George Walden writes:
One of the worst mistakes you can make in politics, the wiseacres will tell you, is to start looking at things from the other guy’s point of view. It may have been the wearisome predictability of it all, but as the Chinese prime minister stepped up to the microphone at 10 Downing Street this week to receive his dressing down by head prefect Cameron, and instructions about how better to run his country, for once I felt a moment’s sympathy.
What was going on in Wen Jiabao’s mind as he listened? His replies were a little waspish, but was he tempted to break with convention altogether, throw away his prepared text and come up with a truly heartfelt riposte?
It would be tedious to remind you, he might begin, of the antiquity of my nation, but when I am treated like an errant schoolboy it is something that comes to mind. Let’s just say that by 200 BC, China had a fully functioning state. Rather a heavy-handed one, it’s true – our emperor Qin Shi Huangdi destroyed libraries and those who kept them, something no one would have done in your country. But then, unlike you, we had books to be burned and scholars to be buried alive.
More positively, you may recall that it was the Qin dynasty that produced the extraordinary terracotta army exhibited in Britain not long ago. Please forgive my ignorance of the state of the art of sculpting amongst your tribesmen at the time. By the 11th century, we also had power-assisted spinning, which I understand you achieved virtually simultaneously, give or take half a millennium, and by the 18th century we were the biggest economy in the world.
As I listen to your reproaches about our backwardness on human rights, Prime Minister, I was saddened not to hear any mention of what we have achieved since our chairman passed away. Only 40 years ago – you may not remember, Prime Minister, you were only a child – two million Chinese were being killed. Yet the most august people in Britain, such as The Right Honourable Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, said the Cultural Revolution was a good thing, and many of your people wore Mao badges. Now you give me hell just because we arrest a few troublemakers. I am puzzled about this.
The Chinese and the British people know each other well. For two centuries, we have worked together. After you grabbed Hong Kong because we declined to import your opium to stupefy our people, we had little option. Today, our choice of who we trade with is greater.
I admit, of course, that your people are better than ours. They are fatter, for example, and more modern, but then as your junk food and junk art and divorce rates penetrate our country, we are catching up. So in the end, we shall all be the same. Except there will be more of us, and we shall make more things than you. Not just shoes or pantyhose or tank-tops, but tanks.
So when we decide whose car industry we shall underpin to avoid unemployment, or who will be first in the queue to import the high-speed trains we have developed, reminiscent of advanced French or Japanese trains but cheaper, we shall take account of how often our official visitors to your shores are given – how do you say? – six of the best in public.
If I may inject a personal note, at the time of the Tiananmen incident, I went into the square to speak to the students, at the risk of my career. So I would not want you to think that we Chinese are all alike. I can assure you that there are worse people than me.
Personally, I am in favour of democracy. Chinese democracy, that is, to be achieved in Chinese time. When it comes, our democracy may not be the same as yours, with few troubling to vote, or people scrutinising legislation in an Upper Chamber simply because they can trace their lineage back to Mencius or Confucius. Nor am I sure about how many political parties will wish to be involved. We shall see…
So it is that, left to himself, Wen Jiabao might have spoken. I am not saying we in Britain should shut up about rights and go for the exports. The arguments about being seen to support the democracy movement are clear enough – the question is how best to do it. The crucial test is whether the aim is to make us feel good, or to help those unjustly harassed or imprisoned.
Given the historical background, anything that smacks of lecturing is going to be counter-productive, especially from Britain. Beijing has its memories of past humiliations, and the more powerful the country becomes, the greater the danger of nationalist resentments growing. Like it or not, for the moment, large numbers of Chinese are indifferent to human rights as we know them. What they do know is that, for them, life has got a lot better.
It is not as if the Chinese government is unaware of what we think: our press exceeds all others in its investigative verve, and we are right to draw attention to alarming trends, such as the creeping rehabilitation of Chairman Mao as the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party approaches. Privately, we must certainly say things, sometimes publicly too. It is a question of timing and tone, and I am not convinced that we have got it right.