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19 October 2015updated 20 Oct 2015 10:34am

Five tips on talking to China

David Cameron has given up on talking to China about anything except trade. Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can plot a better course. 

By Liam Byrne

Jeremy Corbyn’s ambition to talk human rights with President Xi is perfectly right and proper – good friends are, after all, always candid with each other.  But if his goal is progress, not finger-pointing, then there’s five big lessons he should bear in mind as he delicately frames his talking points.

1. Remember a little history – and a lot of humility.

Chinese leaders aren’t mad keen on taking lectures from British politicians about human rights for the very simple reason that unlike us, they haven’t forgotten the Opium Wars; the brutal subjugation of the Chinese Empire in pursuit of our God-given to sell their citizens poison. Indeed, when President Xi took the reins of power he made a high profile first stop at a now famous exhibition – the Road to Reconstruction – at the Communist Party’s museum in Tiananmen Square. There, over several floors is the story of how we helped destroy China’s ancien regime, torching Beijing’s Summer Palace just for good measure, shattering China’s strength and opening the way for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty episodes in 20th century history.  Mr Corbyn could do worse than open his remarks with a repeat of Tony Blair’s apology.  A little humility and history can go an awful long way.

2. Don’t forget the progress.

The extraordinary economic growth of China is, famously, stunning. The country has industrialised at ten times the speed on Britain – and on one hundred times the scale. 400 million people have seen their economic rights transformed as they’ve been lifted out of poverty. And with its new found wealth, China’s leaders are building the world’s biggest welfare state. Mao’s ‘iron rice bowl’ of welfare rights melted down long ago and now China is a country that is growing older faster than it is growing rich, with tens of thousands of over 80s now needing care in cities like Shanghai. New health and welfare rights have been rolled out to hundreds of millions of people including the hundreds of millions of migrants from the country-side now living in the cities. Chinese leaders have always seen ‘human rights’ as a mixture and balance of political, economic and social rights. Of course, we should always lobby for faster progress with political rights – but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the progress elsewhere.

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3. Remember China has reformers too.

Like all national leaders, President Xi is a juggler. A balancer of opinions and forces for and against reform. Many are pushing him to go further, faster. Influential voices within the CCP argue that without political and legal reform, China will simply fail. In a slew of books, like China Is Not Happy, and Storming The Fortress, thinkers have pointed to scandals like the poisoned baby-milk saga, illegal land seizures and pollution outrages as evidence that corrupt local officials need to feel the discipline of elections and the wrath of courts. President Xi has begun with a ferocious attempt to root out corruption hitting figures big and small – ‘from the tiger to the fly’. Greater intra-party democracy is likely to follow. Of course it’s not as fast as we would like. But we should recognise the wheels are at least in motion.

4. Focus on reform of “rule of law”: it’s the fastest way to progress.

The reform of China’s judicial system is gathering pace. It’s not a small task. This is a country that since the Cultural Revolution of 1970s has had to rebuild a legal system almost from scratch. That work entailed 450 pieces of legislation, training a million lawyers and building five layers of courts from the village to Beijing. Within the CCP today, there are welcome and lively debates about how as the Chinese say, they ‘put power in the cage’ and subject the Communist Party Untitled eventfor the first time to the full weight of domestic law. But pressure for change is building. As China’s firms become creators and not copiers of intellectual property for instance, they want a legal system that protects their rights. This is one of the most unsung, but most important fields of UK-China relations; training judges, reforming prison oversight and of course, continuing to campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.  Last year, the UK-China judicial round table began the patient work of bringing judges together – and this year, the UK-China Common Law centre opened for business in Beijing. It’s field where we need to step up cooperation.

5. Finally – and perhaps most important – try and spend at least a little time on the huge ‘win wins’ ahead.

This is the Asian century. Power is ineluctably shifting from its old home in the west, in what Premier Wen once called ‘the larger trend’. If we want a genuine, plural, power-balanced world then we have a big stake in China’s success. Our partnership could will help that shift happen – for instance, sharing our knowledge of welfare systems like healthcare and pensions; becoming a home for Chinese investment – which our economy desperately needs, and perhaps most important of all, collaborating in the field of science and technology. China is about to become the world’s biggest science spender, and a “Red Tech Revolution” is transforming private sector growth. For a country like ours that is home to so many of China’s scientists and students, there are today unprecedented opportunities for us drive forward the frontiers of science together in the battle against disease and poverty.

As a country we should be very proud of the force we put into our arguments for better and stronger rights. Unlike, Cameron we don’t want to dismantle the Human Rights Act or the European Convention we did so much to author. We should always push the argument. But we must never grandstand. The necessity of progress is far too serious for that.

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