Both in the state media and throughout the general public's social media response, the overriding opinion was that the decision was ill-judged and that the impact would be problematic for the economy. A closer inspection of the issues posed reveals a more nuanced situation, however, while there are also a number of reasons to be optimistic about future relations between China and the UK.
The principal cause for negative sentiment toward Brexit in China has been the global economic instability which was its immediate consequence. China has a range of economic issues to face up to, but none are more imminently vital than market instability, something which the Chinese Government has prioritized since the dramatic falls which afflicted stock markets earlier this year.
Global economic instability, such as that which followed the Brexit decision on the 24th of June, drives investors away from the RMB (China's currency) and into "safe haven" currencies such as the Japanese Yen and the US dollar. While a cheaper currency helps its exporters in the short term, the real fear for China is capital flight, which has damaging consequences in the markets and creates further problems in the medium and long term. Barclays predicted at the time that the cost of Brexit to China will be a tenth of a point wiped from GDP!
Chinese state media understandably lamented the referendum result in its immediate aftermath, with the Global Times claiming that the vote meant Britons were "showing a losing mindset", which had created a "lose-lose situation". Across social media, netizens made light of the United Kingdom's democratic instincts and the Chinese proverb "搬起石头砸自己的脚" ("crushed his foot while trying to move a rock"; or "shot himself in the foot" as we might say in the West) was widely applied to David Cameron's decision to proceed with the referendum.
Given that consideration for economic stability takes precedence in China, it is a crucial positive that the speedy recoveries of local and global markets have defied expectations. The relatively painless political appointment of Teresa May last week has also caused a large sigh of relief, although she is sadly best known in China as the politician responsible for scrapping the post-study work visa which painfully affected many Chinese students graduating from UK universities at the time. As long as China's focus remains fixed on macroeconomic indicators, however, we can expect to see Brexit's negative reception counterbalanced over time.
While concerns about macroeconomic stability override any potentially favourable microeconomic trade deals which might be brokered outside the confines of EU legislation for certain industries, the possibilities for collaboration between China and the UK remain strong. This is particularly the case in terms of nuclear and renewable energy, rail network expansion and the offshore trading of RMB. Though there is a sense that trade negotiations could be slow and costly to both parties, there is plenty of cause for optimism here, provided the UK's economy continues to perform.
China's major concern in this regard is whether the UK's position as a consumer of Chinese exports could be diminished by a possible recession. With overcapacity in many industries an obvious vulnerability in China, it is dependent upon the UK as its fourth largest consumer of exports. Any downturn in UK consumption would be a significant blow, but the actual effect of withdrawal from the European Union as a trading entity, in and of itself, will have only a limited effect on trade. This is because, while the UK is occasionally viewed by China as a gateway to the EU in terms of services, this does not generally extend to exported goods, unlike, for example, the Netherlands (more on this later).
Another symptom of Brexit is the devaluation of sterling, which not only helps the UK appeal to RMB investors, but also gives an immediate boost to the many thousands of Chinese tourists and students studying abroad in the UK. Indeed, the fundamental appeal of the UK for China: "outstanding schools and universities, cultural heritage and storied history", as the China Britain Business Council puts it, remains undiminished.
One particularly interesting revelation in the lead up to the referendum was the result of an opinion poll conducted by Tencent, which found that 69% of its readers in China expected the UK to vote to leave the European Union, compared to 31% expecting a remain vote. Comparable polls conducted in the West were nowhere near as prescient! Rather than demonstrating a deep understanding of the British political atmosphere, however, this poll more likely demonstrates China's general skepticism toward the viability of a supranational Europe. This was certainly played out by the overwhelming social media reaction to Brexit in China, which quickly and rather hysterically turned to the theme of other possible EU exits – termed in Chinese news the "butterfly effect" ("蝴蝶效应").
Particular concern seemed to focus on the Netherlands, which is a key gateway to the European Union for China's exported goods. A post by the Chinese Wall Street Journal regarding Dutch politician Geert Wilders' promise to organize an equivalent referendum in the Netherlands was shared over 10,000 times within a couple of hours. Were the Netherlands ever to leave the EU, the consequences for its trade with China would be dire.
Given what we know about China's attitude to global economic instability it is possible to view its skepticism from a "glass half full" perspective. When considering future relations between China and the UK, and also the EU as a whole, it is clear that a broad re-stabilization, which is at the very least more likely than the average Chinese commentator seems to think, will create a positive effect on the confidence of a country whose expectations will have been greatly surpassed.