Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Tenth Report


Diplomatic activity

192. The importance of all the areas of engagement with China with which we have dealt in this report means that it is important that the United Kingdom has high quality diplomatic contacts with China, and makes full use of the cultural diplomacy of the BBC World Service and the British Council. We now turn to these issues.


193. The table below shows the running costs and staff numbers of the British posts in China.

Table 3

£ million
UK-based staff*
Locally-engaged staff*
Hong Kong

*  excluding British Council and DFID staff

These costs and numbers represent a substantial part of the FCO's commitment: running costs are about 2.4 per cent of the total administration vote of the FCO, while over 1 in every 20 of the FCO's UK-based staff working abroad work in China (including Hong Kong).

194. There has been a substantial increase in the numbers of staff posted to mainland China since 1996, which gives more credibility to the view we expressed earlier that a new China policy was determined in 1997. The expansion of staff numbers is illustrated by the Chart 1 below.

Source: FCO.

195. Generally our witnesses were complimentary about the quality of British staff. The British Chamber of Commerce in China expressed "broad satisfaction" with the FCO's presence in China, and, having pointed out that many of its members had experience elsewhere in the world, commented that "the present level and quality of support provided by the Embassy and Consulates compares very favourably with experience in other parts of the world."[462] Some individual companies expressed their thanks for the Embassy's efforts on their behalf: Zeneca (China) Investment Company Ltd said it was "grateful for the willingness of the British Embassy in China to respond to our needs" and W. S. Atkins plc welcomed the "continued support" of the FCO.[463] Of course, not all companies feel the need to use the FCO's services: though they told us that the Ambassador had visited their Chongqing Brewery on "at least a couple of occasions", Scottish and Newcastle International Ltd wrote "frankly, we have not made use of any support or assistance from the FCO for China or, indeed, Hong Kong."[464]

196. We were ourselves impressed by the quality of all the staff whom we met during our visit to China, and especially by their language skills. We were particularly struck (as we had been during our visit to Ekaterinburg) by the ability and enthusiasm of the very small staff of the consulate in Chongqing. We have already recommended that the FCO keep under review the possibility of opening other such posts in China[465]. We believe that the lessons of Ekaterinburg and Chongqing have wider applicability, and we recommend that the FCO consider the possibility world-wide of opening more mini-posts in regional cities of political, economic or commercial importance.

197. Hugh Davies with his knowledge of both the FCO and the private sector advocated more efforts by the FCO to recruit individuals experienced in China on contract from the outside world. In particular, he advocated tapping into the "accumulated wisdom" of the business community as a method by which the FCO might "raise their game."[466] The British Chamber of Commerce in China also referred to the benefit of commercial secondees to the FCO.[467] It is increasingly and rightly regarded as important for there to be interchange between the public and private sector, and we hope that the FCO will be particularly receptive to interchange in an area like China where fluency in the language and understanding of the culture is hard-won and not confined to the FCO. We also hope that the FCO will be prepared to recruit more Chinese specialists in mid career to middle-ranking and senior posts, perhaps on a term contract basis. We recommend that the FCO consider innovative methods of recruiting China experts in mid career both on term and permanent contracts.


198. There were complaints from some of our witnesses about the visa issuing process in China. On the student front, Professor Feuchtwang of the British Association for Chinese Studies wrote that "the standard suspicion and obstruction with which applicants for visas to study in the United Kingdom are met by British Consulates in the PRC is a comparatively minor but definite discouragement which could be eliminated at once."[468] On the business side, the CBBC referred to "numerous complaints" that the visa system was "unnecessarily cumbersome, slow and inhibiting to business development." They commented that "if British business is to benefit from the huge opportunities opening up in the China market it is vital that our Embassy and Consulates in China are properly resourced to handle the growing volume of visa applications fast and effectively."[469] In oral evidence, however, CBBC witnesses conceded that visa services were improving, if still worse than those of "our European rivals."[470] Stephen Perry of London Export Ltd was more critical, and called for urgent attention to a visa-issuing system in China which "poses real barriers and severely disadvantages the UK against both European and American competitors."[471] In oral evidence, he pointed to the possibility of up to half a million Chinese tourists wishing to visit the United Kingdom each year, and the absence of any system which could cope with such numbers.[472] A more positive view of FCO activity was taken by the British Chamber of Commerce in China who described work undertaken beyond the call of duty by visa staff. They instead took objection to the policies of the Home Office which the FCO is required to implement.[473]

199. Two other issues were referred to by Hugh Davies. He told us that the imposition of Direct Airside Transit Visas on Chinese travellers as a disincentive to illegal immigration had led to "diplomatic protests, retaliatory measures and some impact on trade relations." He also pointed out that Chinese travellers could, with a Schengen visa, travel freely between Schengen countries, but required a separate visa for the United Kingdom, "allegedly affecting their propensity to travel here for tourism or business."[474] Both these issues were also referred to by the British Chamber of Commerce in China.[475]

200. The FCO told us that there had been burgeoning demand for visas in China, with a particularly large increase in demand from private passport holders, and from those wishing to study in the United Kingdom. Because of the shortening of our time in Beijing due to flight delays, we were unable to visit the new premises which have recently opened in the capital to cope with visa applications (36,116 in 1999). According to the FCO, the former premises had "serious space problems" and this had led to "some long queues."[476] To cope with increased demand, there has also been a 50 per cent increase in staff numbers in the visa section. Another expedient has been to issue visas at other posts: this has been done in Shanghai since January 1998 (8,440 applications in 1999) and in Guangzhou since September 1999 (2,983 in the final quarter of 1999). We did visit the premises in Shanghai and Guangzhou, both of which were pleasant and well appointed with good facilities for staff. In both places, the aim was to interview applicants on the day on which they made their application. This is clearly desirable because of travel distances.

201. The visa system is, of course, intended to be used to establish which foreign nationals have a bona fide reason for visiting the United Kingdom. There is a difficult balancing act between the protection of our interests, fairness to all applicants and a system which does not impact negatively upon legitimate travellers, whether students, business people or tourists. As we said in our recent report on Relations with the Russian Federation,[477] "a young man or young woman who could one day be a political or business leader.... may well have his or her first contact with the United Kingdom through a visa application. The visa section is our shop window." It is vital that the visa service concentrates on the customer rather than the service provider—and since visa charges are set to meet the full costs of issuing them, there is no financial reason in principle why this should not be so. We recommend that senior management attention in Beijing, including the personal attention of the Ambassador, should be directed towards building upon the improvements already achieved in the visa issuing service.

202. The FCO's evidence that there is a "serious problem of illegal immigration from China to the UK"[478] was clearly and tragically demonstrated by the discovery of the bodies of 58 young people from Fujian in the back of a lorry at Dover in June. We cannot comment on that case because it is sub judice, but it does illustrate the importance of co-operating between law enforcement agencies in China, the United Kingdom and transit countries to try to eradicate the trafficking in human beings. We were told that there is a problem in convincing the Chinese authorities to provide replacement documentation to Chinese nationals who arrive in the United Kingdom without travel documents.[479] However, there is positive evidence from the FCO's latest Memorandum where police co-operation has resulted in the identification of those who were found dead at Dover, and a Home Office team visited China on 22-26 October to discuss repatriation of illegal immigrants.[480] We recommend that pressure continues to be put upon the Chinese authorities to provide documentation to their citizens who arrive illegally in the United Kingdom.

BBC Services in China


203. The BBC World Service broadcasts in Mandarin to China for 6½ hours daily on short wave. It also has an internet service available in Mandarin and Cantonese for 24 hours a day, which (of course) is available to Chinese speakers worldwide.[481] According to a 1998 national audience survey, 2.2 million Chinese listen to BBC World Service in English, and 1.3 million to the service in Chinese. Use of the internet service is growing rapidly, with 434,196 page impressions in April 2000.[482] The World Service told us that the Chinese had attempted to block access to their site, though this was "quite easy to side step."[483] The BBC is not allowed to broadcast from within China, nor, since 1997, from Hong Kong. Its transmitters are in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore and Russia, and it describes its short wave audibility as "good".[484] The Spending Review 2000 provides the capital funding necessary for refurbishing the Singapore transmitter.[485]

204. We have earlier referred to the phenomenal expansion in the use of the internet in China. As the World Service put it, "in this environment, staying exclusively with a system that relies on short wave which is not regarded as the forefront of technology, is not a sensible option." The World Service described a number of initiatives it is taking to build up an interactive online presence in China, but it also commented that "it is unlikely that delivering BBC news and current affairs into China will become any easier. For this reason, short wave radio transmitters based outside the country will still have a fundamental role to play.[486] They told us that they expected to be able to strengthen their internet offer as a consequence of the Spending Review 2000.[487] We conclude that the World Service's strategy of developing its internet services for China while continuing to provide a short wave radio service is a sound one. We recommend that there should be no reduction in the current level of radio service.


205. According to the World Service, there is "persistent jamming" of its short wave broadcasts in Mandarin, with BBC engineers having found deliberate co-channel interference.[488] The BBC told us that not all international broadcasters were jammed, though Voice of America and Radio Free Asia also suffered. A source whom we met in Hong Kong suggested that Radio Free Asia was particularly badly affected. The BBC pointed out that "although it is possible to find frequencies that are not jammed, this is difficult and time-consuming. In an increasingly competitive market the BBC cannot expect listeners to go on making this effort."[489] Lorna Ball told us that the Chinese did not accept that they jammed the BBC or other international broadcasters. She also told us that the issues was regularly raised at the appropriate international meetings by the BBC as well as at the intergovernmental level.[490] We raised the issue of jamming with the Foreign Secretary. He told us that deep concern had been expressed to the Chinese at the most recent (October 2000) round of dialogue with the Chinese, and he promised that this would continue to be raised with the Chinese authorities.[491] We recommend that the British Government strongly press the Chinese authorities to ensure that the jamming of the BBC World Service cease forthwith.


206. The World Service's radio output in Cantonese is limited to two daily news bulletins and a weekly round-up of current affairs. Both are broadcast by the World Service's partner RTHK. RTHK also broadcasts World Service English programming.[492] The World Service told us that the hand over of Hong Kong had "raised questions about the BBC's close relationship with RTHK", but this had "remained strong."[493] As we have stressed elsewhere, the continuance of the high regard in which the United Kingdom has been held in Hong Kong is by no means automatic. We are pleased that the BBC World Service offers a Cantonese internet service, and we recommend that the BBC World Service regard provision of its services in Cantonese in Hong Kong (and in South China) as a matter of high priority.


207. BBC World Television is available in 26,000 hotel bedrooms in China through encrypted signals.[494] However, Lorna Ball of the World Service told us that this was done without the requisite official licence, for which the BBC was, at the time of her evidence, applying. This was subsequently granted.[495] It would, of course, be possible to pick up the BBC World signal in a private home, but Lorna Ball told us that permission would not be given by the Chinese authorities for the satellite dish with the requisite de-encryption device.[496] We recommend that the British Government make it plain to the Chinese Government that there should be no inhibition on the free availability in China of BBC World transmissions.


208. The World Service described the BBC's relationship with China as having "travelled along a rocky road."[497] Following critical reporting of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, restrictions were imposed on journalists. Again, in the mid 1990s, a programme about Mao "caused great anger amongst the Chinese leadership. As a result, reporting trips became extremely difficult."[498] The BBC told us that, since then, they had been "actively developing our relationship with China", with a series of bilateral high level visits. In their view, "the relationship now looks more healthy than it has for ten years which has resulted in better access for BBC journalists and therefore more in-depth reporting of China."[499] The Tibet Society was extremely critical of what it regarded as the willingness of the BBC over the last five years to toe the official Chinese line. They told us that the BBC had "ceased to report events in China properly" and that it had abandoned "revealing, investigative or original" reporting, especially on human rights issues.[500] Alison Reynolds was not prepared to comment on this allegation.[501] We are sure that the BBC will wish to counter any suggestion that their willingness to speak the truth has been compromised by their relationship with the Chinese authorities. The editorial policy of the BBC in general is not a matter for us. However, as far as the World Service is concerned, we recommend that an assurance is given to the House that the close relationship developed by them with the Chinese authorities has not prevented critical reporting of China on the service.

British Council

209. We attach great importance to the work of the British Council, and visited their premises in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. On each occasion, we were impressed by the level of activity and the commitment of the staff. Our delayed arrival in Beijing did not allow us to visit the Council's offices there. We also received a comprehensive memorandum from the Council.[502] Separate issues arise in China as compared to Hong Kong, so we deal with the mainland and Hong Kong separately.


210. The Council is not free to operate independently in China, but is accepted as the Cultural and Education section of the British Embassy. In practice, this does not appear to inhibit its activities, except in the area of English language teaching, to which we return later. There are British Council offices in Beijing and in each of the cities where there are Consulates General (Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing). In Shanghai the offices are smart, modern and well-designed on the ground floor of a city centre office block. Large windows are an alluring means of presenting the United Kingdom to the passer-by, and are an architectural metaphor for an open society. Both here and in Guangzhou (where the offices are also modern and appealing, but less dramatically sited), we found an enthusiastic staff who were showcasing the United Kingdom in an attractive way.

211. The Council broke their activities in China down into a number of partially overlapping areas. The first was the changing of negative and/or outdated perceptions of the United Kingdom in China. Partly this is tackled through the normal range of cultural and scientific/technological programmes. The FCO described these activities as "carefully targeted."[503] Several examples were given to us by the Council of what might be described as high culture (the Royal Ballet, Henry Moore etc).[504] We were, however, also told by Stephen Perry of London Export Ltd that there was a market opportunity for more popular British culture, media, sports, leisure and entertainment in China "with transactions in the hundreds of millions and the prospect of tremendous profitability within a fairly short time frame."[505] This suggests that the Council should actively promote British popular culture in China as well as British high culture. Doing so will certainly help promote a contemporary image of this country.

212. Sport is an important part of that popular culture, and James Harding of the Financial Times told us that football is probably the "greatest common language" between the United Kingdom and China.[506] We had frequent evidence of this during our visit where many Chinese showed an amazing knowledge of English football. We were pleased to read that the Council is anxious to involve young Chinese, and that it was undertaking a major event based on British football in 2000.

213. A further way in which perceptions are changed is through scholarship programmes and alumni activities with those who have undertaken scholarship and other training programmes in the United Kingdom. Dr Jane Duckett of Glasgow University praised the Council's "good work in promoting British cultural and educational exchanges."[507] The jewel in the crown here is the Chevening Scholarship programme, which is administered by the Council, and under which 135 potential opinion-formers began masters' programmes in the United Kingdom in Autumn 2000. This is the largest number of Chevening students from any one country, and is funded by the FCO at almost £2 million per year.[508]

214. We support the Chevening scholarship programme, and are particularly pleased by the stress placed by the Council on follow-up activities. Careful selection of scholars should result in many future Chinese opinion-formers receiving training in the United Kingdom which could have spin-offs in all the areas where we hope to engage China in the future. It is particularly important that selection of the students is not seen as the end of the process. They have already expressed their interest in the United Kingdom, and it is vital that they receive a positive impression while they are here. They should be mentored and helped while they are in the United Kingdom, and contact should be maintained with them when they return to China. We recommend that the British Council and the FCO maintain a high quality service for Chevening scholars when they are in the United Kingdom, and seek to retain positive contact with them when they return home.

215. The British Council is also actively engaged in the reform process in China. The Council described its activities in its written evidence, and we heard further details from staff in China.[509] The Council is heavily involved in education reform, with, for example, up to 70 teachers from the Shanghai region sent annually to Lancaster University with pre-and post-course programmes run by the Council in Shanghai. A significant contribution is also made by the Council to the legal reform programme which we have described earlier, with some of its work supported by the FCO Human Rights Project Fund. Economic reform is also promoted with, for example, the Council managing the China Financial Sector Training Scheme on behalf of DFID. According to the Foreign Secretary, "the British Council is doing a first class job and as much as can be expected in both the human rights and the communication fields within China."[510] We are delighted by this positive endorsement.

216. Another, and very important area of British Council activity is essentially the marketing of educational opportunities in the United Kingdom and the administering of British examinations. In both of these areas, there is a massive expansion of activity, as the Charts below demonstrate.

Source: Ev. p. 193, Appendix 22

In the case of Chinese students studying abroad, we understand that around 40,000 did so in 1999, with around half going to the USA. The other principal competitor of the United Kingdom is Japan.

217. Although there are spin-offs from the marketing of British universities, colleges, schools and examinations in terms of the FCO objective of promoting change for the better in China (as the FCO put it, educating young Chinese in the United Kingdom is "a particularly effective means of improving Britain's image among young people and of developing a long term influence"[511]), the principal benefit is to the British institutions concerned. Essentially the activity is a commercial one, and one which results in an income both for the institutions in the United Kingdom and for the Council itself. We believe that this is a sensible use of the Council in China, and one which clearly demonstrates the direct advantages to British business of the Council's work. We are, however, concerned that the Council should ensure that it only markets opportunities at reputable schools and colleges in the United Kingdom, and we were pleased to be reassured while we were in China that there is a rigorous system of quality control. We trust that rigorous monitoring will continue as it would be very regrettable if Chinese students received poor quality education in the United Kingdom, not least because of the negative message they would carry back to China.

218. In most countries where it operates, the British Council is actively involved in the teaching of the English language. This is both a source of funding for the Council, and a means by which a positive message about the United Kingdom can be promulgated. In mainland China the Council is not permitted to teach English directly, though the Council is involved with the BBC World Service in a pilot English language teaching project.[512] We were told by British Council officials in China that there was a huge market for English language teaching in China (Hong Kong illustrates this), but that all attempts by the Council to enter the market had been rebuffed by the Chinese. Instead the Council has for almost 20 years managed a DFID project to develop English language training in China, but that project is now ending. The Council told us it is now developing a new strategic approach to English language teaching. This will combine "showcasing UK excellence in ELT, building strategic partnerships with partners in UK and China, promoting innovation in ELT in China, and developing networks of professionals in ELT in Britain and China."[513] The Council is attempting to establish, with a Chinese partner, an English language innovation and teaching centre in Beijing. All of this is a step away from direct involvement with teaching. With a growing Chinese economy, much of the post-school English language teaching in China will be done on a commercial basis, and it is regrettable that the British Council is not able to enter this market. In joining the WTO, China has accepted the principle of improved market access. We recommend that the British Government again approach the Chinese for permission for the British Council to become directly involved in English language teaching in China.

219. The Council told us that there was "virtually unlimited demand" for its programmes and services in China, and that part of its strategy was "physical expansion (to meet the needs of a continent sized country)."[514] They told us that they would like to provide better access facilities in Beijing and Guangzhou and greater outreach for its education promotion activities. As it is, the Council regards its China operation as "one of its strongest operations worldwide."[515] Its total country budget for China in 2000-01 was £6.4 million, £4.0 million of which comes in grant-in-aid from the FCO. China is one of the Council's "eight global priority operations."[516] In its initial memorandum, the Council told us that "the opportunities and demands the Council faces in China can by no means be met in full with current resources."[517] We asked the Council what effect the 2000 Spending Review would have on operations in China, but we were told on 2 November that the Council "still have to agree the details of the spending review with the FCO".[518] According, however, to a recent reply to a parliamentary question, the new five-year strategy for the Council, and the sums given in the Spending Review will help "to fund the proposed expansion in the Council's overseas network, particularly in Russia and China".[519] We have elsewhere recommended that the FCO should consider opening more Consulates General in China.[520] In the case of Russia, we have recommended that the wide network of British Council offices (11 in all) should serve as bases for consular expansion. In the case of China, any new consulate must have a British Council element. We recommend that funding should be provided for a British Council presence in any new Consulate General established in China.


220. The British Council's office in Hong Kong is one of its largest in the world. Total income in 2000-01 is £12.5 million, with grant-in-aid amounting to just £2.2 million. In Hong Kong, the Council's principal activity is English language teaching, with the English language teaching centre providing an income of £8.9 million, and 40,000 individuals being taught each year. As well as direct teaching of English, the Council is developing a network of over 1,250 English teachers and supporting SAR Government initiatives to improve English standards. The Council told us that it was responding to a "widespread and growing concern throughout the community about the declining standard of English in schools, at universities and at work."[521] Other activities in Hong Kong parallel those in mainland China: promoting United Kingdom education and examinations (12,000 Hong Kong students were being educated in the United Kingdom in 1999-2000; 14,500 were studying in Hong Kong for British qualifications and 11,500 examinations were conducted), administering Chevening scholarships and contributing to the reform process, particularly in the areas of education, the environment and the rule of law.

221. The British Council in Hong Kong is also, as in China, attempting to "modernise target audiences' perceptions of the UK."[522] According to a Council survey, the United Kingdom is seen by many in Hong Kong as traditional and dull, and is unfavourably contrasted with the USA or Australia. Consequently, as the Council put it, "there is a growing need to challenge and change the perceptions that younger generations have of the UK."[523] While we were given a warm welcome by the Hong Kong politicians whom we met, we are only too aware that their generation grew up inside an environment which naturally looked to the colonial power in London. That is no longer the case for young Hong Kongers. It is therefore particularly vital that the strong position the British Council holds in Hong Kong is built upon to establish a positive view of the United Kingdom among those from whom British power in Hong Kong is a historical memory. The special relationship between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom will not continue to exist unless it is fostered. We recommend that the British Council establish a clear, targeted strategy designed to win friends for the United Kingdom among residents of the Hong Kong SAR aged under 30.

462   Ev. p. 170, Appendix 15. Back

463   Ev. pp. 227 and 154, Appendices 32 and 5. Back

464   Ev. p. 153, Appendix 4. Back

465   See para. 131. Back

466   Ev. p. 12. Back

467   Ev. p. 172, Appendix 15. Back

468   Ev. p. 201, Appendix 24. Back

469   Ev. p. 41. Back

470   Q135. Back

471   Ev. p. 68. Back

472   Q177. Back

473   Ev. p. 173, Appendix 15. Back

474   Ev. p. 11. Back

475   Ev. p. 173, Appendix 15. Back

476   Ev. p. 112. Back

477   HC 101, Session 1999-2000, Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, para. 139. Back

478   Ev. p. 112. Back

479   Ev. p. 112. Back

480   Ev. p. 125. Back

481 Back

482   Ev. p. 24. Back

483   Q54. Back

484   Ev. p. 24. Back

485   Ev. p. 35. Back

486   Ev. p. 26. Back

487   Ev. p. 35. Back

488   Ev. p. 24. Back

489   Ev. p. 24; Q54. Back

490   Q63. Back

491   QQ234, 263. Back

492   Ev. p. 24. Back

493   Ev. p. 24. Back

494   Ev. p. 24. Back

495   Q262. Back

496   Q59. Back

497   Ev. p. 26. Back

498   Ev. p. 26; Q54. Back

499   Ev. p. 26. Back

500   Ev. p. 167, Appendix 13. Back

501   Q210. Back

502   Ev. pp. 190ff, Appendix 22. Back

503   Ev. p. 103. Back

504   Ev. p. 191, Appendix 22. Back

505   Ev. p. 68. Back

506   Q71. Back

507   Ev. p. 184, Appendix 17. Back

508   Ev. p. 192, Appendix 22; Ev. p. 103. Back

509   Ev. pp. 194ff, Appendix 22. Back

510   Q262. Back

511   Ev. p. 103. Back

512   Ev. p. 35. Back

513   Ev. p. 195, Appendix 22. Back

514   Ev. p. 191, Appendix 22. Back

515   Ev. p. 196, Appendix 22. Back

516   Ev. p. 190, Appendix 22. Back

517   Ev. p. 196, Appendix 22. Back

518   Ev. p. 261, Appendix 45. Back

519   HC Deb 31 October 2000, col. 367W. Back

520   See para. 131. Back

521   Ev. p. 197, Appendix 23. Back

522   Ev. p. 198, Appendix 23. Back

523   Ev. p. 199, Appendix 23. Back

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