Argument

Since When Does Xi Rule Britannia?

Britain's fawning reception of China's president is embarrassing -- and a horrible message about the importance of human rights.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 20:  Members of the cavalry parade down the Mall during the visit of China's President Xi Jinping on October 20, 2015 in London, England. The President of the Peoples Republic of China, Mr Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, are paying a State Visit to the United Kingdom as guests of The Queen.  They will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake engagements in London and Manchester. The last state visit paid by a Chinese President to the UK was Hu Jintao in 2005.  (Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 20: Members of the cavalry parade down the Mall during the visit of China's President Xi Jinping on October 20, 2015 in London, England. The President of the Peoples Republic of China, Mr Xi Jinping and his wife, Madame Peng Liyuan, are paying a State Visit to the United Kingdom as guests of The Queen. They will stay at Buckingham Palace and undertake engagements in London and Manchester. The last state visit paid by a Chinese President to the UK was Hu Jintao in 2005. (Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

For Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United Kingdom, London is rolling out the red carpet — literally. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prime Minister David Cameron, and Queen Elizabeth II welcomed Xi and honored him with a 41-gun salute and a banquet at Buckingham Palace. Xi is reveling in this reception, saying his visit will lift Sino-British relations to “new heights.” And he has brought gifts: during the four-day-visit, which ends Oct. 23, he is expected to sign deals with Cameron worth more than $46 billion.

But at what cost to the United Kingdom’s reputation and integrity?

During a September trip to China in preparation for Xi’s visit, for example, Chancellor George Osborne sounded less like the leader of his country’s financial system and more like a student of Chinese Communist Party propaganda. “We want a golden relationship with China that will help foster a golden decade for this country,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian (sharing a byline with Britain’s commercial secretary to the Treasury, Jim O’Neill). “As China’s global influence grows, so too must our relationship,” they wrote — ignoring both China’s pervasive corruption, and the widespread concern in the business community of China’s protectionism and faulty legal system.

While visiting the restive northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang during that trip, Osborne parroted Beijing in saying that “economic development and rising prosperity and higher living standards” are the answer to the region’s problems — not a fundamental overhaul of the repressive, discriminatory, and anti-Muslim policies that have caused the region to be an epicenter of unrest and terrorism in China. Osborne’s message was that human rights issues should be raised only behind closed doors; other approaches are unconstructive “megaphone diplomacy.” Beijing must have been thrilled. Indeed, a Chinese party newspaper, the Global Times, praised Osborne for not “confronting China by raising the human rights issue.”

Sadly, Osborne’s behavior is only the latest in a long line of British human rights capitulations. Under Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2008, the United Kingdom succumbed to Chinese pressure and recognized Beijing’s sovereignty over Tibet. More recently, London failed to stand up for full democracy in Hong Kong, the Chinese territory that was a British colony until 1997. Following huge pro-democracy street protests in late 2014, London described Beijing’s insistence that it control the candidates who could run for Hong Kong’s top office as allowing space “for a meaningful step forward for democracy.” In March, the United Kingdom became the first Western nation to support the establishment of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite the bank’s lack of standards protecting against development-related abuses. (London says it will work to see such standards adopted.) And although London ultimately reversed its denial of a long-term visa to artist and government critic Ai Weiwei this August, that British officials ever dignified Beijing’s efforts to persecute him is astonishing.

In China, Xi has presided over a devastating suppression of civil society, arguably the worst since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. After Xi assumed power in late 2012, authorities launched a ferocious assault on peaceful civic groups, including lawyers who are trying to promote rights guaranteed under China’s constitution. Beijing has introduced a raft of national-security related laws, with vague prohibitions that criminalize peaceful free expression by citizens and foreigners, increase restrictions on and surveillance of domestic and international civil society groups and their work in China, and heightened Internet restrictions.

This crackdown on lawyers should be especially worrying to the United Kingdom. Without an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, and the ability of Chinese citizens to share ideas without fear of persecution, major trading partners like the United Kingdom cannot expect predictable dispute resolution, protection of British citizens, or the safeguarding of intellectual property. And without a robust civil society to document abuses, provide legal counsel, and offer policy alternatives, there is little prospect for relief from Xi’s reign of repression.

To realize the kind of relationship with China about which Osborne waxes rhapsodic, Cameron needs to change tactics immediately. The British prime minister should welcome independent voices from China to share their views about priority areas of reform and commit to supporting that work in the longer term. When Cameron and Xi sit down together this week, Cameron should call for an end to the practice of torturing detainees, and pressure Beijing to stop rounding up human rights lawyers. He should call for the release of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and other peaceful critics in detention or jail. And he should make clear to the British public that Beijing does not call the shots on key aspects of U.K. policy.

To be sure, Beijing has sometimes imposed negative consequences on some governments in response to human rights criticism — but rarely in ways that seriously affect trade deals or other significant economic interests. And while Chinese leaders do not like tough, frank positions, they do respect them.

In his Guardian op-ed, Osborne wrote that “We are at a critical moment in our relationship with China.” That is sadly true. The United Kingdom has done itself extraordinary reputational damage and undermined effective strategies employed by many governments around the world to help protect and promote human rights in China. But it is not too late.

London can still press Beijing to revive legal reform, respect freedom of expression, and protect peaceful independent activism in China. If not, British leaders will have sold out one of the key tenets of their own government: the universal respect for human dignity and civil rights.

Toby Melville – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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