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China plays tough with Cameron

Publication Date : 07-12-2013


British Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected accusations that his visit to China earlier this week was a flop, a trip which only provided Beijing with an opportunity to belittle his political standing and heap ridicule on Britain's international reputation.

"Concentrate on facts and figures," Cameron urged journalists upon his return, claiming that the trip resulted in 6 billion pounds (US$9.8 billion) worth of commercial deals as well as "substantial discussions" with China's leaders.

But notwithstanding the upbeat tone of their leader, British diplomats are still debating how to interpret the unusual behaviour of China's officially controlled media, which subjected Cameron to an unprecedented torrent of abuse while he was on Chinese soil. The consensus which is emerging in London is that this is not just a fluke, but an early indication of the way China is likely to treat most European leaders in the future: as supplicants paying homage to the world's new rising superpower.

This week's visit was Cameron's first since November 2010, and first since the current generation of Chinese leaders took office in November 2012. Until recently, all senior British ministers have been refused meetings with their Chinese counterparts, in protest against Cameron's decision to meet the Dalai Lama.

And when the Chinese finally relented, British officials went into overdrive to ensure that Cameron's trip would be a success. Some of the tricks they used were the same old tired and tiresome ones deployed by every Western leader visiting China: the practice of rolling together of all the past, present and potential future trade contracts into one single big sum to give the impression that the visit was a huge economic success, the obligatory photograph of a visiting Western leader shaking hands with a Chinese business entrepreneur (preferably female, and preferably young) against the backdrop of Shanghai's Pudong district, and an encounter with students at a university, where one local youth inevitably asks the Western leader a profound question such as "What would you do to improve friendly relations with the Chinese people?"

Cameron did all of this and more. He included footballers in his visiting retinue. He urged Britons to give up learning French and German, and study the Chinese language instead. And he wasted no opportunity to differentiate himself from other Europeans: "Some in Europe and elsewhere see the world changing and want to shut China off behind a bamboo curtain of trade barriers. Britain wants to tear those trade barriers down," he said.

At every stage, the message was "I may look like just another middle-aged white man from Europe, but I really do get China".

Yet all to no avail. In a searing editorial, the state-run Global Times tore not only into Cameron, but into Britain as well, dismissing it as "no longer a big power" but "just an old European country apt for travel and study", a sort of theme park for the incurably nostalgic.

The Global Times is known for its strident nationalistic tones and, if the attack was merely confined to this newspaper, British officials would have been advised to ignore it. But it was not: digs at Britain were published in most Chinese media outlets not only on the mainland, but also in Hong Kong, where Wen Wei Po, a Beijing-backed local daily, tore into Britain for its "irresponsibly hostile" policies, while the Ta Kung Pao, another pro-Beijing newspaper, dismissed anyone who believed in Cameron's promises of friendship as "foolish and naive".

It is clear that the attacks on Cameron and Britain were not merely tolerated by Chinese media censors, but actually officially inspired. And their timing is also troubling. Usually, when China wishes to convey its differences with leaders who are visiting Beijing, hostile media commentaries appear either on the eve of the visit or just after the guest had departed. In Cameron's case, however, most of the articles were published while he was on Chinese soil, the ultimate of all such insults. And the fact that the highest official to receive Cameron was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also told its own story.

Old "China hands" among diplomats in London believe that one reason for this curious behaviour is the fact that Cameron was simply too eager to have his China visit, revealing a weakness which only encouraged Beijing to play tough. The Chinese clearly have an interest in making sure that no future British official would ever again receive the Dalai Lama so the more Cameron is made to sweat now, the longer this message would endure.

There is also no question that Britain has been singled out for special treatment because its old colonial misdeeds loom larger in ordinary Chinese minds. Few Chinese know or care about the fact that, in almost all of the colonial humiliations inflicted upon China during the 19th century, the British were assisted by the French, Germans and the Russians. The image of Britain as the chief colonial bogeyman remains prominent, and kicking the Brits has a more satisfying impact on Chinese nationalist public opinion.

But probably the simplest reason for China's behaviour is Beijing's belief that all this is risk-free. The European Union's much-touted common foreign policy remains a joke; China does not need to fear being confronted by the serried ranks of all European nations, but can blow hot and cold with individual European countries.

Nor does it need to fear European retaliation. Britain has attracted the bulk of Chinese investment in Europe, and is the only country where the Chinese are allowed to buy into infrastructure projects, from trains to nuclear power stations. But the Chinese calculate that beggars cannot be choosers, that the British need investment so badly that they would tolerate any humiliation in the process. Pursuing the narrative of the old European continent tired and hungry for Chinese cash fits perfectly into China's leadership image at the moment.

But it could also be a short-sighted policy. For, after all, the idea that the feelings of others do not matter and that trade trumps everything else is precisely what the British believed in the heyday of their empire. And they are still paying the price for this today.

The author is the European correspondent of the Straits Times.



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