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New Orientation
London and Beijing in Rights Row

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the UK in late October, the Brits were criticized for overlooking Beijing’s record of political suppression. At the time, we explained that this isn’t exactly new: London has been accused of putting profit over human rights in the Orient since it encouraged the opium trade. Yet this week has seen an unusual row. Reuters:

China on Thursday lashed out at Britain’s belated criticism of its security officers’ pushing of diplomats at a rights trial, in an unusual public sign of disagreement between countries supposedly enjoying a “golden” era in ties.

Plainclothes security officers on Monday shoved diplomats, journalists and protesters away from a courthouse in Beijing where prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was on trial.

As many as 11 diplomats from countries including the United States, Germany, Britain and France had gathered to observe the trial, but were refused entry by the police.

Britain has told China the “physical mistreatment” of diplomats and journalists in Beijing was unacceptable, a Foreign Office representative said in a statement issued by the British embassy in Beijing.

Some like to claim that Britain isn’t being sufficiently tough on China (see Reuters’ use of the word “belated” for a sense, or the link above). There’s truth to the criticism, but we’re sympathetic to Britain’s goals: It’s important to defend one’s own personnel from disrespectful treatment, as in this case, but in general excessive hand wringing over China isn’t very productive (see, for example, the mess our self-righteous protestations exacerbated in Thailand). Post-empire Britain needs to ensure London is the world’s financial capital, and it needs Beijing for that. Furthermore, if there’s a Brexit, Britain will need a diversified trade portfolio. There’s little point in jeopardizing these things for the sake of ineffective and likely counterproductive rhetoric.

In the long run, the best way to improve human rights in China is to bring it into an American-led world order, not to castigate it at every opportunity. The West should stand by its values, and be careful about encouraging China, or giving them too much leeway. But we should also recognize that China isn’t going to change simply because we tell it to. The specifics of that balancing act will vary in different Western countries, of course. But, for the moment, Britain looks like it’s on to a promising approach.

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  • Nevis07

    I’m not quite sure I agree completely with this post in regards to Britain’s approach to China. They have been fairly weak on confronting what they see is their most promising new market. The reality is that Britain along with our other European allies see very little to gain from confronting China over human rights let or any other policy disagreement. They’re more than happy to let the US do all of the heavy lifting. One only needs to look at the dynamic of Russia and NATO to see how weak they are on standing by western values. It’s been like pulling teeth with them to get them to agree to a joint NATO statement against Russian action in Ukraine, let alone to get them to actually contribute to defense spending and this is in Europe’s backyard – A.I. has pointed this out multiple times itself. But to expect our European ‘allies’ to help us to confront China on the other side of the world is a pipe-dream. They want America to confront China, while they gain the benefits of market access.

    I lived in the UK for almost a year from 2001 – 2002. I was living in Oxford when 9/11 happened. I lived for a full year in Edinburgh from 2009 – 2010. I can tell you there has been a sea-change in the amount of public support for US foreign policy. Granted, Iraq was very much on the minds of British citizens in 2009, but I have to say that the British alliance and ‘special relationship’ is a fraction of what it once was. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn should be a warning sign to all Americans. This is not the Britain of our parent’s era. And that’s not a criticism of Britain. They have every right to pursue whatever goal they think best. I’m just suggesting that they don’t see as much reward in supporting Western/American rule-of-law in China or much beyond Europe for that matter. I’m concerned that Europe does not have America’s back when it comes to China.

    • Jim__L

      “This is not the Britain of our parent’s era.”

      Their finest hour is long past. Barring Niall Ferguson, I can’t think of a single modern British thinker with any insight or philosophy worth paying attention to.

      (On the other hand, if you’d like to toss out some names I should look up, I’m willing to give them a shot.)

      • Nevis07

        I really can’t, though admittedly, I’ve been paying less and less attention to British media over the last couple of years.

        At the end of the day, as this piece infers, Britain’s interests are narrowing along with their (perceived) interests – as you’ve pointed out, their intellectual leadership seems to be slipping in lock-step with those narrowing of interest. Now, should we see a Brexit, there could well be a revival of broader thought as policy would be less constrained by EU mandates, but nothing is for certain and a Brexit could well mean an even more divergent foreign policy from the US – perhaps more along the lines of often difficult France/US foreign policy dynamic.

      • Andrew Allison
        • Jim__L

          Ferguson and Ali are on there, although I would say that Ali is on there from relevant personal experience that doesn’t really need much philosophical embellishment… Penrose and Hawking, good, but I still think that Newton towers above them both (Hooke and Boyle edge them out too)… Gideon Rachmann is certainly bright and I dislike disparaging him, but if he’s on your list of top intellectuals then my pastor belongs on there too… John Keegan, excellent… but the list is cluttered by a number of anti-religious bigots, and the rest are people I’ve never heard of.

          The absence of James Burke (for his work on mapping out technological innovation in history) means the list-makers here are fools. But what can you expect from the Guardian?

          I suspect opening up the history books I could come up with a Top 100 British Intellectuals list, perhaps even a Top 300, that would not include anyone from the Guardian’s list with the possible exception of Hawking.

          • Andrew Allison

            The subject was modern British thinkers. I’m glad that, with a little help [grin], you were able to come with one or two. Jacob Bronowski, Kenneth Clark, Bertrand Russel come to mind. A few more can be found at None of which invalidates your comment that it’s not the Britain of our parents era. The mighty have indeed fallen — but we’re not doing so well ourselves. At least Britain appears to actually have a foreign policy.

          • Nevis07

            lol. “At least Britain appears to actually have a foreign policy.” Yeah, that does appear to sum up our current administration, doesn’t it. It’s funny, yesterday one of our B-52’s entered air-space claimed by China around one of their man-made islands. Initially, I was pleased to hear that our “leadership” in 1600 Pen. decided to make a freedom of navigation statement – only to find out later that it wasn’t actually done on purpose… This administration cannot end soon enough IMO!

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