AS DAVID Cameron flies to China today (Nov 8) he is under pressure to raise human rights with Chinese leaders, notably the case of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate serving an 11 year prison sentence for advocating democracy. Officials have briefed the press that the prime minister—who is leading a large trade delegation to China in the hopes of drumming up billions of pounds in exports—will raise human rights in a "sensible and measured way".
What does that careful phrase mean, exactly? Here is my prediction: we will never know.
Let me explain. British politicians have faced loud calls to raise human rights when visiting China for many years, certainly since the suppression of the 1989 democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square. Yet China's vast market has been making trade delegations salivate for even longer. The magical essence that allows this square to be circled? Cynicism. And my own experience as a sometime China correspondent is that when it comes to showing cynicism in this field, Chinese and western politicians are pretty evenly tied.
A yearly highlight for China correspondents, at least when I worked there a decade ago, was the press conference thrown by the Chinese prime minister at the end of the annual full session of the National People's Congress. It offered a unique chance for Chinese and foreign journalists to question one of the most powerful men in the country and—vitally—to know that proceedings were being carried live on Chinese state television. We foreign hacks took the responsibility seriously. We knew this was not just a rare opportunity to hear the thinking of the head of the government, but also—by asking questions about matters that the Chinese state media normally hushed up—to convey information to millions of ordinary Chinese viewers without the usual filters and barriers erected by Communist propaganda chiefs. We would agree among ourselves who was to ask questions, and discuss their wording carefully to make sure the moment was not wasted.
At the 1999 press conference, a question arose about American criticisms of Chinese human rights. The irascible but relatively reformist Zhu Rongji was prime minister. Mr Zhu responded with a mixture of pride in his own record and contempt for what he painted as the formulaic way in which foreign leaders raised human rights with him to keep public opinion sweet back home.
Mr Zhu (who like many Chinese leaders of his generation had suffered during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution) recalled his meeting earlier that month with the then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Beijing. During their private talks, he told the press conference, he informed Mrs Albright that he had been risking his own life "struggling for China's democracy, freedom and human rights" when she was still at school.
It is always like this with foreign leaders, he told reporters. They would produce lists of what he termed "so-called democracy activists", and would ask him to release them. Very few foreign leaders failed to raise human rights, he said. "It seems if they don't mention human rights, they would find it difficult to justify their visit."
I hate to admit it, but there was evidence that Mr Zhu was quite right about the cynicism of foreign leaders. Take Tony Blair. Early on in my time in Beijing as correspondent for a British daily newspaper, he arrived with a large pack of travelling Westminster lobby reporters in tow. Mr Blair was already deep in talks with various bigwigs when word broke that Xu Wenli, a courageous and admirable dissident, had been detained by police. We China-based hacks informed our travelling colleagues from London that this had taken place. We also told our colleagues that it was normal for high-profile dissidents to be picked up while visiting foreign leaders were in town, before being released after a few hours.
The travelling press pack flew into a flurry of excitement. Things were a bit confused for a while, as they pressed Mr Blair's aides for a reaction to this detention. Word then spread among the Beijing press pack that Mr Xu had been released after spending six hours answering questions from police. Had Mr Blair raised Mr Xu's case with Chinese officials? Conflicting accounts started to circulate. One version had him raising the detention with President Jiang Zemin. In another, the news of Mr Xu's detention only came to him after the meeting with Mr Jiang, but the prime minister had asked British officials to look into it. In another, Mr Blair had spoken to the Chinese ambassador to Britain, who was accompanying his delegation. Whether Mr Xu had been released early or simply let go was distinctly unclear.
Whatever the truth, what counted for Westminster lobby reporters was a briefing at their Beijing hotel from Mr Blair's fearsome press spokesman Alastair Campbell. He told them in no uncertain terms that Mr Blair had intervened to secure Mr Xu's release, and the success of this intervention was a tribute to the way Mr Blair had already improved British relations with China, especially in the field of human rights.
We China-based reporters were not invited to this briefing, and I still remember arguing with Westminster colleagues afterwards that the real story seemed to be a bit more fiddly and possibly less glorious. No matter, I was told. This was a nice strong story, it came from Alastair Campbell and they were running with it. The following day, British dailies ran stories with headlines like "Blair acts to free Chinese dissident".
This was not a unique incident. A well-informed sort once told me about a meeting in London between Mr Blair and the current Chinese president, Hu Jintao. The British prime minister was under pressure to ask about Chinese repression in Tibet, and call for dialogue with the Dalai Lama. It looked like being a ticklish moment for Mr Blair. Then, I am told, Mr Blair began asking Mr Hu (a former party secretary in Tibet) about infrastructure projects China was building in that region: a railway line to Lhasa, lots of new power lines to bring electricity to some rural areas for the first time. This line of questioning was a bit confusing for some in the room: just why was the prime minister so fascinated in Tibetan infrastructure?
The mystery was solved a few hours later once the Downing Street spin machine had done its work. There were the British newspaper headlines, proudly declaring: "Blair raises Tibet with visiting Chinese leader".