First Person: 'Scolding China in public is unlikely to work. The key is what happens in private'

Posted by ap507 at Oct 23, 2015 09:35 AM |
Dr Jonna Nyman discusses Britain's complicated relationship with China

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This week, Chinese president Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the United Kingdom. From the opium wars to negotiations over Hong Kong, Britain's relationship with China has been complicated to say the least.

Today the relationship requires careful balancing of economics and human rights, which remains an area of disagreement.

China's rise has made it an important force in the global economy and David Cameron has been keen to court the Chinese leadership, undertaking a state visit to China in the first six months of his premiership. George Osborne also visited China as recently as September, when he was lauded by Chinese media for focusing on the economic benefits of the relationship instead of human rights.

Good relations with China comes with clear economic advantages and Osborne's recent visit showed the value placed on this. If previous behaviour is anything to judge by, China's human rights record is unlikely to be a high profile issue during this visit.

For China, while the relationship comes with economic benefits, it has clearer and perhaps more important political advantages. A partner like the UK is helpful internationally, gives the regime legitimacy and helps push an image of China as a responsible player on the international stage.

It will also help build the President's image domestically: the visit will provide ample footage of "uncle Xi's" statesmanship. It includes a range of activities likely to play well with Chinese television audiences, including a formal state banquet and addresses by Xi to the Houses of Parliament.

Both sides have labeled this a golden era of UK-China relations, and the foreign secretary has called it a win-win situation. The win is easily summed up in one word: economics. The UK was among the first to embrace China's new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, becoming a founding member in the face of US disapproval.

The visit will be accompanied by trade agreements and investments, strengthening economic ties.

Meanwhile, the question of human rights has taken a back seat. Scolding China in public is unlikely to benefit anyone, but what happens behind closed doors matters.

Xi is a popular president, but has also presided over crackdowns on domestic dissent. This visit gives David Cameron a chance to discuss this directly with the Chinese leader.

The question that remains is, will he take it?

Dr Jonna Nyman is Teaching Fellow in International Relations at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

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