Britain welcomed two distinguished Asian guests at the end of last month. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited London as part of a European tour to sign trade agreements and help sandbag the leaking Eurozone. The following day, Aung San Suu Kyi took over the BBC’s airwaves from back home in Burma to deliver the first of two highly-anticipated lectures, entitled ‘Liberty’ and ‘Dissent’, about her pro-democracy campaign.
Both came armed with criticisms. Wen’s were for his British hosts. ‘On human rights, China and the UK should respect each other, respect the facts, treat each other as equals, engage more in co-operation and less in finger-pointing,’ Wen said in a public rebuke to his British counterpart, David Cameron. Clearly irritated by the UK’s patronising and moralising refrain (as he saw it) about China’s lax human rights record, Wen went in for some patronisation of his own. China has a 5,000 year history, he observed, which has taught the Chinese not to lecture other countries, but to respect them on an equal basis – an evident hint that this was a lesson that the arriviste British might also eventually learn. Wen signed $2.25 billion in trade deals with Cameron, threw in two pandas for Edinburgh Zoo, and decamped to Germany.
Wen’s tetchy dismissal of British criticism raised the serious question of whether countries like Britain shouldn’t simply change the record. Lecturing China doesn’t seem to work – its human rights record has, if anything, deteriorated over the last year thanks to Beijing’s authoritarian reflex to the Arab Spring – and to raise the issue only appears detrimental to the country casting the aspersions. In Germany, which Beijing regards as being more permissive of Chinese policies, Wen concluded $15 billion in trade agreements, far more than he granted to the finger-pointing Brits.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Moreover, Wen arguably makes a strong case when he says that China has notched up impressive progress on many fronts, earning it other countries’ respect rather than this constant carping about human rights. His government stands, after all, for pragmatism over moralism: sticking to core socio-economic objectives that benefit the many, rather than dwelling on Western concepts of rights that suit the dissenting few – square conceptual pegs that don’t fit into the round holes of the Chinese context. Pragmatism, Wen would argue, is what still-developing China needs, not idealism.
Though Aung San Suu Kyi’s BBC Reith Lectures were in no way connected to Wen’s London lecture, a more complete or timelier rebuttal is hard to imagine. Suu Kyi lacks Wen’s pragmatic credentials, or his practical authority. Her record of changing the lives of ordinary people is much less impressive than his; in fact, one might argue that her material impact on Burma has been negligible, whereas Wen’s impact on China has been historic.