Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Doing business with a one party state

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in China today with the biggest delegation seen in over 100 years. His aim is to drum up business and trade initiatives between the two countries and help drag Britain out of debt following the worst financial crisis in living memory. But the timing could not be worse as there is an ever increasing focus on China's failure to respect basic human rights and work through political reform.

As Cameron arrived in Beijing early this morning there were already criticisms and calls for him to raise the issue of human rights. One outspoken critic, Ai Weiwei, an artist who was recently put under house arrest, has been the most vocal. "Cameron should ask the Chinese government not to make people 'disappear' or to jail them merely because they have different opinions," Ai told the Guardian newspaper in Britain. "Cameron should say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn't change its own behaviour." By doing business with China without addressing such issues would not serve the country well, the artist insists. Trading countries "commit some kind of crime by not look at such issues," he says. "In last 30 years things have not changed," Ai Weiwei told BBC's Today programme on Tuesday morning. David Cameron should "emphasise the concern of human rights." While fearful for his own freedom and well-being, he said it was important that someone spoke out [BBC].

Ai Weiwei is not the only person to call for change. But most of those who do are silenced by a paranoid state, jailed, beaten and even killed. Liu Xiaobo, the architect of Charter 08 which called for greater freedom, was sentenced to eleven years' imprisonment and two years' deprivation of political rights on 25 December 2009 for "inciting subversion of state power." His efforts to reform the political system in China were recognised by those at the Nobel Prize committee "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China". But his being awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace prize has angered China who said it was tantamount to "encouraging crime". There have also been warnings emanating from China. Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, whose comments were published in the People's Daily, said "The choice before some European countries and others is clear and simple: do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China's judicial system or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people?" There were veiled but unstated threats too. "If they make the wrong choice, they have to bear the consequences" [BBC]. One person already bearing the consequences is Liu Xiaobo's lawyer whose movements are now strictly controlled. As David Cameron arrived in China, Mo Shaoping says he was stopped by border police at Beijing airport, and told that if he was allowed to leave it could "threaten state security" [BBC].

David Cameron says he will raise issues of human rights and environmental obligations when he meets Chinese officials. But it is clear where his, and Britain's priorities lie. "Our message is simple: Britain is now open for business, has a very business-friendly government, and wants to have a much, much stronger relationship with China," David Cameron earlier [BBC]. When questioned about other issues by Sky News he said that while his visit was "predominantly" focused on "economic business and trading relationships" other issues were on the table. "One of the things about the UK/China relationship is that it is at the very highest level, we have dialogues covering all of these areas," Cameron said.

While his visits to Tesco and tea shops were open to the media pack, any dialogue with Chinese officials will be kept firmly behind closed doors. There will be no press conference or open public statements. "Obviously this visit is predominantly a UK/China summit and also about the economic and trading relationship but we have dialogue covering all the issues in the right way," the Prime Minister said. Such comments will only be heard outside China and won't be published in the country's strictly controlled media.

Cameron faces a difficult choice. Arriving with a team of 43 business leaders, including senior representatives from Tesco, Virgin Atlantic, Barclays, Shell and Diageo in addition to members of his Cabinet, bolstering trade is of utmost importance to Britain's economy. But propping up a country with an appalling human rights record and a failure to tackle environmental issues will leave a sour taste in many people's mouths.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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