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The risks in getting balance between human rights and Chinese trade and power

Posted on 28 June 2011 | 9:06am

Not speaking a word of Mandarin, I find it hard to work out exactly how hacked off Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was with David Cameron’s stance on human rights yesterday.

‘Finger-pointing’ is certainly not an everyday diplomatic word, but I just have to think of the foreign languages I do know to realise how difficult it would be to translate. In diplomacy, the tone can be as important as the words themselves, and the interpretation can only tell you so much; one other factor – was it the media he was accusing of finger-pointing, or Mr Cameron?

Tony Blair was always sensitive to the twin pressures of a China that did not like being lectured, and of pressure groups, Parliamentarians and strands of public opinion which wanted the lectures to be delivered very sternly indeed.

Cameron is equally sensitive to them, I have no doubt, and the tensions could be heard in his comments at yesterday’s press conference. But if you had to state in which direction his rhetoric and body language were pointing, I would say marginally in favour of human rights. TB, as my diaries recall, was probably pointing slightly the other way.

The FT front page story today contains anonymous quotes from Chinese officials suggesting Britain is paying an economic price already for Mr Cameron’s stance.

You just need to flick through the rest of the paper to see why China matters so much more than it used to. Pages 1, 3 and 5 of the main paper, the main feature on the inside back page, (Global Pioneers of ‘China Inc’) and the second lead of the Companies and Markets section are basically about China and the economy.

Cameron clearly prides himself on a leadership style capable of standing up to anyone – defence chiefs at home, or fellow leaders from abroad, even those as powerful as the Chinese.

It is clearly right to stand up for human rights. But at a time when economic recovery is his core objective, it is also a risk. Plenty of new deals were signed yesterday. But I wonder how many in the future may go unsigned if the Chinese Premier’s words and tone were accurately translated, and he leaves the UK with a broadly unfavourable impression.

*** Talking of fearsome opponents capable of unsettling Prime Ministers, may I wish the Women’s Insitute well in their campaign to save local libraries. Their encounter with the last Prime Minister but one is a highlight of volume 3, Power and Responsibility, out July 7. It is a memory still capable of making me laugh and shiver at the same time.

Ps, don’t read too much into the blue cover.

  • Robert

    just for once Cameron deserves a few brownie points. While the rest of Europe appears to have never heard of Ai WeiWei Cameron continues to tell China that they have to do better. You have to take the long view with China and social change in China will come because it is pushed by the Brits rather than sacrificed to blind economic gain.

  • Jacquie R

    I have many, many, many, many complaints about David Cameron, but standing up for human rights isn’t going to be one of them. Its pursuit becomes meaningless if switched on and off, according to economic self interest.

    The issue, surely, is that all of China’s trading partners should take a principled stand on human rights. Then Wen wouldn’t be singling out Britain for his displeasure and perhaps the speed of reform would accelerate.

  • Paul Littleton

    I like the cover …not because it is blue (though it is a nicer colour than the brown of volumes 1 and 2) but because the design is nice. I have ordered it and will be badgering you to sign it. 

  • Tommy Freestone

     I think your mate Tony had a bit of a blind spot about human rights.. I agree China’s wealth and growth are important to all of us, but so are the values of a country.

  • Toby Underwood

    I loved the line in Simon Hoggart’s sketch today about how the Chinese PM was trying to show he was like the British by  saying he read Shakespeare, and Hogart pointing out that Brits don’t read it

  • Robert

    But not that many from this Robert, trust me!

    While many were cooking yesterday i took my brother in law and sister to see his Welsh family in Tonyrefail in the Rhondda valley. We came back to the midlands through Treorchy and over the mountain past Twr colliery, then the spectacular heads of the valleys road.

    Whilst the last Tory government did not exactly carry out the inappropriate actions of which finger wagging is one reaction, the wanton destruction of way of life by Thatcher in the valleys and their prevarication over miners coal dust compensation was near criminal as anything.

    My bro in laws cousins have a peculiarly inflected way of saying Thatcher that speaks volumes.

    Great trip in refreshing rain.

  • Ehtch

    When I worked at Pyramid Engineering Services from South London, the old SLEE company that did good stuff, China was concerntrated in our minds even then. I like the chinese, they gave a philosophy in life I like, and if you fancy a BMW, why not buy one of these instead, with its rocket UK road tax band,

  • Ehtch

    I am getting to like Dave, I truely am, he has something recently, talking sense within the the tory party. They seem, well, less fascist to tell you the truth. How long it will last is anyone’s guess, though.

  • MicheleB

    China’s growth in wealth and food production are even more important to themselves than they are to ‘all of us’.

    It’s a bit of a joke that Cameron even tries to claim any moral high ground, I really shouldn’t guess (admonishing others that do) but I doubt his family’s old money was made without the exploitation of people in many countries and wouldn’t be surprised to hear their current funds include some investment in Chinese gold.


  • MicheleB

    If any one of our media commentators really gave a damn about Chinese people they would know that face is the most important thing in life.

    It’s quite shocking that for their own needs (sales and approval and – as can be seen easily below – some success in the popularity stakes) they would do their pose-y thing.

    There is far more likelihood of progress on human rights if things are handled discreetly; a person is far more likely to be co-operative if he is not shown up on foreign soil when making a trip we should all welcome.

    Cameron has a very easy demand he could make to our own side; every single buyer purchasing out of China should have to visit the actual production facility.  Most don’t, they buy through UK agents who source through HK agents.

    Cameron could have put the onus where at least part of it belongs.

  • simon

    So – give him absolutely no credit for anything then ?  It’s that kind of tribalistic comment (unlike AC’s more balanced one) that turns people off, MicheleB.  With all due respect.

  • MicheleB

    Oh get off your pose-y soapbox

    Using ‘Newest first’ see my message higher up

  • Janete

    What they say and what they do are very different things. Cameron is the PR part of the operation – it’s all he knows.

    Never forget, PR men sell you a positive, likeable message while quietly ripping you off with a crappy product. But if the message goes wrong and become tainted, they drop it like a stone and come up with a different tack somewhere else – hence Cameron’s U-turn tendency!

  • Quinney

    It would be nice if Cameron didn’t demonise his own public sector workers instead of trying to play the tough guy.
    It would be nice too if Ed Milliband stood up for the people who voted for him for once.

  • Ehtch

    Yes, agreed. I am being bluddey brainwashed I think by Dave

  • Pingback: On China, consumer spending, and crime, three big bad straws in the wind for Osborne | Alastair Campbell()

  • Ehtch

    We in the UK can’t say too much, timewise – we only gave the women the vote in this country less than one hundred years ago, as well as colonial carrying-ons too around then. As long as China moves in the right direction in such matters, that is good enough for me. They look as if they will be coining it soon bigtime, and the walls will fall. What the heck are we going to do with ourselves is the main big question in decades coming, as Evan Davis mentions in his “Made in Britain” documentary series he is showing on BBC2 (Mondays) at the moment.

  • Ehtch

    Oh dear, water cannons and pastic bullets being fired within the UK again – must be Tory government time again.

    Human rights??? Human hypocrisy more like. What a shower of shit of humanity we are! For fuck sake.