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4 November 2010updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

David Cameron’s China visit

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

By Sholto Byrnes

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.

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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.

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