China's economic power buys British silence on human rights

Jonathan Sullivan says Cameron, with an eye on 2015 polls, chose circumspection during Li's visit

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 11:10am

For Prime Minister David Cameron and the British government, Premier Li Keqiang's recent visit could not have gone better. The two sides announced a series of huge investments in British infrastructure and energy, expanded trade opportunities and moves to increase the number of Chinese tourists and students. Diplomatic relations, which turned frosty following Cameron's meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2012, are back on track.

Cameron achieved all this with barely a dissenting murmur from the opposition Labour Party. And, preoccupied by the football team's usual travails at the World Cup, the English media barely noted that the government's embrace of Chinese money was unencumbered even by lip service to rights and values.

For China, the visit was likewise a success. The British laid out the red carpet and Li performed well on it, showing himself to be confident, relaxed and statesmanlike. Uncomfortable questions at public engagements were kept to a minimum.

In the Chinese diplomatic vocabulary, it was a "win-win" situation. But what the Chinese describe as win-win often entails sacrifices for their negotiating partners. On this occasion, it was Britain's public commitment to human rights and its moral duty to Hong Kong that fell by the wayside.

The dilemma is familiar and banal. The UK needs Chinese investment. But it doesn't want to, or doesn't want to appear to, sacrifice the "democratic values" that are important to its own sense of identity. The tension between these objectives has played out in the Foreign Office and the government over the past couple of years.

The UK economy does possess comparative advantages, like its liberal financial sector, that make it an attractive target for Chinese investors seeking productive returns. In that sense it is not misleading to describe the deals as mutually beneficial.

But China has many more options than the UK does and Beijing has never concealed the idea that economic largesse leads to political leverage. Time and again, it has used the promise of trade and investment, or the threat of their denial, to achieve political ends.

In an op-ed in The Times, writing about China's position in the world, Li acknowledged that "as the premier of China I do have a good sense of where things stand". Li graciously refrained from opining on the relative standing of Britain, but the Chinese ambassador and editorials in the Global Times were unequivocal and unflattering, the latter describing it as a declining and decrepit empire. China clearly savoured demonstrating its economic might to a former imperial aggressor.

It was left to Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the increasingly marginalised junior partner in the ruling coalition, to voice qualms about unequivocally embracing Beijing. Speaking to an audience of his own party's supporters, Clegg said that "we remain deeply concerned about the very large scale of abuse of human rights that still occur".

But if his was the voice of the coalition's conscience, it was quickly drowned out by the deafening sound of Cameron's silence; all he could muster was a half-hearted request to resume the "human rights dialogue".

There is a general election scheduled for next May and Cameron is operating with that in mind. Trade and investment of a level that only the Chinese government can deliver is a potential boon for Britain's economic recovery.

The economy will be a highly salient issue when Cameron seeks re-election. Unless something unforeseen happens, China's human rights record, its actions in the East China Sea or its treatment of Hong Kong will not.

The youngest cohort of voters was born in 1997 and has scant knowledge of Britain's relationship with Hong Kong. What they do know is graduate unemployment and rising living costs. Whether Chinese investment will have any direct influence on this is debatable, but, in an election year, the impression that the government is doing something positive is important.

Behind the scenes, officials are likely to be voicing stronger concerns about Hong Kong. But the public silence reflects how circumscribed the UK is by history and Chinese sensitivities. The timing of the white paper, bringing into question Beijing's adherence to the Basic Law, was inconvenient for the UK government.

Apart from raising the foreboding notion of "comprehensive jurisdiction", the paper warned against "foreign interference". It probably wasn't a direct reference to British consul general Caroline Wilson's meeting with democrats, but Cameron got the message nonetheless.

Democracy activists in Hong Kong have criticised Cameron's reticence on Beijing's white paper. Given Cameron's desire to get the relationship back on track, it was unrealistic to expect otherwise, when any public utterance on Hong Kong would have infuriated Beijing.

It has long been the British preference to eschew political theatre for diplomacy in private. On Hong Kong, for now, it has no choice.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham