Business with China at any cost?

This article was published on Progress on 20 October 2015.

This week, President Xi Jinping of China will land in Heathrow, where he will be greeted by David Cameron and the prime minister’s signature ‘salesman-like’ smile.

This will be the same prime minister who just a year ago said ‘we should stand up for… the important freedoms jointly guaranteed’ by Britain and China in Hong Kong, as protesters occupied the city’s financial centre marching for democracy. In Westminster, members of parliament across the House were angered by China’s ban on the Foreign Affairs committee to visit Hong Kong, as the committee’s chair accused Beijing of its ‘overtly confrontational manner.’

When it comes to China, Cameron learnt diplomacy the hard way. The UK-China relationship fell to freezing point after the prime minister met with the Dalai Lama in 2012. Britain was only brought back from the cold two years later, when the Chinese premier met the Queen on his summer visit. It is therefore a remarkable diplomatic achievement that George Osborne, Cameron’s likely successor, made a triumphant visit to the Central Kingdom last month, crucially announcing plans to link London Stock Exchange with its Shanghai counterpart.

Not everybody is at ease with Cameron’s ‘hug the Chinese’ approach. Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, intends to raise human rights across the dinner table with the Chinese president. Human rights activist and novelist, Joan Smith, criticised the Conservative government for its ‘disdain for the idea of universal human rights.’ And when the Dalai Lama returned to Britain and found the prime minister’s door shut for a one-on-one meeting, the religious leader questioned the government’s policy: ‘Money, money, money. That iss what this is about. Where is morality?’

Calls of caution are led by none other than Cameron’s former guru, Steve Hilton. The godfather of ‘blue sky’ conservatism lamented the government’s ‘kissingerian’ China policy, marching forward to sound of money with eyes shut, blind to China’s human rights violations. Who is it that we are ‘rolling out the red carpet for?’ Asked the former Number 10 adviser. Extraordinary, Hilton even suggested sanctions (or equivalent) on the world’s second largest economy: ‘Sanctions ended apartheid. Now we need that kind of robust approach to China today’.

If there is one area where Britain should be more robust, it has to be Hong Kong. As the co-signatory of the joint declaration, Britain is obliged to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy and ensure the city’s transition to democracy.

As I wrote last year, ‘we need a Hong Kong policy, separate from our China policy… if Cameron fails to deliver this policy, we should start thinking about this in the Labour party.’ Almost one year on, it is clear that Cameron has opted for salesmanship over statesmanship.

While there is nothing wrong with salesmanship per se, the prime minister cannot ignore the ‘statesman’ side of his job. Yes, Britain is a country of commerce and embracing China is a calculated strategic move. Britain’s support (against Washington’s wishes) was fundamental in the creation of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Chinese have already begun returning the favour. But at some point, Mr Cameron (and his successor) will need to draw red lines that underpin British principles — in Britain’s dealings with China and others — in order to restore the values of freedom and democracy this country once championed.

This is where Labour can step in, as Corbyn prepares to raise human rights issues with the Chinese president. Hong Kong would be a good starting point.