Jonathan Mirsky: Why I'm sceptical about official criticism of China

John Major even invited me on to his plane and asked for advice on this delicate matter


How should China's President be treated while he is here? Courteously. How is he being treated? Like the Saudi King. And for the same reasons. The Saudis have for years harboured terrorists, if not encouraged them, tortured and executed extra-judiciously, held slaves, stoned adulterers to death, and demeaned women. But they have one big thing going for them: oil. Hence they can get away with depredations against their own people, and any criticism from British officials is at best muted.

The Chinese execute more victims extra-judicially, 10,000 annually, according to Amnesty, than the rest of the world combined. They refuse to sign international treaties involving human rights, and take the same view of torture, it seems, as George Bush: we don't torture except when we have to.

Beijing oppresses ethnic minorities, notably the Muslims in Xinjiang and the Buddhists in Tibet, and persecutes Roman Catholics. A vast gulag and prison system confine dissidents, several hundred of whom are still languishing somewhere for their participation in Tiananmen in the spring of 1989.

The entire known membership of the tiny Democracy Party is behind bars. Indeed, the very words "democracy", "Tiananmen" or "Tibet" on the internet are enough to bring a knock on the door and confinement. The BBC website is blocked in China. The technology for such hacking and blocking was made available to Beijing by Cisco and Yahoo, both of which insist they do not dictate to their customers. China regularly threatens Taiwan with invasion, and warned Washington this year that if it interfered to protect Taiwan the US would be a target for nuclear weapons.

Six years ago when President Jiang Zemin was here (and two state visits in six years are unusual for one country) demonstrators were blocked and roughed-up at the gates of Buckingham Palace. This year Mr Blair seemed to expect praise for stating that such manifestations would be allowed - as they were - as if this showed broadmindedness, not normal democratic behaviour.

It was hinted as well by the Foreign Office that human rights would be "raised". That would be today. I am sceptical. When I went to Beijing in August 1991 with Prime Minister Major, the travelling press were assured, it being a bit embarrassing to be the first significant country to send a leader to Beijing since 1989, that Mr Major would bang the table about human rights. I was even invited into his private compartment on the plane and asked for advice on this delicate matter: how to bring it up, what to say, what would Premier Li Peng's response be?

I was flattered and after the bilateral meetings, when the table banging was described by Mr Major himself, I wrote an entire page for a Sunday newspaper praising the Prime Minister for his guts and principles. Unfortunately, a few weeks later I was told by a senior official who had been in the room with the two premiers that no table banging took place and that human rights had been barely mentioned, and then only as a political matter inside Britain.

On another occasion when then-foreign secretary Douglas Hurd said he had raised human rights with his Chinese counterpart, another official told me that at the end of the meeting the Chinese were handed a sealed envelope containing human rights issues; they were informed that this handing over should be construed as having mentioned the matter.

Lord Powell insisted on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday that if human rights issues were mentioned to President Hu - and the worst acts occurred, he said, in "remote parts" of China - it should be done privately. No "breast-beating," he warned. It only put the Chinese off.

No one likes being told off about human rights in public. Not the Turks, not the various "Stans," certainly not Mr Mugabe. But if the Chinese are put on notice, politely but publicly, they occasionally react positively. Over the years famous dissidents have been released, usually to fly to the US for "medical reasons". International pressure from psychiatric bodies has forced the Chinese to release a few inmates from their infamous Ankangs, Soviet-inspired mental hospitals for political prisoners.

Although the Chinese refuse to condemn Sudan, where they buy much oil, they have been willing to join with others in criticising Iran and - very carefully - warning North Korea not to rattle its nuclear missiles. This is a change from Beijing's historic objection to "interfering in the sovereignty of another country."

Confucius said: "It is pleasant to welcome guests from abroad." He also made a point of telling all rulers, not just his own, how to behave well.

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