Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?
It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.
Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?
Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.
Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.
The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.
They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.
The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.
Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.
But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.
No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.
Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.
China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.
Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”
Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.
An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.
But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.
There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.
The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.
Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.
Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.
Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.
On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.
So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.
The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.
Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.
In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.