Last autumn, three heavyweight British politicians visited China in quick succession. The Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Chancellor George Osborne, and finally Prime Minister David Cameron each arrived accompanied by impressive business delegations.

This intensive commercial diplomacy was viewed as a turning point in British policy towards China; the coalition government shelving criticism of China’s human rights record and instead embarking on the courtship of Chinese business.

Cameron’s visit to China was “successful” in the sense that this policy-shift won praise from British business, eager to win Chinese trade and investment. For this constituency, it was essential for Cameron to repair the damage done to relations with Beijing due to his 2012 meeting with the Dalai Lama.

For British business, China’s domestic politics is not a subject for comment, lest it “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” as our Chinese officials are fond of saying. In their opinion, Britain should be quiet and focus on harvesting bi-lateral economic benefits.

This paradox was not lost on the British press; there are many who saw these visits as British politicians kowtowing to China. Cameron and others shied away from publicly commenting on human rights issues in China, although he promised repeatedly to the British press that he would raise such issues in private.

Winning Respect?

What did Cameron gain in return? A few contracts were signed in Beijing–whether they will all materialize remains to be seen—but did he win the respect? Hardly, if we are to judge by the way China treated the press. A Bloomberg reporter was barred from attending Cameron’s press conference with the Chinese premier Li Keqiang in a pointed reminder of China’s anger and intolerance of the foreign media’s reporting of corruption cases involving Chinese high officials. With Cameron desperate to come to Beijing in order to mend ties, the Chinese government saw it as appropriate to ‘punish’ foreign journalists directly in his face.

But, if Cameron failed win the respect of the Chinese officials, did he at least win the respect of Chinese people? Hardly; their attitude was one of amusement rather than admiration. By eating in ‘ordinary’ Chinese restaurants, praising China’s history and ‘economic miracle’, Cameron earnestly acted the part of a sympathetic and friendly foreign leader. Yet Chinese audiences are all too familiar with the stage-management of foreign visits; people know this is a “show”, whose sub-plot is investment and trade. All Chinese both understand and excel at this kind of instrumentality.

Rather than appreciating Cameron’s gestures, many disdain them. What struck me following from London was that while the British press reported mostly favorably, China’s cyber-sphere rapidly filled with comments ridiculing Cameron’s speeches and behavior.

As such, Cameron’s visit to China, which meant to ‘turn a new page’ in bi-lateral ties, may well have been counter-productive. This is because he and his foreign policy advisors underestimated both the diversity of opinions and the depth of criticism in Chinese civil society.

Thanks to the Internet, Chinese people now intensely discuss and debate politics online, albeit in a coded manner.  Put simply, two distinguishable major camps have emerged in China’s cyberspace: the ‘liberals’ who support political reform and multi-party democracy, and the ‘conservatives’ who insist that only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can ensure social stability in China.

Auqi Wu recently graduated from our MSc Global Politics