When British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in Beijing earlier this week on a three-day visit to China, he did not spurn the red carpet honour guard that was arranged to welcome him. He did not drop the business at hand and take off to Tibet to meet representatives of Tibetans fighting for autonomy or [...]


Cameron’s human rights humbug and the Chinese fortune cookie


When British Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in Beijing earlier this week on a three-day visit to China, he did not spurn the red carpet honour guard that was arranged to welcome him.

He did not drop the business at hand and take off to Tibet to meet representatives of Tibetans fighting for autonomy or independence from China. He did not, in advance of his tour, fire himself up by watching a documentary on alleged violations of the Tibetans’ human rights, or make a quick call to Navi Pillay to get the latest update on the situation. He did not take a British press pack along and hold a press conference where local journalists were barred from asking questions, save one. (Instead he held a joint press conference where he complied, we are told, with a request from his host that no questions will be entertained. Perhaps he did so in the interests of ‘equal opportunity.’)

Cameron ended his tour boasting of trade deals worth $9 billion and 1500 jobs in the UK, with gushing praise for the Chinese and a pledge to push for an EU-China free trade agreement.

On his visit to Sri Lanka to attend CHOGM, Cameron was more preoccupied with rummaging for rights abuses than reaching out a helping hand to the reconciliation process, as South Africa did for example. On his trip to China two weeks later he had done an about-turn in his professed concern for human rights, with never a word about human rights of Tibetans that were dear to his heart earlier, or their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whom he had met in London just a year ago. What happened in between to bring about the change? Was it a realisation that pounds and pennies matter a great deal more to him than alleged cases of abuse? Or is it that some victims are more equal than others? Or that some are more profitable in terms of translating into votes back home, than others?

Perhaps it’s relevant that Cameron had been rebuffed by the Chinese leadership when he attempted to visit China some months ago on account of his meeting with the Dalai Lama last year. In May he is reported to have told the British House of Commons that he does not support Tibetan independence and that he has ‘no plans’ to meet the Dalai Lama.

Cameron’s hypocrisy and double standards have not gone unnoticed by his Chinese hosts. An editorial in the state-run ‘Global Times’ drawing attention to inconsistencies said, in an outright snub, that “The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study.” He’s been roasted in the UK media as well. ‘The Times’ of London is reported to have run a cartoon showing him being eaten for dinner by his hosts and thanking them for the privilege.

The British prime minister’s awkward posturing may be symptomatic of Western powers’ difficulties in acknowledging China as the biggest challenge to the unipolar world order, as they struggle to come to terms with the new reality of the Asian Century. Sri Lanka though a small state with little international clout has had longstanding diplomatic relations with China, with historical and cultural links going back to ancient times.

China’s policy on Sri Lanka came in for some comment recently on account of a statement made at a regular Chinese press conference. Asked to comment on the March 2014 deadline issued by Cameron during the Commonwealth summit for Sri Lanka to ‘set right its human rights record,’ Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang, not mentioning Sri Lanka directly, made a general statement that “human rights conditions should be improved by the governments of countries concerned through their efforts and constructive help should also be offered by the international community.” Some commentaries speculated that China had ‘shifted’ its stance in relation to Sri Lanka. In response to a query from the ‘Sunday Times’ the Chinese embassy in Colombo reiterated its support to Sri Lanka (Sunday Times 24.11.13, p6). The embassy thereafter published a statement on its website to say it opposed any efforts that politicise or have double standards on human rights, saying “China supports Sri Lankan government’s efforts to safeguard independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”

The seemingly ambiguous Chinese statements on Sri Lanka are seen by Sri Lankan foreign policy experts to contain a message to the world. “It is a message not just to Sri Lanka but to the rest of the world” said Dr. Harinda Vidanage, Assistant Professor of International Politics at St Lawrence University, New York, and former Director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo. The Foreign Ministry Spokesman’s comment at the press conference showed that “China does not want to project itself as a troublemaker, or as a disrupting force to globally accepted norms and principles ….. that any responsible global leader would adhere to.” The embassy statement, he said, was another way of projecting China’s take on global affairs. “Here China is not challenging the liberal values …. but takes on the double standards many Western powers have resorted to when it comes to implementation and safeguarding of human rights.”

Nihal Rodrigo, one time Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs and a former diplomat whose postings included Beijing, says “China needs to deal with the international community peacefully without getting mixed up with separatist destabilising action/sentiments/issues, for e.g in Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese embassy statement reflects “the broad approach they feel should be taken on Sri Lanka and also on China, more responsibility on the internal setup than external impositions/barbs.”

Former UN ambassador Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka says the Chinese sent a signal to the West (which has been picked up by the world’s media) and another to Sri Lanka (picked up by local media). He suggests there is a subtle change, the meaning of which Sri Lanka needs to heed. “We are too small to be allowed to become an irritant in the equation between the big boys. JRJ learned that with the US. We’ll learn that with Russia and China. All of ‘em have the same bottom line. Settle with your neighbour.”

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