Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Cameron gets it right on China

There is an mildly encouraging Guardian front-page report previewing the content and tone of the speech which Prime Minister David Cameron will deliver to students in Beijing today.

Since coming to power Cameron has been keen to put Britain's commercial interests far higher up the foreign policy agenda, and he is seeking to seal Beijing-sanctioned, multibillion-pound contracts with British companies during the visit. But as the first western leader in China since the announcement of Liu's Nobel award, he has been under growing pressure to set out the case for China to open up in its own long-term interest.

In a carefully modulated speech today, Cameron will say: "The rise in economic freedom in China has been hugely beneficial to China and to the world. I hope in time this will lead to a greater political opening because I am convinced that the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together."

The focus of the Prime Ministerial visit is on trade relations. It is vital that the issue of human rights will also be addressed. The Conservatives were often strong in advocating the importance of human rights in foreign policy in opposition - such as in the work of the Conservative Human Rights Commission. But there are real concerns that the thrust of William Hague's strategic interventions about putting trade first in British foreign policy risk going too far in underplaying political issues, including human rights.

This is reflected in today's Guardian editorial welcoming the "tentative step" forward of Cameron's Beijing speech.

It has been China's increasingly confrontational response to human rights challenges - particularly its unrestrained anger at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo - which has made human rights an increasing focus of public and media attention ahead of this trip.

Leader of the House of Commons Sir George Young told the House that David Cameron will raise the case in China: "that issue will not go by default".

The Telegraph reported at the weekend that China's lead G20 negotiator Cui Tiankai warned that the British prime minister will have to "bear the consequences" of raising such an issue.

“The choice before some European countries and others is clear and simple: do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China’s judicial system or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people?” He added: “If they make the wrong choice, they will have to bear the consequences”.

Cameron has been careful to strike a balance against "hectoring" his hosts, but it is important to firmly and politely reject this kind of diplomatic pressure from Beijing too.

Australian foreign minister (and former PM) Kevin Rudd is undoubtedly an advocate of closer links with China and across Asia, but was able to publicly call for Liu Xiaobo to be released on his trip to China this month. Unfortunately, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said little or nothing about human rights on his own trip, despite his stewardship of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though he did say he had made some points privately on his return.

Democratic nations should demonstrate a willingness to develop what Cui Tiankai calls "truly friendly relations" with the Chinese, who are going to be an ever more important emerging power in the global political and economic system. This will be essential if there is to be global cooperation in our common interests, in the global economy, security and climate change. Yet democracies should reject pressure to engage with China in a way which would lead to an unacceptable loss of face and self-respect for us.

If we can not fail to firmly and politely express a commitment to fundamental human rights, this will delegitimise the idea of closer cooperation with China among the citizens of democratic countries. And China has long accepted this, for example in agreeing to participate in a formal human rights dialogue process with the European Union across the last 15 years.

The strength of China's aggressive reaction to the Liu Xiaobo award has undermined this. European embassies is Oslo have also received formal representations from the Chinese government that their ambasssadors should boycott the Nobel prize ceremony next month, requesting that governments should not issue the routine formal congratulations extended to Nobel prize winners.

As the New York Times editorial said recently.

"All governments should make it a point next month to send representatives".

Fortunately, the request itself helps to make it all but impossible to undertake such a boycott, and so the request has been politely declined in favour of normal practice: "Our position is clear, we will attend as we do every year", says the German Embassy. "So far, only China has declined the invitation", reports Deutsche Welle. France has also now confirmed that its Ambassador will attend, after some concerns that it might be wobbling.

Curiously, the People's Daily in China has cited the 1990 award to Mikhail Gorbachev, who remained head of the USSR when awarded the prize, as an example of how the Nobel Prize committee launched an ideological attack to subvert and destroy the Communist system.

Yet ignoring the first ever Chinese Nobel winner would not be a truly friendly act towards the Chinese people.

Perhaps it is now for civic society to work out how best we might all also celebrate Liu Xiaobo and draw attention to the importance of his Nobel award on 10th December, the day of the ceremony.

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