Hong Kong avenged with Britain's Hinkley nuclear deal: Dawn columnist

The concrete batching plant stands on the horizon as work recommences at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, operated by Electricite de France SA's (EDF), near Bridgwater, UK.
The concrete batching plant stands on the horizon as work recommences at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, operated by Electricite de France SA's (EDF), near Bridgwater, UK. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

F.S. Aijazuddin

Dawn/Asia News Network

Hinkley Point is China's Hong Kong in Britain. More than a century ago, Britain established itself on the tip of China's mainland, converting a drowsy island into a powerhouse of commerce.

More than a century later, Prime Minister Theresa May's government has approved the establishment of a new sort of powerhouse - a 3,200 MW nuclear plant on the coast of southwest England. The colonisation of Great Britain has begun.

Ironically, May had as much choice as the Chinese once did when they ceded Hong Kong after the First Opium War of 1839-42.

"The prime minister's hands were tied," an informed analyst has written. "Cancellation of the project would have led to a diplomatic rift with China and France at a moment when Britain needs friends to manage the fallout from Brexit."

The £18 billion (S$32 billion) Hinkley Point project is collaboration between Électricité de France (EDF, a company owned almost entirely by the French government) and China General Nuclear which has taken a 33 per cent stake in it.

For the French, it is a belated fulfilment of a promise the chief of EDF made years ago - that Britishers would be cooking their Christmas turkeys in 2017 from power supplied from the Hinkley power plant.

For the Chinese, it is a major step in establishing their credibility as First-World nuclear energy specialists, rather than peddlers of cheap nuclear technology to Third-World captive customers like Pakistan and North Korea.

For years, instead of a Christmas turkey, it looked as if the project's own goose had been cooked.

Delays generated on both sides of the English Channel caused the project to slip from the feasible to the economically indefensible, to the politically irreversible.

Even today, sceptics wonder whether a long-term commitment to a 'fixed price' formula is wise, considering it will require the British consumer to provide a subsidy over a 35-year span, amounting to £30 billion.

Like Hong Kong, Hinkley Point's past is its future. It is more than simply "a contract that was written five years ago on a business case that was probably pulled together 10 years ago," as a spokesman of Scottish Power commented slyly.

It is China's retaliation for the Opium Wars of the 19th century. The British will be dependent on the damaging opiate of nuclear energy.

Hinkley Point is also, in a subtle way, China's Cuba.

Any economic arguments against have been overpowered by the stronger sibling, the Big Brother of politics.

It has taken China less than a century to achieve the level of affluence it took the Western world a millennium to attain.

Unlike colonial powers such as Britain, France, Holland, Germany, Spain and Portugal (which gorged themselves on the riches and resources of their colonies), China's policy is to fatten local economies across the globe.

Unlike the United States (which has been either involved or responsible for wars or armed conflicts in almost every country in the world), China is applying its Croesean wealth in less metallic, less destructive ways.

Some years ago, it had been predicted that China's domestic investment would be overtaken by its investments abroad.

It was not a matter of 'if' but 'when'. "This is just a matter of time," Zhang Xiangchen, China's assistant minister of commerce, declared in 2014.

"If it doesn't happen this year, then it will happen in the very near future." Over the next decade, as one economist put it, using "a mildly optimistic scenario",

China plans to invest over US$1.25 trillion (S$ billion) outside its own borders.

The 19th-century Sikh maharaja of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, on being shown a map of India, asked what the areas marked in red represented. The British presence, he was told.

Soon, he replied presciently, the whole of it will be red. The map of the world is gradually becoming similarly tinted.

China's invasion army is not one of ageing remnants of Mao's infamous Red Guards. It now comprises rows and rows of terracotta technicians of every discipline.

Stand in the queue at any immigration area in any airport of the world, and you will notice China as an unmistakable omnipresence. At Heathrow airport, students (most of them Chinese) are siphoned off into a separate 'fast-track' lane.

That is understandable.

China has just over 100,000 students studying in the United Kingdom.

They represent 22 per cent of the total foreign students' population there.

They are sent to learn English because the xenophobic English are slow to learn Chinese.

Fifty years ago, Pakistan was one of the few friends the then ostracised People's Republic of China had.

Today, Pakistan is one of the few migraines that a modern China suffers from. Its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, being a hydra-headed amalgam of many projects, has as many headaches.

It is becoming a cause of concern.

Should Gwadar (a deep sea port in the Arabian Sea that figures prominently in the CPEC plan) forget about growing into even a cheap imitation of Hong Kong?

* The writer is an art historian.