UK visit by China’s PM proves controversial

On his first trade visit to the UK, Li Keqiang could agree to investment deals worth £18bn. It’s good for business, but should the UK be doing more to confront China about human rights?


Emperor’s new clothes

The first time China and Great Britain ever discussed trade it was a disaster. In 1793 Britain’s ambassador in Beijing refused to perform the traditional rituals before meeting the emperor and the only translator present was an 11-year-old boy. The emperor dismissed the British products he was offered, writing to King George III that China had ‘no need’ for the ‘manufactures of barbarians’.

Relations only got worse in the 19th century. Britain’s navy humiliated China in the Opium Wars and its soldiers sacked the Summer Palace. Then in 1900 a military alliance of foreigners wiped out the anti-colonialist Boxer Rebellion and seized control of Beijing. This defeat by European powers is still a sore point in China today.

The balance of world power has shifted greatly since then. Today, after 30 years of staggering growth, China is set to become the world’s largest economy. And this week its prime minister, Li Keqiang, is making his first trade visit to the UK accompanied by a huge delegation of business leaders who hope to make investment deals worth up to £18bn.

China has lots of cash reserves which it wants to spend abroad and the UK needs improved infrastructure, such as new power plants and airports. In truth, the UK and China need each other and both have much to gain through better links.

But the trip is proving controversial. Li allegedly threatened to cancel unless the queen gave him an audience. And China’s ambassador insulted the UK by suggesting it is only of secondary importance in Europe, after Germany and France.

Many also think the government is abandoning British values in its eagerness to please China. The deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg complains that China’s people are ‘shackled’ and wants more discussion about the country’s human rights record. Activists also lament that London is not taking more of a stand over China’s occupation of Tibet.

Some say that by ignoring human rights and accepting petty demands about meeting the queen, the UK is showing that its dignity can be bought. Li Keqiang can silence UK protests simply by waving money around. The UK should put profits to one side and do more to confront the unacceptable behaviour of this arrogant superpower.

Others argue that China really sees the UK as a mutual partner. It must be seen to present the UK as weak in its own media for the benefit of its nationalist Chinese public. But Li Keqiang has written that China still ‘lags behind’ the West in many areas and he is here in the UK partly to learn from it. The UK has more chance of influencing China on human rights as a friend than as an endlessly complaining enemy.

Allah protects Somaliland

Lecturer:Abdulkhaliq Mohamed Sheikh osman – Birmingham UK