The British government’s focus during Xi Jinping’s elaborate state visit was the £30 billion of potential investment from China, which will include a significant stake in the UK’s first new nuclear power station in a generation.
During the week a growing number of voices questioned the closeness of the British government’s relationship with the Chinese regime, believing it to be naive and compromising British values.
Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, spoke of her fear that the Prime Minister may not raise human rights at all.
One of AI’s biggest concerns is religious persecution in China. Allen said that many religious groups have been oppressed. Individuals have been imprisoned, and places where people exercise their right to their faith have been burnt down and destroyed.
“It’s one of the rights that we should all have from the Universal Declaration of Rights: the freedom to pursue our own religion if that is what we want to do, and that is not being honoured in China,” Allen said.
She believes that it is unacceptable to many in the UK if these issues are ignored. “The record of human rights in China is very difficult. If the people who are here to welcome their president went on to the streets in China to protest about something their government was doing, they would be arrested. Those issues of people not having freedom of speech, not having freedom of assembly, not being able to do the things we are doing here, those are the issues that we want to see tackled.”
Acclaimed author and veteran pro-democracy activist Ma Jian, who was present during the first day of the state visit, said: “The Queen is a symbol of democracy and she should not be together with a symbol of a totalitarian state. This for me is a very absurd picture; I really did not know that the British government could stoop to this level, because this is about giving up the most basic values of the United Kingdom.”
At a joint press conference with Xi Jinping, David Cameron argued that it is through developing a closer relationship with China that the government is more able to raise issues like human rights. However, no details were given of any such discussions and sceptics are concerned that if human rights are raised it will be in a very muted way.
In response to a question at the press conference Xi said: “On the issue of human rights, I think the people of our respective countries are in the best position to tell, and China is ready to, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, increase exchanges and cooperation with the UK and other countries in the area of human rights.”
Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former director of strategy, has hit out at the government’s approach. In a scathing attack on BBC’s Newsnight he argued that Britain needs to be much tougher.
“The argument is that this is some sort of choice between squishy human rights and hard-nosed economics – it’s simply not true. The idea that the only way we can make a living and create jobs at home is to engage with such a regime as this is completely false.”
Hilton described a catalogue of abuses in China ranging from vicious political repression to violent physical abuse of women. In addition he pointed to international activities such as stealing property from businesses and governments around the world through relentless cyber-attacks.
“The truth is that China is a rogue state, just as bad as Russia or Iran, and I just don’t understand why we are sucking up to them, rather than standing up to them as we should be,” he said.
James McGregor, based in China and chairman of consultancy APCO Worldwide, concurred with Hilton’s view. He told BBC Radio 4 that he thought the British government’s approach of “supplication” to the Chinese regime was counter-productive.
“Behave like a panting puppy then the object of your affection is going to think they have you on a leash. Britain will rue the day they did this,” he said.
“This is very counter-productive because now they are just going to ask for more and more. When Britain has policies – maybe supporting some American policies – China is going to say, ‘Wait a second. We thought you were our friend, you’d better be our friend, and you have got to do this, you have got to do that …’.”
He continued: “If China has good deals in Britain they will invest. You don’t have to be a supplicant to get them to come.”