‘This week I make a visit to China. I come with a clear ambition: to build a lasting friendship that can become a blueprint for future cooperation between our countries. We have a responsibility through our ongoing dialogue to work together on a range of wider international issues – from negotiations with Iran, to counter-terrorism and climate change.’
North Korea’s President Kim on the verge of his latest visit to Beijing? It must be. North Korea is China’s only ally in the normal sense of the word. With all other countries, Beijing’s relationship waxes and wanes depending on how ‘friendly’ Beijing deems them to be.
But no, actually. This, lightly edited by me, was David Cameron writing in the Chinese trade magazine Cai Xin, on the eve of this week’s visit to China taking with him one of the largest trade delegations, 120 strong, Britain has ever sent abroad.
Knowing that some spoil sports may carp that he should say something in China about human rights – when Boris Johnson was in Beijing recently he told a BBC interviewer that mentioning freedom, for instance, was a matter for the Foreign Office – Mr Cameron praised China’s top leaders for setting a clear goal: comprehensive reform, including issues such as ‘the judicial protection of human rights…’ This will come as news, if he ever hears these words, to Liu Xiaobo, China’s only-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, now serving an eleven-year sentence for calling for democracy, his fourth sentence since 1989 for this crime which in Beijing’s eyes threatened ‘stability’ and appeared to call for counter-revolution. There are many other such counter-revolutionaries in China, either behind bars or under house arrest, like the artist Ai Weiwei, one of the designers of the Olympic Birds’ Nest stadium and the creator of the sunflower seed installation some years ago at Tate Modern, and the several dozen members of the New Citizens Movement, who would find Mr Clegg a good leader.
In short, whatever judicial human rights protection the prime minister imagines has come about in China, it does not exist. Indeed – one of the notable things about the new president, Xin Jinping, is his reemphasizing the need for tougher treatment of dissidents, using Mao Zedong’s memory as a model, the very Mao whose gigantic portrait still gazes down on Tiananmen Square.
Then there is Beijing’s renewed claims in the seas near and not so near China, where it has established a zone in which it threatens the vessels of Japan and the Philippines that dare to sail there, and a no-fly zone so outrageous that the US, which does not lightly confront China, has flown B52s through it to underline the freedom of the international skies.
And to choose one more issue – until recently the most sensitive between London and Beijing – the Dalai Lama – here Mr Cameron has done the kind of craven selling-out that the chancellor and London’s mayor did on their visit. What Mr Cameron had to do over the past eighteen months was to abjectly apologize for seeing the Dalai Lama, invariably condemned in Beijing as the ‘criminal Dalai’, in the crypt of St Paul’s in May 2012 for less than an hour, along with Deputy Prime Minister Clegg. Beijing immediately cancelled bilateral ministerial visits. Messers Osborne and Johnson saw no top leaders, and it needed Mr.Cameron to say variously he had ‘no plans’ to see the Dalai Lama again and to insist that the UK did not support Tibet’s independence, something that then Foreign Secretary David Miliband had made clear years ago.
Has no one in the Foreign Office informed Mr Cameron that human rights, democracy, actual justice in actual courts, and adherence to the norms of international behaviour are regarded in Beijing as either crimes or symptoms of Western imperialist imposition? Was it really a good idea to sign up to Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, which is so closely censored that even the words ‘Communist Party’ are not allowed to appear. Are separate dinners with President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang a sufficient reward for this kowtowing?
There is a long tradition of this on both sides of the House. In 1991 when John Major became the first international leader to visit Beijing after Tiananmen, he asked me for a list of several hundred political prisoners that Amnesty had given me. After he saw Premier Li Peng, Mr Major told the British journalists waiting outside the room that he had virtually banged the table about human rights and handed Mr Li the Amnesty list. That evening Foreign Secretary Hurd underlined for me how Mr Major had laid it on the line with Li Peng. All of us wrote admiring pieces about Britain’s principled stance. The Observer gave my piece a gratifyingly prominent spread. A week or so later an official who had been in the room told me that no mention whatsoever was made of human rights and no list of prisoners came out of Mr Major’s pocket and into Li Peng’s hand.
It seems that whatever crawling was necessary to have a good visit this time was done here, before Mr Cameron left the ground.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.