British minister's 'China' remarks have Britons, Chinese puzzled

Updated: 2015-10-07 00:26

By Chris Peterson(China Daily Europe)

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British minister's 'China' remarks have Britons, Chinese puzzled

Britain's Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt applauds his staff members at the opening of his speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Britain October 6, 2015.[Photo/Agencies]

Sometimes, politicians say things that aren't always taken the way that they are meant to be taken, and British Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt just scored what many here see as an own goal.

In remarks to a fringe meeting at the ruling Conservative Party's autumn conference in the northern city of Manchester he said Britons would be encouraged to work as hard as the Chinese if the government decided to slash social benefit payments which some say will leave some of the UK's poorest workers 1,300 pounds a year worse off.

Oops. Not exactly in line with the caring, workforce-friendly image that the Conservatives are trying hard to project, especially as the opposition Labour Party is in disarray with infighting and other issues.

Hunt, who is married to a Chinese woman, said the government was determined to proceed with the changes to the benefit system. So far so good. But then his argument jumped the rails.

"My wife is Chinese. We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years' time. There's a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country that is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian countries are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?`' he asked.

That's left a lot of my Chinese friends and acquaintances wondering exactly what he meant, and what all the fuss is about.

Golden rule in politics – never, ever upset the people you are going to rely on to vote for you, and if you open your mouth, don't put your foot in it.

His remarks triggered headlines such as "Tax credit cuts will make Britons work like Chinese or Americans" (The Guardian) and "Jeremy Hunt Wants Poor Brits to work like the Chinese in new insult piled on tax credit cuts." (Daily Mirror).

The trade unions rounded on him, accusing him of insulting British workers.

Other critics referred to the perception that Chinese workers work often long hours and earn low pay making goods at low prices for sale at higher price tags in the west – an image the Chinese government is working hard to dispel with its Made in China campaign, which promotes technically original and innovative goods made to high standards to compete on world markets, and do away with the "sweatshop" image of old China.

The Mirror pointed out that Hunt has a private fortune of an estimated 4.8 million pounds, and had no right to say what he did over cuts in benefit for low-paid workers,

Hunt also unwittingly touched a nerve in the British psyche – yes, it may be true that Chinese or American workers work hard with no help from state benefits. But if you are a government minister, in an economy that is steadily growing faster than many in mainland Europe, don't rock the boat by unfair comparisms with other countries.

It may just lead to his undoing. Either way, the Conservative Party spin doctors will be working overtime to defuse his comments, probably along the lines of "what the minister REALLY meant to say was………"

Chris Peterson is the Managing Editor, Europe for China Daily.