22 October 2015, The Tablet

Trade must have a moral dimension

There are state visits and state visits. Sometimes the customary British pageantry is a routine to be taken for granted. Nobody could say this about the visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, this week. The Government had clearly decided to go for the maximum impact possible, in order to make a powerful statement of the reorientation of British foreign and economic policy in a direction more favourable to Beijing’s interests, thereby also serving British interests.

But in the process the British appear to have pushed the Chinese regime’s abuse of human rights out of sight. Britain’s sense of honour was only saved by the Prince of Wales, whose absence at the Buckingham Palace state banquet was a deliberate statement of disquiet. Even so, his concern was focused on China’s harsh policy towards Tibet and treatment of his friend, the Dalai Lama. Yet the Dalai Lama’s fate is enviable compared for instance with that of Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, who is reported to have died aged 94 after 14 years in prison and who has spent around half of his entire life in custody. Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, is still being fiercely persecuted in China as an act of state policy.

This is not marginal. The Christian population of China is destined, according to the Financial Times, to become the largest in the world within the next 15 years. By the latest estimates, Christians outnumber members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Britain should not be expected to treat China as an equal while human-rights abuses are rampant. Commercial interests always have to be balanced by moral principle. Indeed, China’s treatment of minorities indicates a general lack of morality on the part of the state which calls into question Chinese trustworthiness as a commercial partner. Can Chinese state enterprises be trusted to keep their word when they enter into the kind of deals the British Government is hoping for? Is there a culture of respect for the rule of law, such that British businesses could rely upon in the event of disputes? If Britain is about to hand the keys to British nuclear power stations to Chinese government officials, what guarantee is there that they will not abuse that trust?

Although the two cases are not exactly parallel, they might well treat the British nuclear industry as badly as they are treating the British steel industry. The dumping on to the international market of cheap Chinese steel is a warning sign of where trade relations can lead in the absence of any underlying moral principle. It has all but destroyed the British steel industry. And that lack of principle is signposted by the Chinese regime’s disregard for human rights.

Trade relations serve both countries’ interests, which means there is a price China should expect to pay for doing business. It has to prove it is a worthy partner. Otherwise a state visit like this one does not proclaim sincere respect but looks like cynicism.

What do you think?


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