Even such as it was, the thaw did not last long. It took Beijing more than a year to forgive Britain the iniquity of our Prime Minister holding a meeting with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader visited London in May 2012. But David Cameron’s visit to the Chinese capital just before Christmas, with the UK’s largest ever trade delegation in tow, suggested that the insult was, if not forgiven, at least consigned to history. Now though, less than six months later, diplomatic relations are heading for the deep freeze once again. China has cancelled the bilateral human rights talks – due to take place this week – that were one of the “important achievements” trumpeted by the Government after the December trip.
Beijing has made no secret of its irritation. After calling off the talks, officials lashed out at a perceived interference in China’s domestic affairs after a British human rights survey listed it as a “country of concern” and noted both further erosions of freedoms of expression, association and assembly and the forcible suppression of ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. In response, a foreign ministry spokeswoman spoke stingingly of “irresponsible remarks made about the Chinese political system, rudely slandering and criticising China’s human rights situation”. In fact, of course, such remarks and criticisms are a simple statement of fact: Beijing’s human rights record is appalling.
The Coalition has faced no little flak over China. December’s three-day visit was supposed to be all about economic partnership. But back in Britain there was more focus on why the Prime Minister was so subdued on the subject of Beijing’s abusive record. Mr Cameron claimed that he did raise human rights issues with his hosts. But he was careful not to cross the line and the question about whether the trade-off between quiescence and economics was a morally defensible one went unanswered.
It is, of course, to be lamented that this week’s so-called “dialogue” meeting will not go ahead. It is always better to talk than not, particularly on human rights. At the same time, Britain must not be bullied, or soft-soaped, into silence. The more we speak out, the better.