Britain's Great China Debate

 
 

For the first time in ten years, a Chinese president will set foot in the U.K. on an official visit. The expectations are high for this trip, with officials on both sides anticipating the arrival of a “golden era” of bilateral relations. In a rare interview with Reuters on the eve of his departure, Chinese President Xi Jinping commended Britain’s strategic choice to become “the Western country that is most open to China.”

The opportunities that China, with an enlarging middle class and an increasing propensity for foreign investment, can offer are widely recognized within the British government. During his tour of China in September, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne unveiled plans to make China the U.K.’s second largest trading partner by 2025. Britain is sparing no expense in making the trip as full of “pomp and circumstance” as it can get. While Xi was snubbed of the opportunity to address Congress in his visit to the U.S. last month, he was offered the chance to address the British parliament — and will do so on Tuesday, alongside similarly prestigious tasks like dining with the Queen.

China, too, is excited about the U.K. Having selected London as the first international financial hub to issue renminbi-denominated Chinese sovereign debt, Xi will publicly announce the issuing of Chinese Treasury bonds while in the city this week. In addition, approximately 150 bilateral deals are expected to be concluded this week in areas like aircraft manufacturing, healthcare, and energy, the most salient being one on China’s construction of a new nuclear power plant in Essex.

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What Xi will not want to address, to the disappointment of many, is human rights. British officials note that while “robust” backstage discussions will take place there will be no room for megaphone diplomacy. In an echo to that, China’s Ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming emphasized that the visit was “for cooperation, for partnership…[and] not for a debate about human rights.” While he did acknowledge that China “does not shy away from discussions about human rights,” he cautioned that Xi would be offended if confronted with public criticism over the issue.

The increasing intimacy between the current Conservative administration and the CCP has garnered intense backlash from grassroots activists and politicians alike. The government’s critics argue that Britain under Prime Minister David Cameron has abandoned its commitment to human rights by cozying up and selling out to Beijing. The Dalai Lama himself pithily summed up the criticisms: “Money. Money. Money. That’s what this is about. Where is morality?”

Among those displeased with Cameron’s approach is leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn, who ignited a media firestorm when he announced last week that he planned to challenge Xi on human rights during the Queen’s banquet on Tuesday. Not surprisingly, there has been a slight itinerary clarification in light of Corbyn’s announcement last week: Xi is now set to meet privately with Corbyn after his address to the House of Lords and Commons to prevent what The Guardian calls “an embarrassing semi-public challenge.”

Corbyn is considered to be part of a select minority of British politicians that reject the neoliberal consensus. Since being elected Labour Party leader in mid-September, he has taken a strong stance on raising human rights issues with other countries, and successfully pressed Cameron to scrap a $9 million prison deal with Saudi Arabia.

The British reluctance to directly confront China on human rights is actually a relatively recent development. During a trip to Beijing in 2010 Cameron called for “greater political opening” in China and spoke of concerns regarding human rights, eliciting Chinese displeasure. Relations soured again in 2012 when Cameron met with the Dalai Lama amid Chinese protests. Today, Cameron is more than happy to set aside human rights for what his government believes to be more significant: the economy. The mindset now seems to be that it’s unproductive – and perhaps even counterproductive – to go out of the way to engage China about its human rights.

Cameron’s government, predictably, has its fair share of supporters when it comes to cozying up to China. There are those who argue that the U.K. should make the most of the rifts between China and the U.S., especially given growing uncertainty of the “special” Anglo-American relationship. Their logic is: if it isn’t working out with one big power, there’s another one readily available.

China, meanwhile, skillfully shuts down any attempt by the U.K. to perpetuate a moral agenda by offering subtle reminders about Britain’s declining world role.

Whatever Corbyn has to say on human rights, it’s unlikely that Xi hasn’t heard it before. China is an old hand when it comes to dealing with Western powers disparaging their lack of human rights infrastructure. What Corbyn can accomplish in his brief meeting is to emphasize that Britain, despite its current leadership, isn’t wholly willing to sell its principles for cash.

And his criticisms may not fall completely on deaf ears. After all, Corbyn may meet Xi again in a few years, this time as the British prime minister.

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