The Great Reversal: Britain, China and the 400-Year Contest for Power by Kerry Brown - review by Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter

Tea & Antipathy

The Great Reversal: Britain, China and the 400-Year Contest for Power


Yale University Press 400pp £25

In retrospect, Ted Heath was an odd so-and-so to have become prime minister. Surliness and bachelordom made him an unusual British politico; so did his fervent Europeanism and ambivalence about the supposed ‘special relationship’ with the USA. His interest in China was also an anomaly. It was during his premiership that Britain and China, in 1972, restored full diplomatic relations. To the end of his life, he would be welcomed in Beijing as an honoured guest. In turn, he would make increasingly dubious excuses for human rights abuses, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Heath turns up in Kerry Brown’s account of the relationship between Britain and China as an exception, a British political figure with a genuine and abiding interest in the Middle Kingdom. Otherwise, as Brown notes, China has been a mysterious space on the map for most Britons. His book is an empathetic and convincing examination of how the two countries have been entwined over the last four hundred years. It is also a realistic explanation of why they are unlikely to know each other much better any time soon.

Brown’s central thesis is that there has been a ‘great reversal’ in the relationship between the two sides. The first encounters, inconsequential as they were, involved equals. By the late 19th century, it was imperial Britain that had the upper hand. Yet 150 years or so later, it is China

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