China sees human rights] as a self-serving diplomatic optional extra, to be discarded as soon as they jeopardise other interests. And China, unlike Sri Lanka, is powerful enough to make Western leaders hold their tongues. Of course Western governments would deny this stoutly. Discussion of human rights, Britain says, is an integral part of its relationship with China. The two countries have held 20 rounds of a bilateral dialogue on the issue and British leaders raise it at every opportunity. But the 20th round was two years ago; and there is little evidence that Chinese leaders see the harping on human rights in private exchanges as more than an irritating quirk, like the British fondness for talking about the weather.
So the version of Mr Cameron’s visit to China believed by many observers is one in which he has swallowed a big chunk of humble pie. After he met Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in London last year, an incensed China froze him and his country out. British business complained it was losing out to European competitors. Mr Cameron had to reconfirm that Britain does not advocate Tibetan independence and say that he had no plans to meet the Dalai Lama again. Only then did China welcome him back, at the head of the biggest British trade mission ever to go there. In the circumstances, he could not risk making provocative public statements about China’s “internal affairs”. It seems unlikely that the leader of any big European country will receive the Dalai Lama again. This week Global Times, a Communist Party paper, crowed that Britain, France and Germany dare not jointly provoke China “over the Dalai Lama issue”. Even America’s Barack Obama delayed meeting the Dalai Lama until after his first visit to China in 2009, tacitly conceding China’s point that the meeting was not a matter of principle, but a bargaining chip.
If China is getting its way diplomatically on Tibet, it is not because repression there has eased. Over the past two years, more than 120 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest. This week, exiles reported the sentencing of nine Tibetans for alleged separatist activity. Similarly, although freedoms for the majority in China have expanded, dissidents are still persecuted. The most famous of them, Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel peace prize, remains in jail for no more than advocating peaceful, incremental political reform.
China has succeeded in shifting human rights and Tibet far down the agenda of its international relations for three reasons. One, of course, is its enormous and still fast-growing commercial clout. Not only is it an important market for sluggish Western economies. It is also a big potential investor—in high-speed rail and nuclear projects in Britain, for example.
Second, alarm at China’s expanding military capacity and its assertive approach to territorial disputes is also demanding foreign attention. Joe Biden, the American vice-president, arrived in Beijing from Tokyo on December 4th. Liu Xiaobo and Tibet may have been among his talking-points, but a long way below China’s declaration last month of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over islands disputed with Japan, and the economic issues on which he had hoped to concentrate.
A third factor is China’s tactic of linking foreign criticism to economic and strategic issues. Global Times, not satisfied with Mr Cameron’s contrition, used his visit to chide Britain for the support it has shown Japan over the ADIZ, and for its alleged fomenting of trouble in Hong Kong. China might argue that linkage is something it learned from the West, and the days when its normal trading ties with America were hostage to human-rights concerns. But now China itself seems happy to use commercial pressure to bully Japan or Britain, for example.
Banyan: Lip Service, Economist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 48