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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