4 Dec 2013

David Cameron in China: Chasing paper everywhere

We’ve flown west from the commercialism and flesh pots of smog-soaked Shanghai to Chengdu in Sechuan province for the final leg of David Cameron’s China trip, a 41-vehicle convoy from the airport. I think it might be a new record.

Chengdu is where the Chinese first came up with paper money, back in the 10th Century. Eleven centuries on and Mr Cameron’s chasing the stuff all over the country.

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He visited the thatched cottage at the old home of one of China’s most revered poets, the ninth century “poet sage” Du Fu. What strikes you glancing at his poetry is the richness of the ancient civilisation and that’s exactly what Mr Cameron wants to honour.

When the last Chinese premier, Premier Wen, came to London in 2011, he complained about how he knew all about Shakespeare – he took a trip to Stratford upon Avon in that visit – but no-one in the UK seemed to know anything about the centuries of Chinese civilisation. This leg of the trip is meant to be some kind of atonement for such lapses.

‘Finger pointing’

Back in June 2011, the then Premier Wen gave a notably crotchety press conference in the Foreign Office, standing side by side with Mr Cameron.

He said that he was fed up with “finger pointing” from the west on democracy and human rights. This was back in the days when the Chinese felt Mr Cameron was “lecturing” them on their political system.

Mr Cameron had a mantra that economic progress only comes with political progress. No such lectures on this trip.

Mr Cameron repeatedly points ┬áto the revival, conceded on this trip by the Chinese, of the UK-China human rights dialogue. I’ve mentioned that beast in the last few blogs.

But here’s a quote from a former minister who once had responsibility for the human rights dialogue: “It is a service which allows us to raise human rights concerns and enables the Chinese to marginalise the process of hearing those concerns.”

The former minister said “quite a lot of time and people” are devoted to the meetings. “We run through the cases which are of particular concern and they undertake with varying degrees of enthusiasm and engagement to look into them.”

Face value

There was “no concrete evidence (it) had ever achieved anything,” the former minister said. Mr Cameron believes there have been achievements from the process but they can’t be trumpeted.

I should add this former minister actually supported the dialogue and thought the alternative of banging the table and confronting the Chinese leadership face-to-face with their greatest shortcomings was a hiding to nothing.

Mr Cameron is dismissive of yesterday’s Global Times article in which the paper questioned the sincerity of his born again passion for China and mocked Britain’s irrelevance. He did, aides argue, after all have a two-hour dinner with the president.

The Global Times newspaper is an off-shoot of The People’s Daily, the main Communist Party mouthpiece. It tends to be sharper, seen by some here as speaking the darker thoughts of the governing elite.

President Xi’s words to Mr Cameron in their meeting, as reported by the Chinese papers, consisted of quite a few demands to nail down commitments to openness for Chinese investment. He sounded like a man who was testing the assurances the prime minister has been giving, not taking them at face value.

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