To a considerable fanfare and accompanied by a considerable entourage, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has just completed an important visit to China. Even if the Global Times did go slightly off-message, describing Britain rather dismissively as “just an old European country apt for travel and study”, in general the visit has been portrayed as a success by the political leadership of both sides. Cameron came in need of Chinese money, and he has left with a number of satisfactory commitments in areas such as the new HS2 fast train project, and nuclear power.
In the not-so-distant past this same Prime Minister had earned the ire of China’s government with outspoken criticism of Chinese policies. This visit in fact replaced an earlier one which was cancelled due to a diplomatic rift between the two countries. This time round, Cameron has adopted an altogether more humble mien. There was no mention of any shortcomings on the part of China. Instead Cameron issued a promise “to respect and understand China”, and celebrated the fact that “in many ways there are openings and things are improving”. The Chinese media were satisfied that the UK had “reiterated its respect for China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and core interests”.
All of this is to be welcomed, and indeed it has been welcomed, at least in China. Back home, the response of the media has been somewhat less effusive. In an editorial published on 4th December, the Guardian newspaper criticized Cameron’s failure to raise hard issues with his hosts in terms such as “mendicant”, “cap-in-hand”, “unduly deferential”, and “fawning”.
The BBC provided extensive coverage of the trip. On Monday, its flagship news and current affairs radio program, “Today” fielded a star-studded cast: Sarah Montague - Presenter; Damien Grammaticus - China correspondent; John Simpson - World Affairs Editor; Nick Robinson - Political Editor; Kerry Brown - Professor of Chinese Politics at Sydney University; Richard Ottaway - Conservative MP and Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The BBC took a similar line to the Guardian. Although commerce and the wider relationship between Britain and China got a mention, the majority of its coverage focused on ‘human rights’ – why was the Prime Minister not taking a harder line with the Chinese? Sarah Montague’s opening question to Nick Robinson set the tone: “So, Nick, any mention of human rights - or is this more about kow-towing to the Chinese?”
In all the exchanges between these grandees, and in the wider media debate about Cameron’s failure to adopt a sufficiently aggressive stance towards China, one question was notable by its entire absence – what in English you might call the ‘elephant in the room’.
It is this: “What conceivable moral authority could any current British politician have to lecture the Chinese on the question of human rights?”
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