Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: We don't need to tell China what it's doing wrong

Human rights has inspired more cant than any other political debatee

In Imperial China, lesser beings were required to prostrate themselves in the presence of the Emperor, the kowtow, many will argue that the British Olympic Committee might be about to impose a modern equivalent of that archaic humiliation on our athletes, by forbidding them from commenting on human rights in China.

It was clumsy of the BOC to issue 32 pages of instructions. What has happened to that effective if old-fashioned practice, a quiet word in the ear? The document was bound to leak and cause controversy, which will inter alia irritate the Chinese. There is a risk that the BOC could end up looking like the current government, bossy and incompetent. The Committee is right to reconsider its decision.

That said, it had two good points. The first is that very few British athletes are qualified to opine on China. Second, that even if they were, it would be counter-productive to do so. The notion that Chinese policy might be influenced by lectures from foreign athletes is as childish a fantasy as has ever blundered into public discourse: more absurd than the worst fatuities of the ethical foreign policy.

There is a paradox. Almost everyone can agree about human rights. We are all in favour of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet human rights has inspired more cant than any other political debate. In the UK, this usually expresses itself as a post-imperial delusion. Even if many former colonies are still waiting for the new dawn, the sun did set on the British empire. The navies have melted away. The era when we could take unilateral action to suppress the Atlantic slave trade is over. But a lot of people appear to believe that gunboat diplomacy could be replaced by press-release diplomacy, as if the rest of the world was waiting expectantly for a sermon from the British.

If only that were true, but it is self-evident nonsense and nowhere more so than in China. We can regret many aspects of recent Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution turned into a cultural holocaust, in which much of the legacy of five millennia of Chinese civilisation was destroyed. That is an irreparable loss to China and to all mankind.

To be fair to the post-Maoist leaders of China, they deplore the Cultural Revolution as much as we do. This helps to explain Tiananmen Square. In the West, we saw idealistic students calling for change. In Beijing, the leadership saw a mob which to them resembled the student hordes who were the shock troops of the Cultural Revolution. So the savage over-reaction was at least explicable.

No such excuses can be made for Tibet. The Prince of Wales is not alone in deploring the ravaging of that ancient and picturesque theocracy, set in the world's most magnificent landscape. That damage too is probably irreversible. Even if China became a liberal democracy tomorrow, so many Han Chinese have been settled in Tibet as to make it almost impossible for the Dalai Lama and his people to resume their serene seclusion from the pollutions of modernity.

We can also wish that the Chinese were more amenable over Africa. In recent years, the West has become a little better at using trade and aid to encourage good governance and discourage corruption. Then along come the Chinese with an insatiable appetite for raw materials, and absolutely unconcerned if their royalty payments go straight to the ruler's Swiss bank account.

But if our government, or any official body, were to make public criticisms of the Chinese, the response would be predictable. China would draw on the textbooks of the international left to denounce our exploitation of Africa in the colonial period. All baloney, of course, but it would be eloquent baloney, fuelled by Chinese anger at the way they were treated by the West.

That is not baloney. We forced them to import opium. We and other powers seized ports and imposed treaties. Although we also created Hong Kong, which has shown China how to prosper and be free under the rule of law, Beijing is more inclined to recall the circumstances in which we acquired Hong Kong than to pay tribute to the way we ran it.

In the late 1980s, in private, Chinese leaders assured our government that they did not want to turn Hong Kong into China; they wanted the rest of China to resemble Hong Kong. Thus far, they have been true to their word. There has been remarkable economic progress. We can only hope that this will be followed by political progress. In one respect, China resembles the former Soviet Union and white South Africa. The ruling ideology is no longer intellectually sustainable. To become legitimate, the Chinese government will have to become democratic.

There is nothing that Britain's Olympic athletes can do to accelerate this desirable outcome. Instead, they should take Prince Philip's advice. He thinks that the Olympics should be about young people enjoying themselves: an admirable contemporary version of the Olympic ideal.