Published on 10 Nov 2010 Sections , ,

Why Cameron couldn’t decouple human rights

David Cameron discussed human rights issue on the last day of his trade delegation in China. China Analyst Paul French looks at whether business has triumphed over ethics – again.

The Prime Minister should get a warmish reception in China. The UK and the People’s Republic of China haven’t had a spat for a while. China has them periodically with just about everyone to keep the nationalism dial turned up.

Obama’s visit a year ago was against the background of the RMB revaluation row and the possibility that the US would not have a pavilion at the Shanghai EXPO; the Germans have been on the naughty step since Angela Merkel hosted the Dalai Lama at the German Chancellery in 2007 and the French since the torch relay incident before the Olympics in 2008, which was followed by Sarkozy meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Well, America made it to the EXPO, Germany is largely forgiven in return for opposing America on the RMB question and Hu just went to Paris for make-up time. Japan is not popular at the moment for various reasons and has been sent to Coventry.

To be honest Britain hasn’t done much to annoy China lately – perhaps that’s why the biggest spat this trip was a ridiculous piece of nonsense over Remembrance Day poppies. The Chinese (who knew perfectly well nobody was wearing a poppy to commemorate the Opium Wars!) made a silly point, the British stood firm.

Of course, if the Foreign Office hadn’t been gutted of specialists and become the preserve of bland generalists, this could have been avoided and anticipated as the brinksmanship and typically Beijing last minute style discombobulation it was.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron attends a business summit during a trade mission in Beijing (Reuters_

The Foreign Office of course took their usual timid line on China trips of recommending Cameron raise individual human rights cases in such a way as not to make China look like a repressive dictatorship.

As if human rights activists were in prison by accident in some way! Simple aberrations, clerical errors in need of correction!! If we could just clear up this obvious oversight…and now those business deals. This has always been a coward’s way of raising human rights.

Of course Cameron could not lecture or hector (two keys of Foreign Office advice on China), but the harsh treatment of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the recent house arrest of Ai Wei Wei, who’s Sunflower Seeds is still the Unilever Series installation at Tate Modern, make this ‘decoupling’ of system from individuals impossible right now and, if attempted, downright silly looking.

In the end Cameron it seems realised this and appears to have mentioned both individual cases while pointing out that China stands to gain from greater political freedoms, rule of law and that British public has “sincere and deeply-held concerns” over human rights in China. That is about all that can be expected – but the linking of the system to the individuals is crucial.

Of course none of those comments made the nightly news here in Shanghai this evening where all we got was a picture of a smiling Dave and the rather pointless comment that he’s the youngest Prime Minister in modern times. No Liu, no Ai, no mention of our collective “sincere and deeply-held concerns”. No change here then.

Paul French is the Chief China Analyst for Access Asia Shanghai.

Article topics