They didn't even wait until the dust had settled on the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit. In the middle of last week, China's leaders watched approvingly as a leading dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was hauled into court and tried on charges of "incitement to subvert state power". Relatives, journalists and foreign diplomats were barred from the hearing, leaving two dozen consular officials from Europe, Canada and the US waiting impotently outside the courthouse. Two days later, on Christmas Day, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Post-Copenhagen, the message to the rest of the world could hardly be clearer: China's leaders will go on doing exactly what they like, at home and on the international stage.
Liu's trial has rightly attracted widespread condemnation; the rituals of disapproval must be observed, even if the Chinese leadership insists it will take no notice. For the same reason, Ed Miliband, the UK's Climate Change Secretary, was right to single out China in a newspaper article, arguing that the Chinese government had set out to "hold the world to ransom" at the summit. It is clear that China's intransigence emboldened other developing countries, with India admitting – boasting might be a better word – that it worked with the Chinese to get a weak accord. This is a hugely worrying development, but even now China has apologists as well as critics. They ask why it should accept binding limits on development when industrialised Western countries, principally the US, have such a terrible record; they hail China's willingness to open up to the outside world, see opportunities in its markets and envy its economic growth.
Some of them are willing to overlook grotesque human rights abuses on the grounds that they are an internal matter or claim, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that economic freedom will eventually drag political liberalisation in its wake. The reality is that China has developed a brand of authoritarian capitalism, heavily dependent on coal, in which the state is unchecked by any of the constraints of civil society. It enthusiastically uses the death penalty, "harvesting" organs from dead prisoners; the Foreign Office is making last-ditch attempts to prevent the execution of a British man this week. The leadership's engagement with the outside world is ruthlessly mercantilist, focused on trade and hostile to both political reform and binding international agreements which might limit economic development.
Liu's trial last week was a two-fingered gesture to the outside world, and a warning to potential dissidents. Neither Liu nor the handful of other dissidents whose names are known outside China pose a threat to the entrenched power of the Communist Party; his offence was to publish six articles and help draft an online petition calling for greater political freedom, an apparently intolerable affront to a regime which employs 30,000 people to close down such sites. Liu has been in prison before and also served three years in a labour camp for calling for the release of demonstrators after the Tiananmen Square protests. These camps have been used to get rid of journalists who accuse local officials of corruption, petitioners who seek redress for police brutality and anguished parents who want to know why so many children died in shoddily built schools that collapsed during last year's earthquake. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but another leading dissident, Harry Wu, claims that between three and five million people are being held in labour camps.
Dazzled by China's economic growth, the world's democratic leaders have responded with muted protests, sending confused signals to the regime. It is just over a year since presidents and prime ministers trooped to Beijing to gawp at the spectacular displays that opened and closed the Olympic Games, seemingly oblivious to the thousands of people whose houses had been torn down to build Olympic venues and the brave few who were carted off to camps when they protested about losing their homes. In that sense, what world leaders experienced at Copenhagen last weekend was a taste of the total disregard China displays for anything but its own narrow economic interests; that's why Miliband's frank remarks last week were so refreshing.
It is a species of suicidal madness to argue that because Western industrialised nations have done so much harm to the environment, it is only fair for developing countries to have their turn. That is the rhetoric which carried the day at Copenhagen, allowing China to posture as the champion of emerging countries even though its refusal to countenance emissions limits will have catastrophic consequences on some of the world's smallest nations. It was left to my old friend Mohamed Nasheed, a former political prisoner who is now president of the Maldives, to challenge China's bogus claim to speak on behalf of the developing world: "How can you ask my country to go extinct?" he demanded. Sadly, Nasheed is in a minority among leaders of developing nations; even India's admission that it worked with China to frustrate a binding agreement is not that surprising, for both countries are characterised by an absence of civil society. India's concept of democracy is superficial, allowing staggering inequalities of wealth while millions cannot read and lack even the basic necessities of everyday life.
We can see now that China used last weekend's summit to position itself as the leader of the world's emerging nations, and that's as much a political disaster as an environmental one. In the last few days, Western leaders have discovered that their short-sighted policy of indulging China's hard-line regime has produced very little co-operation, and nothing in terms of political freedom. Tougher economic measures may be necessary, such as a carbon tax on Chinese exports. But no one should be surprised by the regime behaving as badly on climate change as it habitually does on human rights.