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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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories