David Cameron's mixed signals to China don't do Britain any favours
3 December 2013
WhenDavid Cameron met the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabaoin the UK in June 2011, he spoke forcibly about human rights. A year later, Cameron's convictions were powerful enough for him tomeet the Dalai Lamadespite this provoking the fury of Beijing and the UK being relegated to the diplomatic deep freeze for a year. Butthis week in Beijing, Cameron only wants to talk trade. His journey from human rights champion to business pragmatist has been spectacular.
Trade between the UK and China in the past year has been robust, despite the political fallout. It seems that, freed from the task of babysitting a procession of British ministers looking for flattering headlines, the business community in China and British diplomats has been getting on with the practical work. Investment from China has come to the UK in sectors such as utilities and transport. Ironically, on the basis of these healthy figures Cameron may well feel emboldened to speak about rights violations more strongly, because it seems not to have any adverse economic impact.
But his inconsistency has a political price tag too. Chinese leaders will be intrigued by the different ways he speaks on home territory and in Beijing. The real pity is that there are well-trodden paths to cover both values and business. But for Cameron to take such a contradictory approach in such a short time frame is clumsy.
The problem is that China is no longer the straightforward object for attack it once was. Justice issues are becoming increasingly confused. A rights-conscious middle-class is demanding more from its rulers while Chinese social media is a new battleground, with corrupt officials exposed almost daily. In this changing context, there are ways for outsiders to engage.
Dextrous politicians can even get powerful points across about such sensitive topics as Tibet and Xinjiang. Instability and social unrest led by resentful populations who feel they have had a rough deal are hardly the best building blocks for business; an unsteady China is a problem for itself and the rest of the world. This gives outsiders the locus to comment and to express concern about justice in China.
But Cameron seems to like his narratives of engagement kept simple. Black and white positions rule the day. To thicken the plot, a country that the Chinese know is deeply ambiguous about its membership of the European Union has its national leader coming to back a free trade agreement between the EU and China.
Chinese officials may well suspect a trap; the UK is cleverly saddling its European partners with a clunky deal before exiting and then creating a new bilateral trade relationship from scratch. It would be interesting to know just how other EU leaders view his sincerity over China.
The Cameron visit looks like a piece of theatre from another age. Large symbolic delegations were thought impressive a couple of decades ago, until analysts started to show just how little they really offered the bottom line. The battle to open China's hugely important domestic market will be fought, and its victories gained, by countless low-key company visits and contacts. Meanwhile, Cameron cannot complain about the criticism. It is precisely because of his noisily drawing attention to rights violations that he is now being taken to task over seeming to turn a blind eye.
The UK needs a radically different diplomacy to deal with a radically changing China. This visit isn't the way to achieve it.