Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the United Kingdom this week, with appearances scheduled at Buckingham Palace, Parliament, and the Manchester City soccer ground. He will be greeted by a Conservative government which, having angered Beijing by hosting the Dalai Lama in 2012, has begun to pursue a lucrative “golden relationship” with China. Critics claim that prioritizing economic relations over human rights and other political disagreements has offered an “embarrassing” and “painful lesson in how not to deal with China,” raising the question “is British policy for sale?” Both British reticence on rights and the lavish plans for Xi’s reception have been enthusiastically welcomed by Chinese state media, however.
This post will be updated regularly, with the latest entries at the top.
— Peter Brookes (@BrookesTimes) October 23, 2015
At a press conference on Wednesday, David Cameron insisted that he has not discarded human rights advocacy in his pursuit of closer economic ties with China. “The stronger our economic, trading, business and other partnerships,” he argued, “the stronger our relationship and the more able we are to have the necessary and frank discussions about other issues. I totally reject the idea you either have a conversation about human rights […] or you have a strong relationship with China—I want both.”
Polling suggests that many Britons agree, with strong pluralities backing stronger links and equal weight between rights and trade. But many feel that Cameron’s government is failing to strike that balance. From George Eaton at The New Statesman:
[…] “This is a mercantilist approach,” Mike Gapes, the Labour MP and foreign affairs select committee member, told me. “They’re interested in trade and they’re interested in investment and they’re not interested any more in raising issues of human rights or international law with foreign governments – or at least [they do so] selectively.” Simon McDonald, the most senior Foreign Office civil servant, has bluntly admitted that human rights is “not one of our top priorities … The prosperity agenda is higher up the list.” In 2009, the department’s annual human rights report began the section on China by warning that its record “remained a serious cause for concern”. By contrast, the 2014 version begins: “China’s economic growth continued in 2014, leading to further improvements in the social and economic rights of many of its citizens.” It then modestly notes: “Civil and political rights remained subject to tight restrictions.”
It was such kowtowing that led John Bercow, the Speaker, to praise Aung San Suu Kyi (a “democracy champion”) and to call for China to be a “moral inspiration” to the world when introducing Xi at parliament. One of those present told me there were “audible gasps” from ministers at his words.
The Tories’ rapid pivot towards China has ensured that their stance is finally being debated. A new fault line has opened up in British politics: in future years, we might speak of Sinophiles and Sinophobes as we do now of Europhiles and Europhobes. [Source]
The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour notes that Cameron’s approach has already divided his own party, with many MP’s disturbed by an official joint statement’s “virtual silence” on human rights:
In an emergency statement granted by the Speaker, John Bercow, MPs demanded to know whether Cameron was using the visit to raise specific concerns about China’s records on human rights, including the detention of lawyer Zhang Kai and other rights defenders. He faces the risk of detention for 15 years, and he is one one of nearly 300 lawyers and human rights defenders who have been detained since July this year.
[…] Former Tory minister Tim Loughton questioned why pro-Tibet and free speech protesters were “corralled” behind barriers, while Chinese “state sponsored cheerleaders” were given prime position to watch Xi being driven up the Mall to meet the Queen.
Another Tory backbencher, Sir Edward Leigh, said: “The House does not want vague assurances from the minister; we want to know that, while we respect the world’s growing superpower and want to trade with it, we are absolutely fearless in these matters and that during this visit our leadership will raise these matters with the Chinese president.”
Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire agreed some human rights violations were deeply worrying, but refused to disclose what specific human rights issues were being raised. [Source]
Like Loughton, Tiananmen protest veteran Shao Jiang criticized a perceived double standard in police treatment of demonstrators in London earlier this week. On Wednesday, he was among three protesters arrested “to prevent a breach of the peace [and] on suspicion of conspiracy to commit threatening behaviour.” From Jamie Merrill and David Connett at The Independent:
Campaigners say Dr Jiang was “brutally manhandled” by police officers after he attempted to block the motorcade by standing in front of it – in a scene reminiscent of a famous image of a lone protestor standing in front of Chinese tanks used to crush peaceful protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
[…] After his arrest and overnight detention police searched his home and took away computer equipment.
[…] Two Tibetan women were also arrested by police after they attempted to wave Tibetan flags at the passing motorcade.
The two women, Sonam Choden, 30, and Jamphel Lhamo, 33, were also dragged from the scene. According to one eyewitness, the police at first assured the two they weren’t being arrested but then an order countermanding that came and both were arrested.
[…] All three arrested on Wednesday were released today on police bail. [Source]
— Kunsang Kelden (@KunsangKelden) October 23, 2015
Jeremy Corbyn, new leader of the opposition Labour Party, has also expressed concern that the government might fail to raise rights issues. Corbyn secured a private meeting with Xi with the threat of raising human rights at his state banquet, which prompted China’s ambassador to express confidence that the Labour leader would “know how to behave” at the event. In the end, Corbyn and Xi had a “cordial and constructive” talk in which the former praised China’s achievements in poverty reduction while (the party claims) noting problems elsewhere. A Southern Metropolis Daily article explaining the concept of an opposition party was reportedly removed from the paper’s website.
From Steven Camley at The Herald:
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) October 21, 2015
According to a YouGov poll released on Monday, 43% of Britons believe the country should seek closer trading ties with China, while only 8% feel that weaker ties are in order. Even so, only 29% said they have a positive impression of China, compared with 55% who view the country negatively. In a separate YouGov poll commissioned by Free Tibet, 69% agreed with the Dalai Lama’s recent assessment that British policy is governed by “money, money, money.” 24% said that human rights in Tibet are more important than trade relations, while 45% believed that the two issues deserve equal weight, and only 14% placed greater importance on trade.
Britain’s leaders appear firmly aligned with the latter group, with rights issues in general playing an ever weaker part in their foreign policy. Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson lamented this trend at Foreign Policy:
To realize the kind of relationship with China about which Osborne waxes rhapsodic, Cameron needs to change tactics immediately. The British prime minister should welcome independent voices from China to share their views about priority areas of reform and commit to supporting that work in the longer term. When Cameron and Xi sit down together this week, Cameron should call for an end to the practice of torturing detainees, and pressure Beijing to stop rounding up human rights lawyers. He should call for the release of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and other peaceful critics in detention or jail. And he should make clear to the British public that Beijing does not call the shots on key aspects of U.K. policy.
To be sure, Beijing has sometimes imposed negative consequences on some governments in response to human rights criticism — but rarely in ways that seriously affect trade deals or other significant economic interests. And while Chinese leaders do not like tough, frank positions, they do respect them. [Source]
Former Cameron adviser Steve Hilton has advocated an even tougher approach. From The Guardian:
Hilton, who left Downing Street in 2012 to teach at Stanford University in California and is CEO of tech startup Crowdpac, told BBC Newsnight that Britain’s lavish treatment of the Chinese leader was “the worst national humiliation since we went cap in hand to the IMF in the 1970s”.
“The truth is that China is a rogue state just as bad as Russia or Iran, and I just don’t understand why we’re sucking up to them rather than standing up to them as we should be,” he said.
The former adviser said he thought the government should be much tougher. “I think that we should consider sanctions on China, not rolling out the red carpet.” [Source]
Hilton advanced this argument at greater length in an op-ed at The Guardian on Sunday, concluding that:
This is not a choice between money and morals. By standing up to the Chinese regime we can assert our commitment to decency and avoid the embarrassment of overlooking behaviour we know to be repugnant. By pivoting our trading focus to parts of the world that offer more economic opportunity with less risk to our security, we can guarantee a more stable and prosperous future. It’s called progress and we ought to be on its side. [Source]
Xi himself conceded this week that China “has room for improvement” on human rights, but without signalling much patience for vigorous criticism:
China attaches great importance to protection of human rights. We combine the universal value of human rights with China’s reality, and we have found a path of human rights development suited to China’s national conditions. With regard to protection of human rights, looking around the world we know that there is always room for improvement. All countries need to continuously improve and strengthen human rights protection to meet the needs of the time and the people, and on the issue of human rights I think the people of our respective countries are in the best position to tell, and China is ready to on the basis of equality and mutual respect increase cooperation with the UK and other countries, in the area of human rights. [Source]
Xi’s argument that “only the wearer knows if the shoe fits” is well-worn. Weibo user Wuyue Sanren commented in 2013 that “the shoes themselves [referring to the Party] don’t have the qualifications to say whether they fit or not. Shoes that do aren’t shoes, they’re shackles.”
Many Chinese who have attempted to criticize Beijing’s rights record have, their “best position to tell” notwithstanding, been detained or worse. If their cases are acknowledged in state media, it is often with the comment that they “cannot represent mainstream opinion.” The public’s right of judgment must apparently be exercised collectively, preferably through the official representative of “the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China”: the Party itself.
Xi’s route to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday was lined with human rights and pro-Tibet protesters, along with a larger contingent there to welcome him.
— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) October 20, 2015
Activists protest Xi Jinping on the mall 活动人士抗议习近平 pic.twitter.com/DszmDUHPJg
— Shao Jiang 邵江 (@shaojiang) October 20, 2015
As The Guardian’s Peter Walker noted, there were signs that the pro-Xi gathering was not entirely spontaneous:
[… A] box from which flags were being distributed was marked with tape identifying it as a diplomatic bag and a postal label for the Chinese embassy in central London.
Many among the huge and largely good-natured crowd cheering Xi nonetheless insisted the banners were their own work. A young student told the Guardian he had printed his banner in London. Asked why it was so similar to those held by many others he replied, grinning: “We must have all gone to the same print shop.”
[…] In contrast, a demonstration by human rights groups attracted only a few hundred people, penned into a small section of barriers midway along the road, with three lines of police and fences between them and the ceremonial coach carrying Xi.
[…] Pro-China groups had been told they could not use drums to try to drown out rights activists. While they did not do this as Xi went past, for much of the rest of the morning the rights protesters were surrounded by a cacophony of noise from drummers. [Source]
Thousands on mall with pro-China t-shirts & flags. Found their litter. Shipped by Chinese govt as diplomatic cargo. pic.twitter.com/sZc99cOegB
— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) October 20, 2015
On several occasions, I’ve seen huge Chinese flags “strategically moved” so that they obscured signs and placards being held up by Amnesty International, Falun Gong or the Free Tibet movement.
When I was interviewing two female students a man appeared and told them to move to a different position because there was an anti-Xi message behind them.
My camera crew found the Chinese flag repeatedly being waved in front of the lens when they tried to film protesters.
The pro-China flags are bigger, their drums are louder. Some of President Xi’s supporters seem determined to make sure their opponents aren’t seen or heard. [Source]
Tiananmen student leader Shao Jiang, who attended the protest, told The Guardian that he suspected double standards in the treatment of the two sides. From Ben Quinn and Vikram Dodd:
He told the Guardian that the demonstrations in London were very important but suggested the British authorities had been guilty of “double standards” in the past when it came to the policing of such events.
“From my experience of policing in Britain, there has been a problem. For example, human rights protesters have been told that they cannot use megaphones, but they have allowed Chinese pro-government groups to use drums,” he said.
“We also remember when the Olympic torch was making its way through the streets of the UK ahead of China hosting the games. Protesters were kettled by police, and yet supporters of China were allowed to walk freely.” [Source]
Hong Kong student protest leader Joshua Wong and U.S.-based legal activist Chen Guangcheng were also present at the protest.
— Phelim Kine 林海 (@PhelimKine) October 21, 2015
— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) October 20, 2015
The image of Xi’s red carpet has attracted British cartoonists as well as exiled Uyghur leaders:
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) October 19, 2015
Britain’s economic courtship of China has prompted concern that it has abandoned human rights advocacy. From Human Rights Watch’s David Mepham, for example:
When George Osborne visited China last month, he spoke gushingly about the huge opportunities for British businesses there. “Part of my job here,” he said, “is to help explain to the British people what’s going in China and how exciting it is.”
If he had been prepared to meet them, activists from China could have told Osborne a thing or two about what’s really happening in China today.
[…] David Cameron has previously raised human rights issues with the Chinese leadership and during Xi’s state visit he should rediscover the moral courage to do so again. Public comments are sometimes dismissed as megaphone diplomacy, but they are nothing of the kind. Clear public statements of concern show solidarity with the victims of Chinese government repression, and often provide them with some degree of protection from the very worst abuses. That is what China’s human rights activists consistently tell us.
But standing up for human rights in China and urging far-reaching reform is also in our interests. Repression, pervasive corruption, impunity for abuses, a flawed judicial system – these are grave threats to China’s stability and its economy too. And that matters to all of us. [Source]
Exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer told reporters in Tokyo that Xi’s red carpet is stained with “the blood of the Uighur people, Tibet and other Chinese dissidents.” (Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying called the claim “absurd and extreme,” adding that “all types of people in Xinjiang live and work in peace.”) At The Guardian, author Ma Jian compared Xi’s state carriage in London to the PLA tanks in Hong Kong in 1997:
The catalogue of human rights abuses committed by the CCP is endless, ranging from barbaric forced abortions and sterilisations to the muzzling of the internet. But its general secretary, Xi Jinping, is now Britain’s new best friend. Would the British government have dared roll out the red carpet for the president of Tunisia after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010? Would it have had the gall to invite President Botha on a state visit while the world was clamouring for Nelson Mandela’s release?
Engagement with the Chinese government is essential, but it is both shameful and unnecessary to shower it with honours, ignore its human rights abuses, and buckle feebly to its unreasonable demands.
[…] This tawdry friendship of convenience, these pageants, lies and unethical compromises, may benefit Cameron and Xi, but they are an insult to the citizens of Britain, who cherish their hard-fought freedoms, and to those in China, who are still struggling courageously to achieve them. [Source]
A group of 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates has called on Cameron to raise the case of imprisoned prizewinner Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, who has spent the past five years under extra-legal house arrest. The laureates warned the prime minister “that unless leaders like you take urgent action, both publicly and privately, that China will continue to believe it can act with impunity and without consequence for its behavior.” Organizations including Amnesty International UK issued a similar call in an open letter highlighting the “Black Friday” crackdown on lawyers, the earlier campaign against the New Citizens Movement, proposed NGO management and anti-terrorism laws, and restrictions on Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Christians. From The Independent:
As organisations that are working to improve human rights in China and around the world, we are writing to you regarding the state visit by President Xi Jinping on October 20-23, 2015. We are deeply concerned with the continuing deterioration of human rights since President Xi Jinping came into office in 2012. We urge you to speak out on human rights in a principled, forceful, and specific way – in both public and private.
[…] During President Xi Jinping’s time in office, the already limited space for civil society has been shrinking even further. Since 2012, at least 450 people have been the victims of four major coordinated campaigns against civil society: the arrests of the core members of the New Citizen’s Movement, a loose network of activists dedicated to the principles of Constitutionalism, government transparency and civic responsibility; the targeting and detention of activists commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 2014; the detention of activists showing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014; and the crackdown on lawyers and activists in the summer of 2015.
[…] We appreciate that over the years your government has raised human rights with Chinese leaders and engaged in human rights dialogues with your Chinese counterparts. However, we are concerned that recent statements made by Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary to the FCO state that human rights are not as high a priority as ‘prosperity’ . Our organisations find this deeply worrying and whilst we recognise the legitimate pursuit of economic ties, this must not come at the expense of human rights. [Source]
Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong, now in the U.K. for a speaking tour, highlighted the rights situation in the former British colony, and warned Cameron not to trust Chinese assurances on either rights or trade. From Jamie Merrill at The Independent:
“After the Umbrella protests we knew the British government had failed to keep its promise on democracy and that it viewed trade with China as more important. Despite this we are still determined to continue our fight for universal suffrage and autonomy,” said Mr Wong, who is hoping to stand for election next year. “The UK government must put human rights on a higher status than trade with China.”
Maya Wang, a China researcher at international watchdog Human Rights Watch, said the NGO was “increasingly concerned” that the British government had “capitulated” over the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong King and on-going, more serious concerns in mainland China.
She said: “The government of Hong Kong is clearly going after the protest leaders and we call on David Cameron to use President Xi’s state visit as an opportunity to raise this concern. The UK has a moral obligation to pressure Beijing over Hong Kong.” [Source]
The British government has repeatedly claimed that “nothing is off the table” for discussion. During his recent trip to China, Chancellor Osborne argued that raising sensitive issues in private is more productive than conducting “megaphone diplomacy,” but rights advocates counter that public pressure is vital. (Apart from any effect on the Chinese side, it also ensures that British leaders do actually raise the issues they claim to.)
Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins argued on Tuesday that the U.K. is poorly positioned to preach to China on rights in any case:
British ministers are to “raise human right concerns” with their Chinese guests this week. What on earth for? It is impolite, pointless, hypocritical and probably counter-productive. We are cringing supplicants for Chinese capital – as we claim to be for Saudi “intelligence”. What has this to do with human rights?
The itch to pass judgment on other people’s affairs is the occupational disease of British rulers. Sometime it drives us wretchedly to war, as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.
Otherwise it is merely rude, a diplomatic tic, a state of mind. If I were a Chinese guest at dinner tonight and a British minister dared to mention human rights, I would reply in kind.
[…] The reality is that Osborne’s trade opening to China makes sense. It was about money. So why jeopardise it with talk of human rights, which the Chinese government will politely ignore, just so a few British lobbyists can feel good? If the government cared about China’s human rights, it would not do business there. So it cares just enough to be rude. [Source]
A recent report from the Dui Hua Foundation suggests that engagement on rights need not derail economic ties, though it might not bear spectacular fruit either: “Several foreign diplomats noted China’s greater willingness to engage in human rights discussions defined by patient and courteous exchange rather than heated rhetoric. They did not, however, observe discernible changes in China’s long-held positions.” The Chinese side has sought to fend off the topic, however. China’s ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming told a press conference that Xi is “here for cooperation, for partnership, he’s not here for a debate about human rights.” “We don’t shy away from talking about human rights,” he added. “What we are against is to use human rights to interfere with other countries’ internal affairs and to try to impose your own system on to others.”
In an op-ed at the state-run Global Times, Zhao Chen of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences noted that “the UK has apparently shifted its China policy to a pragmatic direction, the extent of which is rarely seen in the Western hemisphere. […] Downplaying the role of trivial issues such as religion, human rights and democracy in bilateral ties is necessary for a win-win result.”
In comments “prepared by Chinese officials but reviewed and approved by Xi,” the Chinese president expressed his hopes for the visit to Reuters on Saturday:
I visited London, Oxford, Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1994. I was deeply impressed by the visit, particularly Britain’s long history, unique culture, friendly people and its beautiful environment.
During my upcoming state visit to the UK at the invitation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I look forward to having discussions with British leaders and engaging the British public on our bilateral ties. I hope this will chart the course for the future growth of China-UK relations, inject new impetus in practical cooperation between our two countries in all fields and enable us to jointly usher in a “golden time” for China-UK comprehensive strategic partnership.
Public opinion surveys conducted in Britain show that views of China are largely favorable among the British people. Our two peoples appreciate each other’s time-honored and unique cultures. This is an important foundation and favorable condition for growing bilateral ties. It is true that some people have some misgivings about China-UK cooperation. What I want to stress is that in today’s world, no country can afford to pursue development with its door closed. One should open the door, warmly welcome friends and be hospitable to them. This is recognized international practice. The UK has stated that it will be the Western country that is most open to China. This is a visionary and strategic choice that fully meets Britain’s own long-term interest. China looks forward to engaging with the UK in a wider range, at a higher level and in greater depth. [Source]
Xi went on to comment on U.K. and E.U. trade and investment; London’s role in internationalizing the Renminbi; plans for Chinese involvement in nuclear and high-speed rail projects in Britain; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, of which the U.K. has been a key supporter; China’s role in global affairs, carbon emission reduction efforts, and the world economy; and its hopes for future glory on the soccer field.
State broadcaster China Central Television, meanwhile, talked to British Prime Minister David Cameron. From Reuters:
“It’s going to be a very important moment for British-Chinese relations, which are in a very good state, something of a golden era in our relationship,” Cameron told China Central Television.
“The change we will see is obviously the investment into our infrastructure, Chinese companies employing people and creating jobs. But I think it’s also a big win for China as well, having access to a country that is a leading member of the EU and has so many other contacts and roles in the world.”
[…] “Obviously there are issues at the moment that are being addressed in China and I think the growth will continue,” he said. [Source]