Beijing’s abrupt cancelation of the latest session of the UK-China human rights dialogue that had been scheduled for Monday offers an uncomfortable insight into Britain’s relations with the 21st century’s rising superpower. Whether the issue is personal freedom, climate change or nuclear proliferation, the government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is struggling with a new China syndrome that can be summed up as: “We” don’t like their attitude but “they” couldn’t give two figs.
A spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said the human rights meeting, of which there are two a year under a scheme dating back to the Hong Kong handover in 1997, had been postponed rather than canceled. However, official irritation at the apparent snub is palpable. China’s decision was described as “extremely unfortunate,” diplomat-speak for bloody rude.
Beijing gave no reason for its move. While British officials indicated it may have been for “technical reasons,” a more plausible explanation is that Beijing rulers decided to punish Britain for its outspoken criticism of last month’s execution of Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, for alleged drug offenses.
China’s refusal to entertain numerous clemency pleas from Shaikh’s family and the government was a political as much as a judicial decision. Brown declared himself “appalled.” Another minister said he was sickened. China now seems to be exacting cold revenge for these hot words.
Shaikh’s execution, and the suspension of the human rights dialogue, are a direct kick in the teeth for Britain’s policy of “comprehensive” engagement with China on human rights.
Worse still, from London’s point of view, other recent actions such as the sentencing of Charter 08 author Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) and reports of intensifying arrests, harassment and torture of indigenous Tibetans suggest an ever more confident Beijing is waxing indifferent to Britain’s strategic aim of “increasing understanding of human rights issues on both sides.”
Human rights aside, Sino-British tensions are also being fed by issues such as Beijing’s reluctance to support new sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program and by the public spat in Copenhagen last month when Brown and other ministers publicly blamed China for blocking Britain’s climate change agenda. However, according to China expert Jonathan Fenby, Britain is on a losing wicket in its battles with Beijing.
“China has asserted its determination to protect its own sovereignty whatever the issue, and is intent on doing things its way,” Fenby wrote last month. “Given its economic progress ... the leadership and the population feel pretty good about themselves. They are in no mood to take lessons, moral or otherwise, from the West.”