In Great Britain this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with British Prime Minister David Cameron—the two convening to discuss major bilateral deals through which China will invest $46 billion in the UK economy. Cameron has declared that these deals will create 3,900 new jobs in the UK, though the Conservatives neglect to mention that the deals will continue taking jobs away from British nationals, including 5,200 steel workers who currently face unemployment due to cheaper imports from China. The funds from these deals will be invested in a wide swath of sectors that include energy, health and technology, financial services, aerospace, education, and creative industries.
However, the largest story surfacing from the negotiations has not been about employment, but rather centered around ideology and human rights. In the midst of these unprecedented bilateral deals, Cameron and the Brits are receiving heavy criticism for their unwavering praise of Xi throughout the Chinese president’s first official state visit to the UK. Many believe Britain’s lauding of the Chinese president sends the wrong message to the global community, as the Chinese government faces continued international backlash against its human rights record.
Britain’s unconditional embrace of Xi—a tactic to ensure prosperous 21st century relations between the UK and this rising Eastern economic giant—thus begs a larger question currently facing the West:
As China—a country led by a government with a record of fundamentally undemocratic practices towards its people—becomes an increasingly invaluable trade and investment partner for Western democracies, how do these Western countries conduct trade and foreign policy with China without undermining their core commitments to global human rights, including freedom of speech?
China’s human rights record during Xi’s tenure has certainly left something to be desired. Through his first two and a half years as Chinese president, the government has advanced a targeted campaign of internal suppression. In addition to a systematic crackdown on corrupt government offices at the national, provincial, and local levels—which many argue is merely a ploy by Xi to eradicate his own political enemies within a subtly polarized and factionalized Chinese leadership structure—more concerning has been Beijing’s introduction of new national security laws that criminalize peaceful free expression among both citizens and foreigners.
Simultaneously, authorities continue to harass peaceful civic groups, particularly lawyers advocating for Chinese constitution-protected human rights. With newly heightened surveillance of China-based domestic and international civic groups, including tougher Internet restrictions, some argue that Xi’s presidency has unexpectedly introduced one of the most stringent eras of censorship and surveillance since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.
The rise of such trends in China has added a new spotlight on President Xi, who currently seeks to establish a range of trade deals with partners around the world. Yet, a widely critical public reaction to Britain’s embrace of Xi demonstrates that the West still has a complicated relationship with the People’s Republic, which lacks clarity on how to how to properly uphold certain commitments. As China surfaces as one of the great global powers—with trade interests, foreign policy measures, and major global initiatives that intersect directly with those of other major powers in a geopolitical climate that is increasingly multipolar—Western governments must juggle the appeal of conducting China-focused policy and relations without glossing over China’s underwhelming standard for domestic human rights.
Though the UK is the latest country to appease China, earning strategic trust and trade partnerships by deliberately overlooking an egregious Chinese record on human rights, it surely will not be the last. The global community faces a range of major challenges and initiatives in the future—e.g., energy and climate change, maritime territorial law, terrorism and piracy, trade agreements, cyber security, and outer space exploration, to name a few—requiring collaboration among the world’s most powerful nations. Yet, for Western powers, perhaps just as challenging as the need to overcome these major issues will be the struggle to achieve policies that incorporate China’s vast capabilities and opportunities for partnership without validating its undemocratic internal practices.
The global community can only speculate about whether such a balance is even possible to achieve, as the West proves that it has yet to determine a proper solution. In the meantime, there will undoubtedly be a continued criticism of Western leaders as these countries receive and welcome President Xi’s irresistible trade offers and relations with open arms in the future.
About the author:
David Solomon, a 2013 graduate of Skidmore College, lived in China for three years, where he pursued Mandarin language, history, political, and environmental studies at Tsinghua University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and Suzhou University. He has also worked in Chinese economic development and has traveled extensively throughout China and other parts of Asia. David currently resides in Washington, D.C., where he works in U.S.-China trade relations.