Yesterday, the Chinese ambassador announced that he expects Jeremy Corbyn will ‘know how to behave’ ahead of a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We might suppose that the correct behaviour can be pretty simply summarised as ‘Don’t mention the human rights record’.
Corbyn has already gained some ground in fighting for human rights, which is an area he’s fairly familiar with, having campaigned for them throughout his entire political career. Firstly, in raising the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, the teenager facing crucifixion and beheading in Saudi Arabia, he forced an agitated Cameron to respond in an awkward interview with Channel 4’s Jon Snow.
His calls for the government to suspend their contract supporting Saudi prisons ultimately resulted in Cameron being shamed out of backing up a regime that punishes atheism, changing religions and having sex outside of marriage. Those Saudi prisons, run by people who conduct routine human rights abuses, beheadings, crucifixions and stoning, were about to become part of our international interests and exports. Corbyn was right to ask the Prime Minister why on earth this was set up in the first place.
For too long, diplomats and world leaders have failed to challenge the Chinese administration on its human rights record and its oppression of freedom of speech. It seems that every time someone visits China, the automatic news brief is that these issues are off the (lavishly decorated) table.
While Corbyn conducts constituent-led PMQs, Cameron has failed to involve the public in any discussion about whether our country should bring up more than platitudes during Xi Jinping’s visit. Like the use of torture in their prisons, for instance, or the repression of ethnic and religious groups across the nation.
Perhaps, as news broke that Foreign Office cleaning staff were disciplined for writing to the Foreign Secretary about pay and conditions this week, the illegality of independent trade unions in China is something Cameron wishes he could make a reality at home. After all, this is a man who seemed to only abandon a prison contract with one of the most repressive regimes in the world when information kept on the down-low broke into the public domain.
So finally, a leading British political figure is going to challenge the Chinese on their atrocious human rights record. Jeremy has already achieved victory through his principled position on Saudi Arabia and I believe he will discuss the issue with the Chinese President with his trademark calmness and respect. There won’t be any food-throwing or plate-smashing, as sections of the right-wing media would have you believe. And no, the Queen isn’t going to have to bang her fist on the table and call the room to order. In fact, there is probably more risk of another gentleman of advanced years causing offence over food with Xi Jinping - but when Prince Philip does it, it’s just banter, isn’t it?
The simple fact of the matter – one that naysayers find difficult to swallow – is that Corbyn will ask the Chinese president to stop abusing his people if he wants to do deals with Britain. There’s a strategy that has apparently never crossed Cameron or George Osborne’s minds.
Past politicians would be spinning in their graves to see that they set precedents leading to a world where the British government stands by as a pro-democracy teenager is crucified and then beheaded in a country it has just nominated for the Human Right’s Commission. As the Chancellor waltzes around China talking about economic investment and the UK steel industry collapses in a pile of smoke behind him, the arbitrary detention of human rights activists and political opponents goes unspoken. The supporters of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests were charged with that typical authoritarian charge – ‘inciting subversion of state power.’
Britain doesn’t just fail to lift a finger against this sort of blatant oppression under Cameron; in fact, our lips are sealed against even speaking about it. But with Corbyn at the table, that might be about to change. It should be an interesting state visit.
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