As a young diplomat at the British Embassy in Bucharest in the aftermath of the Romanian Revolution, I found a collection of embarrassing photos stuffed down the back of a cupboard. These were of the deposed dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu on his 1978 state visit to the UK and included shots of him riding down The Mall in the Queen’s golden carriage. The visit took place at the height of the Cold War, when Ceauşescu had been showing signs of independence from the Soviet line. Rewarding him with a state visit must have seemed like a better idea at the time than it did a decade or so later.
Memories of these scenes were revived this week by the state visit of Chinese Premier Xi Jingping. In some respects Xi’s visit is worse because it involves discarding important principles for possible commercial gain, rather than profound issues of national security. By neglecting to mention human rights concerns and allowing a Chinese rent-a-mob to elbow aside peaceful pro-Tibet protestors, to name but two examples, Britain is conducting Xi’s visit “like a fawning spaniel that licks the hand that beats it”, as the veteran MP Paul Flynn aptly put it.
Indeed, Xi’s visit is perhaps the most humiliating example so far of just how far Britain has sunk in the world under the current government. As well as diminishing Britain’s foreign policy capacity by making 20% plus cuts to an already overstretched Foreign Office, the Tories have switched its focus to trade promotion. There is nothing wrong with commercial diplomacy as such. Trade and the jobs it produces are important. But it is damaging and unnecessary to combine this with a deliberate neglect of the UK’s crucial foreign policy interests.
For years Britain has advocated the virtues of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. There is, of course, a moral aspect to this. Countries that practice those things are better places to live and those of us lucky enough to live in freedom have a duty to help others to obtain it. But self-interest is also at stake. The time-honoured truth is that we are much less likely to end up in violent conflict with other democracies that respect the rights of their people. Countries run according to the strong and impartial rule of law are also more reliable and profitable long-term trading partners. They do not, for example, pose the problems caused by Chinese industrial espionage and intellectual property theft.
Nonetheless, the UK’s volume of trade with China is unimpressive and could be increased. But the reason we sell less to China than the Germans, French and Japanese is not because they are better at grovelling than we are. It is because they make things the Chinese need and market them well. Chinese government and business leaders have a hard-nosed sense of what they want. Financial criteria will, for example, govern whether they choose the City of London as their international centre for Renminbi currency trading. How low we bend in keeping quiet about China’s abuse of its own citizens and those of occupied Tibet has little impact on such major commercial decisions.
Indeed there are grounds for believing this subservient attitude will ultimately prove counter-productive. China’s history of greatness followed by humiliation has produced a prickly country with an over-developed sense of pride. It does not respect a lack of it in others and is likely to disregard our needs and interests in future as a result.
The world is also much bigger than China. The government seems to have given limited consideration to how ingratiating itself with China will be viewed by the UK’s most important ally, the USA, and the many Asian nations threatened by China’s aggressive island occupying policies in the region. And, if our foreign policy is going to be dominated by the language of trade, then we should be aware that brands matter. The UK’s long standing identity as a stable, democratic nation where the rule of law prevails distinguishes us in the world and draws in business. By signalling that we do not value these things ourselves and are willing to drop them in search of a fast buck, we diminish our own brand.
Aside from the question of whether the interests of a supposed world power are served by presenting itself as a supplicant, the timing of this big bet on China is, in any case, off. There are plenty of signs that China’s rise is beginning to stall. Its slowing economic growth and recent stock exchange collapse indicate the difficulties it is having in transitioning from being the world’s sweatshop into an advanced economy. Localised political and anti-corruption protests are also widespread. It is doubtful whether China is so unique that it will not face more destabilising demands for political change over the coming years, as do most authoritarian countries when they reach a certain level of economic development.
Whilst the justifications for Xi’s state visit are very different to the earlier one by Ceauşescu, it may well become a similar cause for regret in the years ahead. Even if it does not, it is embarrassing enough now and unlikely to produce enough benefits to compensate for Britain’s loss of dignity.