Cameron, Sunflower Seeds and the dreaded Dalai Lama effect

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am


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As he flew into Beijing yesterday, David Cameron must have wished the Chinese authorities had chosen another time to order the demolition of Ai Weiwei's Shanghai studio.

The British prime minister is in China on a sales mission. Forced by massive debts to cut government spending even as the British economy is struggling to shake off recession, Cameron is relying heavily on increased exports and inward investment from abroad to drive the country's future growth.

And he's hoping that much of that export demand and investment will come from a rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous China. Expecting to clinch deals worth many billions of US dollars to British businesses Cameron arrived in Beijing accompanied by four cabinet ministers and a delegation of 50 company bosses.

Not surprisingly given his economic agenda, Cameron is anxious to avoid even a hint of controversy during his visit. As he argued in an opinion article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal 'a strong relationship with China is plainly in Britain's national interests'.

This is where Ai Weiwei comes into the picture. At the weekend Ai was detained under house arrest in Beijing in order to prevent him attending a party to mark the planned demolition of his new studio in Shanghai.

Normally the brief detention of a Chinese artist would not much trouble a British prime minister. But Ai has recently become something of a celebrity in Britain thanks to the huge popularity of his Sunflower Seeds installation at London's Tate Modern; a work hailed by the British press as a 'masterpiece'.

Consisting of 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds covering the floor of the Tate's vast turbine hall, the work is a stunning meditation on the overwhelming power of large numbers and has been widely interpreted as a comment on the resilience of China's population in the face of political oppression.

As a result Ai has come to be regarded as an intellectual heavyweight whose words carry considerable moral authority. So on Monday when Britain's Guardian newspaper published an opinion piece written by Ai from house arrest arguing that China's economic growth has been purchased at the cost of the Chinese people's human rights and calling on Cameron to tell China's leaders 'that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn't change its own behaviour', his article caused a major stir in British political circles.

Coming on top of China's implied threats of retaliation should western ambassadors attend a ceremony in Oslo to mark the award of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Ai's article prompted widespread calls in Britain for Cameron to haul China's leaders over the coals for their lousy record on human rights.

The calls put Cameron in a tight spot. For domestic political reasons he does not want to be seen as cravenly kow-towing to China's leadership. On the other hand, he will be well aware that treading on Communist Party toes can carry heavy economic costs for foreign governments.

For example, Beijing regularly threatens economic reprisals against foreign leaders who openly receive visits from the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and head of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

In 2008 the Chinese foreign ministry warned that France's trade with China would suffer should French President Nicolas Sarkozy go ahead with a planned meeting with the Dalai Lama. After the 30-minute meeting Beijing cancelled the annual European Union-China summit, postponed an order to buy 150 largely French-made Airbus airliners and blocked the visits of two Chinese trade delegations to France. The following year Wen Jiabao bypassed France on his visit to Europe. 'We all know why,' remarked the premier.

The rupture in relations has since been repaired. Visiting Paris last week President Hu Jintao signed deals with Sarkozy worth some US$23 billion. But the rapprochement took almost two years and was achieved only after France recognised Tibet as an integral part of Chinese territory.

This pattern has been repeated elsewhere, and the economic costs for governments that 'hurt the feelings of the Chinese people' in the same way are severe.

In a study published last month Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann of the University of Gottingen in Germany tracked the international movements of the Dalai Lama since 2002. After stripping out the impact of other influences like the world trade cycle, they found that on average countries whose senior government ministers held official meetings with the Dalai Lama suffered a 12.5 per cent fall in exports to China the following year, an effect which lasted for two years.

Given that China's statements on figures like Liu Xiaobo are similar to its pronouncements on the Dalai Lama, Cameron will be extremely unwilling to provoke Beijing's ire with anything more than a private token mention of China's shortcomings when it comes to human rights.

Cameron's failure publicly to take China's leaders to task will disappoint Ai and will widely be regarded as shameful by his political critics at home.

But the reality is that individual western economies like Britain are too weak for their leaders to want to risk the economic retaliation likely to follow should they openly take China to task over humans rights. Beijing's carrot is so enticing and its stick too threatening for Cameron seriously to consider any real criticism.