UK ‘puts trade before human rights’ in China

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron is travelling to China tonight, amid fears that human rights concerns will be overshadowed by trade negotiations.

The two-day trip could not have come at a worse time for the prime minister, with elections in Burma currently earning international condemnation and turning the spotlight on Burma’s main international ally.

Mr Cameron will be under considerable pressure to criticise the poll while visiting China.

Activists’ fears seemed to be confirmed this morning when business secretary Vince Cable said he would not “lecture” the Chinese on human rights on the Today programme.

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: “Vince Cable’s comments are hugely disappointing. It is unbelievable that the largest UK government delegation to China in a generation will put trade before human rights.

“Just a few days ago, David Cameron insisted that human rights will be raised on the trip, but the business secretary appears to have contradicted that today.

“Nobody wants to be lectured, but the Chinese authorities need to face up to some hard truths,” she added.

“The Chinese authorities’ list of human rights abuses is as long as your arm – torture, forced labour, internet repression, unfair trials, and of course the death penalty. And their attitude to dissent borders on the incomprehensible.”

The UK government will at least be relieved that Ai Weiwei, the influential Chinese artist responsible for the sunflower seed exhibit at the Tate Modern, was released from house arrest at midnight last night.

Police had restricted his movements after becoming concerned about a party planned for his condemned studio in Shanghai.

But the artist had a tough message for Mr Cameron in a piece for the Guardian this morning, arguing that the prime minister had a duty to address human rights issues.

“Cameron should ask the Chinese government not to make people ‘disappear’ or to jail them merely because they have different opinions,” he writes.

“Cameron should say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn’t change its own behaviour.”

The size and character of the prime minister’s delegation has led most commentators to assume he will try to appease China by staying away from human rights issues and concentrate on attracting investment.

Mr Cameron has made no secret of his perception of his role as a leading salesman for UK plc. He will be taking several leading businesspeople with him on the trip, including Peter Voser, CEO of Shell, Ben Gordon, CEO of Mothercare and Lucy Neville-Rolfe, executive director of Tesco.

Among the ministers joining the prime minister and Mr Cable on the trip are chancellor George Osborne and energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne.

Mr Cable has been busy in advance of the trip, securing greater legal protection for the Scotch whisky brand in China.

He is expected to sign an agreement with Chinese officials recognising the brand as whisky specifically produced in Scotland, meaning it can only be sold in China according to UK rules.

Mr Cable is also expected to intervene on behalf of drinks giant Diageo to help in its acquisition of China’s Shui Jing Fang, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Downing Street was concerned the Chinese would be affected by the size of the delegation travelling to the country from the UK after Mr Cameron went to India with a massive group of business leaders.

The scale of the China visit trumps that of its rival, but the sense that these are glorified business trips has not been undone, as analysts watch Mr Cameron furiously court the two surging economies of the 21st century.

China’s growth is expected to comfortably exceed ten per cent each year, while most European countries settle for around two per cent. The UK imports £25.4 billion of Chinese products a year, but China takes in just £7.7 billion of British products.

Human rights activists are worried that their political concerns will take a back seat to business issues, especially after the Chinese warned their British counterparts not to raise human rights.

British officials insist that because the Chinese economy is still controlled state officials must still be consulted before private sector investment goes ahead.

Mr Cameron will struggle to evade the political ramifications of Burma’s election, however, the results of which will emerge as he flies out to China tonight.

Western countries have already condemned the elections as a sham, following the lead of resistance leader Aung San Suu Kyi who called for a boycott when they were announced.

US president Barack Obama said the poll failed to meet “internationally accepted standards” and the EU government also criticised the way the election was conducted.

UK foreign secretary William Hague said: “Holding flawed elections does not represent progress.

“For the people of Burma, it will mean the return to power of a brutal regime that has pillaged the nation’s resources and overseen widespread human rights abuses.”

But Mr Cameron will be keen to evade the issue during his trip. Burma survives international condemnation on the back of its friendship with China, which protects the military junta from any effective sanction from the international community, for instance by vetoing measures in the UN security council.

Ms Allen was keen to highlight China’s role protecting the junta today.

“China is a key trading partner with the government there and has a unique ability to influence the new administration,” she commented.

“Is Vince Cable also saying today that he no longer cares about the plight of the Burmese people who have suffered decades of repression?”

Meanwhile, the long-running attempt to pressure China out of Tibet continued to rumble on in the background.

An ICM poll commissioned by the Free Tibet campaign found most people believed trade and Tibetan human rights were equally important.

Thirty-six per cent of respondents said protecting human rights in Tibet was more important while 38% said improving trade relations were just as important. Just 13% said human rights were less important.

“When Mr Cameron represents us in Beijing he must reflect public opinion by making a strong public statement about the human rights crisis in Tibet,” said Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden.

Mr Cameron will be in Beijing on November 9th and 10th. With opposition leader Ed Miliband on paternity leave, the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, will face deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman at PMQs.