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The man who dares not say the L Word

By Index on Censorship / 10 November, 2010

David CameronDavid Cameron has extolled the virtues of human rights and democracy during his trade mission to Beijing but why won’t he raise the case of  imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo? Dinah Goodman reports

David Cameron’s first stop on his first visit to Beijing as Prime Minister was Tesco. As he was surveying the shelves of soy sauce and egg noodles, human rights activists were baying at his heels, urging him to make a public statement on human rights. Western leaders always get asked to do this of course when they meet China’s top leaders, but Cameron is under particular pressure in the wake of China’s snippy (almost hysterical) reaction to the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned intellectual Liu Xiaobo (read about that here). Cameron is the first western leader to visit Beijing since Liu’s controversial win.

Chinese human rights activists were not cutting Cameron any slack either. Dissident artist Ai Weiwei told the Today programme that Cameron would be committing a crime if he did not push the human rights issue with President Hu Jintao during his two-day trade mission here.

In the end, while Cameron did not publicly utter the L (Liu) word, he did give a speech where he lauded the benefits of democracy, an independent judiciary, and a free media, to students at Beijing University today.  “All the time the government is subject to the rule of law,” he said. “These are constraints on the government and at times they can be frustrating. But ultimately we believe they make our government better and our country stronger.”

The lecture was not broadcast to the public and the human rights element is unlikely to be reported domestically. A quick search on baidu.com a few hours after the speech revealed only one Chinese news outlet, Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, had reported on Cameron’s more controversial comments.

His phrasing was very diplomatic, perhaps in part because the last time he was here in 2007 he was reportedly called “arrogant” by a Chinese official for his public statements on China’s human rights record. At Beijing University today he was careful to say that he was not suggesting that the UK had “moral superiority” over China and that the UK was “not perfect”.

China has already warned western governments that they risk its wrath if they attend the award ceremony for Liu. “The choice before some European countries and others is clear and simple: do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China’s judicial system or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people?” vice-foreign minister Cui Tiankai said last week. While no government is expected to bow to this threat — several countries, including the UK and France, have already confirmed they are attending —  it’s a different matter when you are in Beijing to smooth the course of deals worth billions of pounds.

China has always been prickly about any public criticism of its peculiar brand of human rights and the stick it wields is money. Indeed a recent study showed the existence of the “Dalai Lama effect” where countries who meet with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader lose an average of 8.1 per cent in exports to China in the two years after the meeting. A sobering thought for a man on a “vitally important trade mission.”

Dinah Gardner is a regional editor for Index on Censorship

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