The Blog

Cameron's China Trip Was Foolish and Craven

Cameron's trip to China and his pledge that Britain will be China's "biggest advocate in the West", are bad politics, bad ethics and exceptionally bad foreign policy.

Cameron's trip to China and his pledge that Britain will be China's "biggest advocate in the West", are bad politics, bad ethics and exceptionally bad foreign policy.

It's that time of year again: Winter enough for the christmas lights to go up on Clapham High Street but still autumn enough for everyone to complain about it. The time of year when the fact that the hot water cylinder in my four person house only produces enough hot water for three stops becoming "something we'll laugh about later in life" and starts becoming a significant cause of frostbite. Basically it's getting cold. It's the time of year when we all start wistfully staring at summer breaks in between the usual workplace internet pastimes of Buzzfeed and cat videos.

David Cameron, of course, isn't restrained by such limitations. With winter descending on London he's taken 100 of his closest friends on a field trip to China. There to engage in such hi jinks as fungus banquets, playing with puppet horses (actually this one sounds pretty fun) and not talking about human rights.

I'm being flippant but there's a serious point here. Cameron's trip to China and his pledge that Britain will be China's "biggest advocate in the West", are bad politics, bad ethics and exceptionally bad foreign policy.

I'm not about to join in the various comparison's of China to a string of historical baddies (although the Kaiser simile in the FT is particularly fun). China is a danger to the world because if it's actions in the here and now. Even more of a threat are international lightweights like Cameron who think that jet setting around the worlds ugliest regimes with a carpet bag full of British products and a plastic smile makes them a statesman. Those with democratic mandates were conspicuous by their absence amongst the Prime Ministers "representatives of Britain. Evil may flourish when good men do nothing, but it's certainly helped when mediocre men give it a round of applause.

The bad politics has been fairly well covered. Cameron came into office advocating a tougher stance on China's human rights violations. He met with the Dalai Lama, prompting a diplomatic freeze from Beijing. Then he tried to row back, prompting some particularly unstatesmanlike groveling. This is amateur. You can't imagine Barack Obama, Angela Merkel or even Francois Hollande accepting the sort of snubs that Cameron has suffered while in China. Yet our Prime Minister smiles and laps up what scraps of friendship the Chinese are prepared to toss his way like the desperate cousin at a wedding. Cameron's obsequiousness has raised the status of the Chinese leaders at his own expense. You don't need a degree in IR to see that this is a pretty poor negotiating tactic.

It's also the wrong thing to do. China's regime is repulsive to everything for which Britain should stand. There was a time when a free press, transparent and free trade and democratic government were the values which Britain aimed to export to the world. China has banned, tortured and persecuted journalists, eliminated all independent forms of social media and treats international contract law with slightly less respect than Jack Sparrow has for the Pirates' Code. Not to mention the fact that China has never held a general election and, every so often, they massacre huge swathes of their population.

It's true that China has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty, but it has murdered or interned millions too. While it may seem like these numbers don't compare, truly valuing humanity means that one political murder is too high a price to pay for prosperity. A million isn't "a statistic", it's a crime against humanity. In addition, while those 600 million raised out of poverty may be able to eat, they can't vote, write or even talk freely. They have exchanged one form of poverty for another.

Finally it's bad foreign policy. Cameron's action sends the message that trade (and only a very particular type of trade - I didn't notice many SMEs or start-ups in the PM's delegation) is more important than human rights. Opening up Britain to unfettered Chinese investment empowers unaccountable Chinese conglomerates at the expense of British people and the democratically elected British government.

Most importantly, if we accept the way that China, and particularly Chinese industry, treats people then we imperil our own hard won freedoms. When we legitimise China in the eyes of the world we legitimise the treatment of workers as little more than machines; the suppression of a vast range of freedoms. This isn't just screwing some people in a foreign country, this impacts on us. The multinationals that provide the majority of both our goods and jobs have hardly demonstrated an abundance of concern for the welfare of their workers. Jobs flow to China because British workers demand inconvenient things like a safe working environment and a decent wage. We ignored this while it was just the jobs moulding plastic toys or sewing trainers. But it's now car engineers, computer programmers and, possibly, finance. We can't keep just finding new industries. We're not losing jobs to China because they can do them better; we're losing jobs to China because they can force people to do it cheaper and more dangerously and don't have to worry about honouring contracts.

David Cameron sees Britain as a mere competitor in the "global race". His abandonment of human rights in favour of trade is the unavoidable result of the inevitable tide of history. But he's wrong. History is a product of the aggregate decisions of individuals. If Cameron continues to sacrifice the ideals of human rights and the rule of law in a craven pursuit of trade (on China's terms) then he will disadvantage our economy and diminish our international influence. He will also have helped make the world a much worse place.