As Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives to a warm welcome in London, some have begun to ask: Has the British government sacrificed moral principles in courting Chinese trade and investment?
British media questioned Prime Minister David Cameron’s policy of pursuing a “golden era” of economic ties with China on Monday, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s evening arrival for a three-day state visit.
The Times said the first visit by a Chinese head of state in a decade, which includes a welcome ceremony on Tuesday outside the Queen’s official London residence, Buckingham Palace, would be “well worth the effort.”
Yet Chancellor George Osborne, who travelled to China last month to prepare the ground for Xi’s visit, “should take no pride in being praised by Chinese media for not emphasising human rights issues,” the newspaper said in a editorial.
“A deeper economic relationship between Britain and China is in the interests of both,” it said. “But no relationship is worth a betrayal of British values.”
Many observers have lamented the British government’s outwardly soft line on pushing China to improve its human rights.
In Monday’s Guardian, London-based Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian said Xi’s visit “coincides with the biggest crackdown on his country’s civil society in years.”
“This fawning insults the people of both countries,” Ma said of the red-carpet welcome planned for Xi.
Artist Ai Weiwei, who has a major exhibition in London, told reporters last month that the British ambassador was the only envoy from a major Western nation who did not visit him in Beijing while he remained under restrictions imposed by the Chinese Communist Party.
In a rare interview with foreign media, Xi told Reuters ahead of his visit that Britain had made a “visionary and strategic choice” to focus on China.
Chinese state media hailed a quadrupling in annual bilateral trade over the past decade to some 80 billion dollars last year.
In March, Britain became the first Western nation to announce its plan to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
“Britain’s positive attitude toward the AIIB was an exemplary move for opening a new chapter of golden relationship [sic] between the two countries,” Feng Zhongping, an international relations expert a state-run think-tank in Beijing, told the official Xinhua news agency.
Agreements are expected to be signed this week on Chinese investment in the construction of Britain’s first nuclear plant for 20 years, Hinkley Point C, and possible contracts for Chinese firms to build another nuclear plant in Bradwell in Essex, close to London.
The BBC and other media said there are “concerns about the security implications” of the nuclear power agreements.
Some analysts have also asked if Britain’s growing closeness to China could undermine its “special relationship” with the United States.
“Britain is bending over backward to prove its friendship to China,” the Washington Post said last week in a commentary summarizing Britain’s recent policy.
A White House official said London’s decision to join the AIIB reflected a “trend toward constant accommodation of China,” the Financial Times reported in March.
The drive to “become China’s best Western partner raises important questions about costs in other areas of British foreign policy and consequences for existing alliances,” Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor, said in an analysis.
But Cameron defended his plan to build on the “golden era” of economic relations with China, telling state broadcaster China Central Television there was “no conflict” with US-British ties.