of Eddard Stark, a character from the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. The fate of Eddard in the show (spoiler alert: decapitation) would soon resemble the fate of Prime Minister Cameron as the stunning results of Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union began filtering in the following day. There would be little sympathy among certain Chinese readers. “If it only were so,” read the most popular comment on the article, “China has France and Germany in Europe. Britain does nothing but cause trouble between Hong Kong and the mainland.” Another comment read, “I wish NATO would crumble”, garnering 15,000 ‘likes’. Yet it was clear by the afternoon of the vote that not everyone shared these sentiments. The Yuan dropped 0.8 percent in Hong Kong and 0.5 percent in Shanghai, hitting its lowest value in five months. And while this slide paled in comparison to other markets (the British pound dropped 10 percent that day), a state press release warned that “China still has to brace itself for long-term fallout from the Brexit.”[1]

The Brexit decision signals an uncertain turn for the economic relations between Britain and China. Just last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping had heralded the ties between the two countries as entering into a ‘golden age’. In 2014, China made up Britain’s 6th largest export destination and 2nd largest origin of import. Chinese investors put in more than 8 billion USD into the U.K. in the same year. During President Xi’s visit to London in October 2015, he and British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a “Joint Declaration on Building a Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for the 21st century”. It outlined in 29 points a plan to increase cooperation and strengthen Sino-British relations in areas such as trade, research and security. Leading up to the Brexit vote, President Xi cautioned the U.K. against leaving the E.U., a rare gesture as China has normally refrained from commenting on the domestic politics of other nations. These statements were also further reiterated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and emphasized by individuals such as real estate and entertainment tycoon Wang Jianlin.

In light of such efforts, the referendum results have arrived as a stinging disappointment to the Chinese leadership. “Xi and Cameron’s ‘bromance’ all for nothing after Brexit vote”, read a particularly colloquial title in the Japan Times. Official state media has retained cautious neutrality in their commentary, emphasizing their ‘respect’ for the validity of the decision and China’s unchanged desire for bilateral cooperation. Chinese ‘netizens’, on the other hand, have not shown such restraint in expressing their opinions on the matter. One particularly controversial editorial in the newspaper Global Times decried it as a “lose-lose situation”, commenting that “Europe is not able to resolve the problem it is facing.” Others pointed out the possibilities for China to take advantage of the circumstances. An article by Xu Sitao, chief economist of Deloitte China, argued that while “Brexit is a setback for globalization”, China “[stood] to gain from a weakened Europe” in terms of leverage in bilateral trade deals and the mounting difficulties with the Trans Pacific Partnership. The topic #BrexitReferendum (#英国脱欧公投) on the popular online platform Weibo (新浪微博) gained almost a billion readers, becoming the number one trending topic. A widely circulated comic strip depicted Britain as an angry woman divorcing from her husband (Europe), a ‘not very handsome, but capable young man’. This may have had a hand in producing what is perhaps the most baffling consequence of the Brexit referendum – a music video depicting the romance struggle between various European leaders, set to a Chinese love song in the background. “Little England,” read the description of the video, “if you would want to come back, I will always be here!”

Other Chinese netizens, however, worried about the impact that the demonstration of a successful democratic referendum would have on China’s own struggles for unity. In recent years, calls for greater democracy and independence from the mainland have swelled in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, culminating in massive student-led protests. The Umbrella Revolution and the Sunflower Revolution, as the two protests came to be called, signaled to the outside world a shifting dynamic in the demands of the citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some Chinese were concerned that the Brexit vote would further encourage such movements, and possibly spark calls for a type of popular referendum of their own. “It’s a no brainer,” wrote one commentator on the popular message board Zhihu, “the naïve Hong Kong teenagers are now really going to push hard for independence.” “Taiwan’s democracy,” wrote another commentator on Weibo, referring to a recent incident in Taiwan in which students pelted Ministry of Education officials with eggs, “and the recent Brexit referendum demonstrates that mob rule cannot be allowed. Populism is not democracy!”