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
Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.