05 December 2013, The Tablet

Unethical foreign policy

Why has the Prime Minister been so obsequious to the Chinese during his visit there this week at the head of a large United Kingdom trade delegation? He made it plain for all to see that China’s indifference to most of the values that define a civilised society was of little or no interest to him, provided the British economy benefited from an increase in trade and investment.

This was in strong contrast to his performance in Sri Lanka last month, when he made much of that Government’s treatment of Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war. His performance in China has to raise doubts about the sincerity of those protests, if he can so easily switch from moral indignation to gratuitous flattery. The reason appears to be that Sri Lanka is not one of Britain’s major trading partners, whereas China is. This takes political pragmatism too far.

The human-rights indictment against China runs to many pages. The headline issue is its occupation of Tibet. Mr Cameron met Tibet’s exiled ruler and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, some months ago, and as a result the Chinese Government promptly cancelled a visit to China that Mr Cameron was due to make at that time. The suspicion must be that he had to give private undertakings not to repeat this contact, nor to make an issue of Tibet during his current visit.

If such an undertaking were assumed, it seems to have extended to other aspects of China’s human-rights record. It suppresses freedom of speech, imprisons its critics, fails to protect workers’ rights, and trespasses on family life and personal dignity with its one-child policy – which it may soon partly relax, but for demographic rather than moral reasons. It suppresses religious movements it does not approve of, including that part of the Chinese Catholic Church that has remained faithful to Rome. Its treatment of the human rights of its own citizens is appalling. They lack redress and live in fear.

Mr Cameron’s answer to his critics, when he cannot avoid the subject, is that he has taken steps to revive an official dialogue between the British and Chinese Governments about human rights, and that is sufficient. It is not.

Putting business before ethics is an endemic feature of British foreign policy, and China is by no means the first or worst case. Tony Blair's kowtowing to Colonel Gaddafi has been neither forgotten nor forgiven. In trade dealings with Saudi Arabia, including lucrative arms sales, no recent British government has stood up for what it believed in case it jeopardised the prospect of profit for British companies. As in China, religious freedom is unknown in Saudi Arabia. As in China, political dissent is not tolerated. As in China, indeed, there is vague talk of progress, which seems mainly calculated to silence critics. Nothing ever quite comes of it.

Britain may not have the political and military power it once had, but it could exert the “soft power” of moral influence and example far more than it does. There is a global leadership role here waiting to be filled. But first it has to demonstrate that it possesses a moral backbone, and that British values, like human rights, freedom and democracy, are not for sale.

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