The Chinese president’s state visit coincides with the biggest crackdown on his country’s civil society in years. This fawning insults the people of both countries
Chinese flags fly side by side with union flags on the Mall ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA
Eighteen years ago, I stood at dawn in the driving rain and watched with dread as the tanks and trucks of China’s People’s Liberation Army rolled into Hong Kong, reclaiming sovereignty over the British colony. It was clear at once that Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy was doomed. To escape Big Brother’s gaze and retain the freedom to think and write, I moved to London.
On Tuesday I will stand by the Mall and watch the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, and his wife glide towards Buckingham Palace in a state carriage. There will be no army tanks or trucks in this procession, but my feeling of dread will no doubt be deeper. Big Brother has arrived once more on British territory. This time, however, he is being welcomed by the UK government not with a frosty handshake but with open arms and shameless sycophancy.
It will be no ordinary state visit. The leader of the world’s largest autocracy will enjoy a 103-gun royal salute and a sumptuous, white-tie state banquet attended by three generations of the royal family; he will address the houses of parliament and at night will sleep in the palace’s Belgian Suite, in the very same bed that Duke and Duchess of Cambridge used on their wedding night.
It will herald, George Osborne hopes, a “golden era” in Chinese-British relations. Britain will become China’s “best partner in the west”. They will “stick together”, creating a “win-win” situation for both countries. But who will be the real winners and losers of this ignoble friendship that puts trade above human rights?
For Xi the state visit is a huge propaganda coup. At home, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) considers western constitutional democracy the number one “peril in the ideological sphere”, according to a secret document circulated two years ago. Yet, sharing the contradictory mentality common to China’s dictators, Xi craves the approval of the western democracies he derides, hoping it will bolster his stature and lend an air of legitimacy to his despotic rule.
Images of Xi’s regal welcome will be plastered over Chinese state media. China’s public will be encouraged to swoon over the silver-gilt candelabra adorning the royal banquet table, the flower arrangements inspected personally by the Queen, the priceless gold vessels displayed as a sign of respect for the guest of honour’s exalted rank.
The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects will be clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?
Huge deals set to be sealed during the visit will allow the Chinese government to pour some of its vast stockpiles of cash into British energy and transport projects, such as Hinkley Point nuclear power station and the HS2 high-speed rail line. Few other western countries would so readily grant stakes in their key infrastructure to companies run by a totalitarian government with a shaky economy, uncertain future and abysmal human rights record. But, desperate for Chinese cash to push through controversial vanity projects without compromising his beloved austerity programme, Osborne is prepared to abandon principle and endanger Britain’s national security.
Lu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2010, but remains in prison in China. Photograph: Scanpix Norway/REUTERS
Had Xi’s state visit been a reward for a modest improvement in China’s human rights, perhaps the pomp and ceremony would have been more palatable. But the disgraceful truth is, his visit coincides with the most severe crackdown on Chinese civil society in a generation. According to Amnesty International, at least 245 human rights lawyers and activists have been targeted since July, and at least 30 are still missing or in police custody.
Among those in secret detention is Wang Yu, a fearless defender of feminist activists and victims of rape and religious persecution. The torture inflicted on such detainees is well documented. Another human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who defended Christians and members of the Falun Gong movement, has described in horrific detail the three years he spent in solitary confinement, telling an AP journalist how, when tortured with an electric baton to his face, the sound of his screaming “was almost like a dog howling when its tail is stamped on by its master”.
Would Britain have had the gall to invite PW Botha on a state visit while the world clamoured for Mandela’s release?
Meanwhile, thousands of other political prisoners continue to languish in Chinese jails. The most famous, the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, is halfway through an 11-year sentence for peacefully advocating democratic change. Ilham Tohti, a moderate Uighur academic, is serving a life sentence for striving to build bridges between Chinese Han and Muslim communities in the Xinjiang region. The situation in Tibet is no better. Since 2009, 143 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest against Chinese rule.
The catalogue of human rights abuses committed by the CCP is endless, ranging from barbaric forced abortions and sterilisations to the muzzling of the internet. But its general secretary, Xi Jinping, is now Britain’s new best friend. Would the British government have dared roll out the red carpet for the president of Tunisia after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010? Would it have had the gall to invite President Botha on a state visit while the world was clamouring for Nelson Mandela’s release?
Engagement with the Chinese government is essential, but it is both shameful and unnecessary to shower it with honours, ignore its human rights abuses, and buckle feebly to its unreasonable demands.
The British government has bent over backwards to ingratiate itself with China’s leaders. After being scolded by them for meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012, David Cameron vowed to “turn the page” and never repeat the mistake. True to his word, he snubbed the Nobel laureate during his visit to London last month. It seems pitiful that the British prime minister should allow the CCP to dictate who he does or doesn’t meet in his own country.
Osborne has been equally accommodating. During his recent visit to China, he told the BBC he had raised the issue of human rights only in the context of “economic development – how we help kids from poor areas of China”. He knew full well this would please his Chinese hosts, who like to narrow discussion to economic rights while crushing the more fundamental freedoms of thought, speech and assembly, which pose a threat to their rule.
This tawdry friendship of convenience, these pageants, lies and unethical compromises, may benefit Cameron and Xi, but they are an insult to the citizens of Britain, who cherish their hard-fought freedoms, and to those in China, who are still struggling courageously to achieve them.
It would be naive to imagine Cameron would raise questions on human rights while toasting Xi with champagne at the banquet. But the howls of political prisoners such as Gao Zhisheng should haunt every guest.
And when Cameron goes home to sleep in Number 10, and President Xi tucks himself under the silken bedspread of the Belgian Suite, one can only hope that, for a moment at least, they might be painfully aware that just a mile or so away, in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, a replica of a Chinese political prisoner is lying in a mock-up prison cell for all the world to see.