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,  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