One of the most striking things about Cameron’s last visit to China is that he won the respect of neither liberal or conservatives. The liberals of course condemn Cameron’s downplaying of political issues. The conservatives may have approved of Cameron’s silence over China’s domestic politics, but their approval is condescending in the extreme.

Due to the special relationship between Britain and the US, the Chinese conservatives, ever suspicious of the US, simply do not believe Cameron’s friendly attitude will last. China’s leading statist newspaper Global Times , represents the hardliners within the CCP regime. It thundered that “His visit this time can hardly be the end of the conflict between China and the UK…,” The newspaper argued bluntly that “The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country suitable [only] for travel and study….”

A forward-looking, stable relationship between Britain and China should be built on foundations of dialogue with a broader Chinese public. The opinions of ordinary Chinese, on both domestic and foreign policies, are evolving rapidly, in spite of our undemocratic system. I believe that it is important for the British government to clearly communicate to the Chinese public their views and values in a manner which highlight the UK’s differences with the CCP regime.

Cameron’s assurances to the British press that he would raise human rights issues in private with the Chinese leaders lack credibility in the eyes of those who matter most – the Chinese public. The secret diplomacy used by the former US President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger during the Cold War can no long work today. True, a British leader needs to be extra careful when commenting on Chinese politics, due to the complex history of Sino-British relations (the Opium War in the 19th Century waged by the British that marked the beginning of the end of the Qing Dynasty). Many Chinese still hold the impression that Britain is an unreasonable mercantile state, and many may feel insulted if and when a British leader criticizes China. But candid criticism is still better than insincere compliments. It is no accident that the two British leaders by far the most respected in China are …. Winston Churchill and Mrs Thatcher  . Both were staunchly conservative, anti-Communist leaders. Despite their imperialist and neo-liberal credentials, they have the respect of the Chinese, including those who hate them.

Voicing the values of critical friends?

When reflecting how best to deal with China, Britain may find the examples of two other Anglophone countries worth noting.

The first is the United States. About the same time as Cameron’s visit to China, the US vice President Joseph Biden, was also visiting China to mediate the increasingly contentious territorial conflict between China and Japan. But even at such a sensitive time, Biden paid a visit to the US embassy’s visa section and delivered an outspoken speech to the Chinese citizens applying for the US visa: “Innovation can only occur when you can breathe free, challenge the government, challenge your teachers, challenge religious leaders.” It was clear from the Chinese responses that such “seditious” comments actually stimulate serious discussions and reflections, and achieve more positive effects.

Of course you may say Britain is now only a mid-size power and cannot be as critical as the US. But there is another worthy example of Australia, which is hardly a superpower. The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was also the first Western leader who speaks fluent Chinese, [7] announced the principle of ‘zhengyou’, or critical friend, in his country’s engagement with China when he visited China in 2008 as Prime Minister. This Confucian concept of ‘zhengyou’ means that solid and true friendship is built on frank and straightforward dialogues. True friends should be able to be critical, and only this type of friendship can go beyond short-termism and constitute long-lasting relationship. Real friendship should involve communicating on controversial issues. With this principle of ‘zhengyou’, Australia has been able to maintain close trading ties with China without compromising its position on political issues.

Sticking to one’s principles strikes many Chinese as a far better long-term strategy for Western governments, especially conservatives, when dealing with the Chinese Communist Party.

Aoqi Wu recently graduated from our MSc Global Politics

 

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