The appointment of foreign policy heavyweight Zheng Zeguang indicates the strategic importance of London to Beijing and a continued tough stance on key issues. Asia House Advisory takes a look at China’s next ambassador to London.
– Surprise diplomatic appointment indicates a departure from China’s long-standing approach to relations with the UK
– Ambassador-designate’s tough stance towards the US suggests likely direction of diplomatic tone
– Senior appointment indicates emphasis placed on UK relationship by Beijing
– Despite heightened public rhetoric from both sides, UK-China economic relations remain close and significant to both economies, and could prove critical to improving bilateral relations
– Both China’s and the UK’s relations with the US will have significant implications for each country’s approach to direct engagement.
On 26 December 2020, Tam Yiu-chung, a representative of Hong Kong at China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, revealed that China’s long-standing Ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, will be finishing his term in 2021.
Liu will be succeeded by Zheng Zeguang, one of China’s top foreign policy practitioners, currently serving in Beijing as Deputy Minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Having begun his term in 2010, Liu Xiaoming is China’s longest ever serving Ambassador in a single post. Given most ambassadors serve around four years in each posting, there had been significant speculation as to how much longer he would remain in his role.
But while Liu’s departure is not a surprise, the choice of his successor is interesting. Zheng is known as a US affairs expert who was seen as a likely candidate to succeed China’s Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai – the most senior foreign affairs position outside Beijing. The appointment of a heavyweight replacement in London underlines the UK’s importance to China, but also implies that China’s tough, sometimes combative approach to diplomatic relations is here to stay.
Zheng’s diversion from Washington to London
The appointment of Zheng Zeguang in the London role has come as a surprise to a number of commentators given his expected trajectory towards the top diplomatic post in Washington DC – a critical posting given the ongoing China-US tensions.
Many observers had expected a change of ambassador to the US with the incoming Biden administration, with Zheng being the most likely candidate. It is widely expected that the US position towards China will not change dramatically under the new administration, but it is hoped that a return to more established protocols will allow increased dialogue and a return to multilateralism.
Zheng is known to be supportive of taking a hard line with the US. As recently as December 2020, he summoned Robert Forden, the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Beijing, over sanctions imposed by the US on members of the Standing Committee of China National People’s Congress over their role in establishing the new Hong Kong security law. At that time Zheng made headlines in the Chinese media for his robust statement condemning the US response.
However, Zheng is no stranger to productive dialogue. When Liu He, Chinese Vice Premier, led the difficult trade talks with the US, Zheng was integral to the discussions that resulted in the so-called ‘Phase One Deal’, which led to increased market access for US companies investing China, and the reduction of tariffs imposed on Chinese exports destined for the US domestic market. Zheng was also one of the three Chinese diplomats in the dialogue held in Hawaii in June 2020 with US Secretary of State Pompeo, alongside Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Ambassador to US Cui Tiankai.
The appointment of a global heavyweight and veteran diplomat in the UK sends a clear message that China is allotting a high level of priority to the post-Brexit UK-China relationship. Chinese ambassadors to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are vice-ministerial level but those to the US and the UN retain a higher standing among those vice-ministerial level ambassadors. Zheng’s reroute to the UK signifies the extra importance China attaches to an increasingly complex UK-China relationship, given the issues surrounding Hong Kong and London’s ‘Global Britain’ aspirations and ambitions to join CPTPP.
Who is Zheng Zeguang?
Like his predecessor in London, Zheng hails from Guangdong Province in Southern China. Adjacent to Hong Kong and Macau and home to China’s major manufacturing and innovation base, Guangdong is seen as a key gateway area to the Chinese economy. With the Greater Bay Area Initiative, which combines Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province in a coordinated economic development area, one of Zheng’s roles as Ambassador to the UK will be to oversee efforts to promote trade and investment through this initiative, which remains contentious with commentators concerned about the integration of Hong Kong into China’s economic, political and legal systems.
Starting his professional life as a teacher in his home province, Zheng went on to study foreign languages at South China Normal University in Guangzhou before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As part of his career development in the late 1980s he spent a year at Cardiff University in the UK – a placement which may stand him in good stead to understand and connect with UK culture. From 1987 until 2010, he rose steadily through the ranks of the Department of North American and Oceanian Affairs of the Ministry. This included overseas posts, one of which was Minister at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Following the culmination as Director-General of the Department, he was appointed Vice Mayor of Nanjing, in which capacity he was a Member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Nanjing Municipal Committee. Appointments in provincial or municipal government leadership roles of this nature is considered by many as the transition to political leadership within China. Following his term in Nanjing, Zheng was appointed to the role of Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and two years later, in 2015, he was promoted to Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the last five years he has played a prominent role in managing China’s challenging and critical relationship with the US, as well as leading engagement with a number of other countries across the Americas.
The Liu period – from frozen relations to a ‘Golden Era’ and back
Over his decade as ambassador in London, UK-China relations have seen significant changes along with a major global power shift amid the development of China’s global role.
When Liu Xiaoming arrived in London, China was gaining recognition as the major driver of global growth in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. China’s economy doubled between 2010 and 2020 and it was able to retain increasing value from its exports to countries like the UK.
Not long into Liu’s tenure, China-UK diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze following a meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalia Lama in early 2012. The economic relationship continued to thrive however, and a rapid improvement in formal bilateral relations rapidly led to a high profile visit of Cameron to China in late 2013.
The relationship reached a high point with the establishment of the ‘Golden Era of Sino-British relations’, which included a UK Guest of Government Visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and a State Visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. A deeper shift in relations came as the UK became one of the leading proponents of closer relations with China among the major OECD economies. George Osborne, then UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, led a shift among UK political leaders to recognise China as major player in global affairs, highlighting the importance of engaging the Chinese economy in order to bolster economic growth and prosperity which led to significant increases in bilateral trade and investment.
With UK support, three major developments for China occurred during the period of Liu Xiaoming’s time in London. The UK joining as a founding member of the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the development of the G20 group of countries as a counterbalance to the G7, and the inclusion of the Chinese Yuan as a key currency in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights. In opposition to the US, a number of other major developed economies followed the UK’s move to join AIIB, which demonstrated the importance to Beijing of the close relationship with the UK.
Recent years have seen China-UK relations become strained on a number of issues, including the strategic rivalry between the US and China, and the future of Hong Kong.
Increased animus towards China from political elites in the UK has fuelled a rise in negative rhetoric from both sides. The most obvious sign of deteriorating relations has been the recent confirmation from the UK government that it will ban leading Chinese telecom firm Huawei from participating in the UK’s 5G networks, citing cybersecurity concerns.
Most recently the UK government announced in parliament their intention to strengthen the enforcement of the Modern Slavery Act and noted their specific concerns about the possibility of UK companies manufacturing products in China using forced labour in China’s western Xinjiang autonomous region as well as UK exports of technologies to China which could be used to impinge on human rights.
Although Zheng Zeguang will step into the role amid these challenges, a number of opportunities exist to bolster relations. Currently trading with China on WTO terms, the UK’s new status as an independent trading nation may present opportunities to start negotiations for improved terms of trade. However, the UK has not indicated this to be a priority and relations are expected to continue via existing bilateral frameworks.
Having participated a number of times as part of the Asia House programme, Ambassador Liu has become a familiar face in UK media for his appearances on political and current affairs programmes.
He is perhaps much better known, however, to Chinese domestic audiences with whom he is is very popular as one of the few Chinese envoys willing to make outspoken public comments about China’s concerns with their host country’s stance towards their home nation.
Although no date has been announced, the Chinese Embassy has confirmed that the change will take place this year, with farewell activities already planned for Ambassador Liu ahead of the annual Spring Festival in February, China’s biggest annual holiday.
This briefing was prepared by Asia House Advisory. Find out more about advisory services at Asia House.