David Cameron’s China visit

He won’t find many of his kind of liberal there.

In recent years there has been a stream of weighty publications about China, not least When China Rules the World by the former NS columnist Martin Jacques and Will Hutton's The Writing on the Wall (which, I'm told, earned him the nickname "the Great Will of China" among Observer colleagues).

There has also been some terrific reporting from the country, notably in this magazine by Channel 4 News's Lindsey Hilsum when she was based there, as well as the very odd column in that otherwise excellent periodical, Prospect, by a man who spends all his time moaning about what a God-awful place it is to live but curiously shows no sign of departing for somewhere he might find more congenial.

However, when it comes to the Kremlinology of China's leadership, the picture is still very far from clear. Next week David Cameron will lead Britain's largest ever delegation to the country, bringing five ministers and 50 businessmen with him. It has been suggested that although the purpose of the visit is trade, he will be expected to raise the issue of human rights – in particular China's treatment of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo – while he is there.

This is a familiar demand – every western leader is told to ask about human rights in China, regardless of whether it is likely to achieve anything or, indeed, just irritate their hosts, who have made their annoyance about being lectured by outsiders abundantly plain.

As Xi Jinping, who is lined up to be the next president, put it last year: "There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?"

In this instance, however, there is the extra encouragement that such talk might not be falling on entirely deaf ears. For a belief has grown up that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, is an ardent reformist, a "lonely fighter for freedom and democracy", as the Singapore Straits Times's Peh Shing Huei wrote yesterday.

I recommend Peh's article "Is Wen really a liberal?" as a cold shower for those desperate to believe that the supposed censorship back home of Wen's "daring remarks" in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria last month is an indication of deep divisions at the top, with one faction ready to push for an Orchid Revolution. Peh quotes a Hong Kong analyst dismissing this point:

"This has happened before," said Willy Lam. "Interviews with the western press are not necessarily reported, even when they talk about non-controversial and completely benign matters."

You can read the whole piece, in which Peh takes apart the case for Wen as a liberal, here, but his conclusion is certainly sobering.

It would be more accurate to label him [Wen] a "centrist" than a liberal. He preaches reform within the party and, even then, at a glacial pace. China will change, but it will be to entrench, not weaken, the CCP's rule. It will be socialism with Chinese characteristics, as Mr Wen stressed in Shenzhen. Nothing else.

During the general election campaign Cameron spoke harshly about China. And this is not to say that the rest of the world is not right to be concerned about the plight of those who express dissent in China, or anywhere else. But although a few strong words may go down well with a British audience, they will ring hollow – or worse, ring of a misplaced and outdated sense of importance – in Asia.

The Prime Minister has no big stick to wield. If he wants to make a success of his visit, he should stick to trade talks. Whatever kind of "liberal" Premier Wen is, it's certainly not any kind that Dave would recognise.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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