05/12/2013 06:25 GMT | Updated 04/02/2014 05:59 GMT

David Cameron in China: Statesman or Salesman?

Just last month the UK used its voice at the United Nations' "Universal Periodic Review" of China to challenge human rights abuses in Tibet. Welcome as this statement was, few will have noticed a diplomatic communiqué in Geneva during an important but obscure UN procedure.

In the last few days, with the spotlight shining on Britain's relationship with China, there have been only warm words from David Cameron about "a dialogue of mutual respect and understanding". As Mr Cameron was still in the country, Tibetan nomad Kunchok Tseten set himself alight in protest against China's rule - the most recent of more than 120 Tibetans to do so since Mr Cameron last visited the People's Republic. Kunchok Tseten had previously told friends and family that he could no longer "bear China's atrocities in Tibet".

Sadly, and despite the drastic action taken by Kunchok Tseten and the others who have self-immolated, it is no surprise that Tibet has been off the agenda. The word is toxic in Beijing and no one is in any doubt that when Mr Cameron said "I don't have plans to meet him [the Dalai Lama] again", that was code for "I know my place". In a carefully phrased response to a question about whether he raised human rights issues including Tibet in his private meeting with President Xi Jinping, the Prime Minister claimed that he had "raised all those issues".

We must take him at his word but that word "raised" is very inclusive. Putting a tick next to the word Tibet on a list of "issues" is not the same as challenging a policy or seeking an answer. China is politic enough to know that there is domestic pressure on Cameron over Tibet - it may even be savvy enough to know that allowing the PM to claim he did not ignore Tibet helps the PR for his visit and avoids the perception that he has completely sold out. That's in China's interests too and they have little to lose by permitting him that indulgence.

For China, the issue is public acts which could be interpreted as conveying support for Tibet. These include meeting the Dalai Lama, comments on Tibetan protest or human rights abuses in Tibet, possibly even support for the resumption of the currently stalled Sino-Tibetan dialogue. As long as Western leaders are silent on these issues, China can swat away the "expressions of concern" from junior ministers, officials and embassy staff.

Whatever the behind-the-scenes diplomatic exchanges have been following his infamous 2012 meeting with an elderly Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mr Cameron's personal charm offensive became public in the debate following the Queen's Speech last May. The government's line on Tibet has for a long time been to state Britain's "longstanding" position that Tibet is part of China while expressing concern about"policies" in Tibet (the words "human rights violations" rarely pass ministers' lips). During the Queen's Speech debate, Mr Cameron was asked about Tibet. His response referred immediately to China's territorial integrity and omitted any reference to human rights. That formulation - including an explicit rejection of Tibetan independence - has reportedly been repeated in China this week.

Similarly, Downing Street's refusal to apologise for meeting the Dalai Lama was a gesture of domestic face-saving, not defiance of China. His Holiness resigned his political role two years ago and is now an immensely popular spiritual leader, not the leader of Tibet. His importance to Tibetans is still hard to overestimate and his radioactivity in China follows from that but private meetings with him have no more than a symbolic importance which leaves China's appalling human rights record in Tibet untouched.

A United Nations report has described the use of torture in Tibet as "widespread" and "routine". In the last two years, unarmed protesters have been shot and killed with live ammunition, Tibetans have been beaten and killed in custody and collective punishments have been imposed on entire communities where individuals have protested. A French journalist who managed to film undercover in Lhasa this year described the surveillance in Tibet's capital as "Orwellian". This year, the think tank Freedom House awarded Tibet a "worst of the worst" political freedom rating of 7.0, lower even than the 6.5 awarded to China as a whole.

The repression and the protests have a single root: Tibet is a country under occupation. Its inhabitants' refusal to bow to Chinese rule is the reason the boot of the Chinese state stamps down hardest in Tibet. Just weeks ago, the Tibetan county of Driru fell victim to a brutal clampdown because Tibetans threw the Chinese flags they had been ordered to fly on their houses into the river. More than 60 were injured as Chinese forces fired on protesters. The county is still locked down.

An occupied country, subject to gross human rights abuses by the world's largest authoritarian state, Tibet is a test case for principle and statesmanship. David Cameron has failed that test. When he talks tough on human rights in Sri Lanka but talks of "mutual respect" in China, he looks like a salesman, not a statesman.

For more information, visit