The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Britain is bending over backward to prove its friendship to China

President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping cross paths during the Leaders' Summit on Peacekeeping at the 70th annual U.N. General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in September. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Xi Jinping will pay a state visit to Britain next week -- the first by a Chinese leader in a decade. He comes at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, and will stay as her guest at Buckingham Palace, to be treated with all the pomp and ceremony that the former imperial power can still muster.

China’s foreign ministry announced this week that the trip will lead to the signing of agreements worth a “huge” amount of money and herald a new “golden era” in ties between the two countries.

And that is exactly what the British government wants. Ever since Prime Minister David Cameron felt the full force of Chinese displeasure after meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012, Britain’s government has been working overtime to ingratiate itself with Beijing.

[What China's Xi Jinping thinks about freedom]

The effort is led by Chancellor of the Exchequer -- or finance minister -- George Osborne, who visited China last month and also envisions a “golden relationship” between the two countries that “fosters a golden decade” for Britain. China will become the economic center of the globe, and Britain should not just embrace its rise, but become its best partner in the West, he says.

The gold, of course, is all coming from China, in the form of hoped-for investment in British infrastructure, while London is cast in the role of humble, uncritical supplicant, with talk of human rights expressly banished from the room.

But it is a policy that is starting to attract widespread criticism, both at home and abroad. Rounding up the media coverage, the China Digital Times Web site called it “Osborne’s New Model of Minor Power Supplications” and asked, “Is British Policy For Sale to China?”

A version of the Magna Carta, England's 13th-century bill of rights, is on display in China this week. But London's Times newspaper said it was a "pathetically inadequate" gesture, arguing the British government should take a far more robust approach to calling China out over its "despotism."

Britain, of course, has a long and troubled history with China. It is remembered here as a leading colonial power that inflicted what is known as a century of national humiliation on China from the mid-19th century onward, from the Opium Wars through the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion and the sacking of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. But that’s no excuse, critics say, for the current policy of complete kowtowing to the Chinese dictatorship.

Criticism surfaced in March, when Britain broke ranks with the United States by becoming the first European nation to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Although Britain’s finance ministry, the Treasury, congratulated itself on having stolen a march on Frankfurt in the race to become an offshore trading center for the Chinese currency, Washington was distinctly sniffy.

The decision, an unnamed senior administration official told the Financial Times, had been taken with ”virtually no consultation” with the United States, lamenting “a trend towards constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power.”

But it was Osborne’s trip to the troubled western Chinese province of Xinjiang that set “a new low,” according to Joan Smith, writing in the Independent. Human rights groups say China systematically suppresses the social, economic and religious rights of the region’s Muslim Uighurs, and Osborne’s trip came on the anniversary of the highly controversial trial and sentencing of moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti.

But that seemed to worry the British Chancellor not one bit, as Tom Phillips reported in the Guardian -- with Osborne promising to bring economic development to Xinjiang through British investment while blithely ignoring the argument that the benefits of development there have flowed overwhelmingly to China’s ethnic Han majority and may indeed have exacerbated ethnic tensions with the Uighurs.

China is now grappling with a rise in violence in Xinjiang, and former British diplomat Kerry Brown wrote that Britain lacks the expertise to invest in such a complex region and address the formidable political, economic and social challenges there.

“Amoral foreign policy has been a unique specialty of the U.K. for centuries,” Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, wrote in The Diplomat, but went on to argue that this trip did not even make commercial sense. “As it is, there is the sneaking suspicion that Osborne went to Xinjiang not for commercial reasons, but to pander for political favor in Beijing. And that leads us to the depressing conclusion that it is not just British business and expertise that is for sale in China -- so is British government policy.”

British officials sometimes argue that their leaders are making the case for human rights with their Chinese counterparts in private rather than in public, but when pressed struggle to cite examples of when such a softly-softly approach has worked before. Indeed, human rights advocates are convinced there are none.

In a piece in The Spectator about Cameron's "craven surrender" to China, Jonathan Mirsky gives a revealing anecdote about how then-British Prime Minister John Major insisted to reporters he had forcefully raised the issue of political prisoners in a private meeting with his Chinese counterpart in 1991, despite -- as one official in the room later admitted -- having actually failed to even mention the issue.

To the British government, the policy might seem to be working. China’s state media certainly approves -- China Daily praised Osborne for his “pragmatic” approach, while a nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, said, “It should be diplomatic etiquette for foreign leaders not to confront China by raising the human rights issue,” adding: “Keeping a modest manner is the correct attitude for a foreign minister visiting China to seek business opportunities.”

But does Britain really want such a cozy relationship with an authoritarian state that systematically curbs the fundamental rights of its people, including their freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion, and under President Xi is engaged in a dramatic further crackdown on those rights? Or should it, in fact, be sticking up for the Chinese people, for the lawyers, activists and ordinary people who face imprisonment and even torture for expressing their views?

In an e-mail to The Washington Post, William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said Osborne’s Xinjiang trip had been a public relations coup for Beijing, while Cameron’s efforts to ingratiate himself with the Chinese after the Dalai Lama had played into Beijing’s hands.

“Historically, China has been very adept at 'punishing' countries that bring up human rights too forcefully, putting them in the dog house, and then forcing them to 'repair' the damaged relationship through obsequious and overly reverential grovelling acts, which are then handsomely rewarded,” he wrote. “And strategically, the Chinese government has tried to use these examples as warnings to other countries.

“However, the backlash in the public and in the media to Osborne's Xinjiang visit shows that many people in Britain and around the world expect that their leaders should speak out in a principled, respectful, and forceful way -- both in public and private."

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