China's visitor: Cameron in Beijing

The British prime minister's trip to China was presented as a mission to expand trade links with an important partner. But whose interests was he really representing, asks Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
12 December 2013

The comment of a former colleague, one of the gloriously caustic personalities who sometimes reach the outer fringes of the diplomatic firmament, caught me by surprise. Perusing my biography on the cover of a book, she snorted loudly and asked disbelievingly: why did you say you worked for the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office? If even the people who were with you when you were doing something doubt it, I thought, what hope of convincing those who weren’t?!

True, it was all a long time ago. I gained my freedom in 2005, when I left the FCO. But the memory of the experience, and especially of dealing with a high-level visit to a "difficult" country like China, came back to me when observing the visit of Britain's prime minister David Cameron to China on 1-3 December 2013. I could imagine the many thousands of hours of planning and calculation that went into the trip; the careful plotting out of commercial, political and educational outcomes; and the officials on both sides, in London and Beijing, producing endless reams of briefing for the VIPs during their various meetings. I truly did not envy them.

Then, watching from afar as Cameron's fleeting encounter with Chinese leaders was followed by the spectacle of him crossing the People’s Republic with a vast trade delegation in tow, I realised that I could never be a diplomat again. The reason is simple. I could not get rid of the question: who precisely was David Cameron speaking for in China, and whose interests was he promoting?

There is an obvious, straightforward answer: he is a democratically elected leader, and armed with that mandate he has the right to speak for the UK abroad. But inspecting it more closely, this answer seemed a fudge. After all, how many people, when they voted in Britain's election in 2010, chose to support a parliamentary candidate under the influence of his or her attitude towards China? Other "macro" issues might have intruded: Britain’s economy, its relations with Europe, or its military support for the United States. But hardly China, which remains psychologically very remote to most people. Only 2,500 took a GCSE qualification in the Chinese language in 2012, a fall from 3,400 in 2009. The world’s second biggest economy it may be, but China remains a specialist interest for Britain.

So who was Cameron speaking for when he went to Beijing, surrounded by his diplomatic and trading army? Three rhetorical questions may clear the way to an answer. 

First, did the visit materially improve the level of understanding of China in the UK, or spell out the key strategic political and commercial choices the UK needs to make regarding China in the coming decade?

Second, did Cameron dare admit the reality that Britain is ever less important for China - this despite the warm rhetoric he got in his highly staged meetings with President Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang, and all his (abstract) language about British support for an European Union free-trade deal with China? 

Third, did the prime minister dare explain to the journalists accompanying him that he didn’t use a clearer, more consistent and assertive language about human rights in Beijing because, as leader of a mid-ranking power such as Britain, he no longer can?

All this, if openly stated and acknowledged, would be incendiary stuff. But brute reality has to be faced. The UK has no choice but increasingly to live on its wits. Its relations with China are going to become more important and more demanding. British leaders won’t be elected because of their stance on China any time soon, but their real political mettle will be tested over hard issues such as the above. And in this respect, Cameron's visit was revealing, and not in a good way.

Under the skin

On one level, the democratically elected leader of a "gold-plated democracy" like Britain and his counterparts in Beijing's ruthless, Communist Party-monopoly power-elite got along just fine. On the other, the Chinese media publicly doubted Cameron's sincerity; Bloomberg journalists were, appallingly, asked not to attend a press conference he gave with Chinese leaders; and France's prime minister received almost precisely the same warm rhetoric about being China’s best friend in Europe a day after Cameron met with Li Keqiang. (It seems Britain's special relationship on this matter was short-lived!) All in all, it is not a happy picture.

When questions were asked about the strategy of the visit, they were dismissed with reference to the golden figure of $6 billion: the supposed value of trade deals being signed while Cameron was there. The odd implication - whatever the British government intended - was that these big contracts (where they existed) cancel out all the other issues that the UK and China might need to talk to each other about. But if that was the core purpose of the visit, is it the sort of calculation that British people want and are happy about? Were they ever asked, and will their answers be listened to?

When I was a diplomat, more old-fashioned colleagues would - puffing themselves out - talk grandly of representing the UK’s interests and standing up abroad for "our" values. Today, Edward Snowden's revelations and the world of transnational social media has put these nation-centric values under pressure as never before. In this context, Cameron’s journey to China looks like something from that earlier era. It resembles the meeting of leaders of well-protected, self-defined tribal elites, each surrounded by a tightly interlinked band of allies, each promoting narrow, factional interests. And it suggests that the UK - for all its fulsome lectures on the rule of law and its transparent culture and system - is as riddled by vested interest and wedded to meaningless political rhetoric and lazy moral obfuscation as its interlocutors in Beijing. 

So who was David Cameron speaking for in China, and whose interests was he promoting? In the end, I learned from the visit that the prime minister was really speaking for and promoting - himself!

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