Big trouble with big China.

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Yesterday I received an email that went something like this:

Dear Jako, 

Thank you for your email about Mr Akmal Shaikh, who was executed in China on 29 December, 2009.

The UK condemns in the strongest terms the execution of Akmal Shaikh and Ministers and officials worked tirelessly to try and prevent it. We made 27 separate high level representations to the Chinese authorities, including by the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary who were both personally involved in this case.

We deeply regret that our concerns , and in particular those surrounding mental health issues, were not taken into consideration despite repeated calls by the Prime Minister, Government Ministers, Members of the Opposition and the European Union.

The UK respects China’s right to bring those responsible for drug smuggling to justice. But the UK is completely opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and will continue to work on its abolition worldwide.

At this time our thoughts are with Mr Shaikh’s family and friends. We continue to offer them all the support we can. 

Yours sincerely, 
 

Lynsey Hughes  

Country Casework Team

Counsular Directorate

And then one of today’s top stories has been ‘Google to end censorship in China over cyber attacks’:

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.

The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities ­criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.

That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.

Whether you are a government hoping to prevent the execution of one of your citizens or a business trying to protect your intellectual property and the privacy of your clients, China is clearly problematic.

The country is too big a power now to be ignored or chastised into improving its behaviour. Britain launching unilateral sanctions against China in protest at the killing of Akmal Shaikh would probably hurt us more than it would hurt them. There is an air of impotence about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s insistence that “Ministers and officials worked tirelessly to try and prevent it” (as well as linguistically unpleasing).  

As the world’s most populus country, China is an irresistible market opportunity. Companies will be drawn to it. Operating inside an authoritarian one-party state may raise some ‘moral issues’ but as long as the money’s flowing in then these can mostly be put to one side. Whilst I am surprised and pleased that Google is now reassessing its operations in China, it is disappointing that they had agreed to aid state censorship in the first place and only seem to be pulling out because their business integrity is threatened by (state-sanctioned?) hackers.

Stories such as these give China the image of the powerful, up-and-coming state on the international scene. It is an image the government eagerly wants to share with the people of China. Challenging Western countries and companies and refusing to conform to their sensibilities can play well with the strong nationalist sentiments held by large numbers of Chinese. 

The image, however, is a false one. The government’s continued reliance on censorship and other illiberal measures suggests that the Communist Party lacks faith in the security of its own position. The frequency of riots in China’s provinces suggests that the central government lacks the absolute control it would like to have. Playing tough with external enemies and competitors is an attempt to compensate for the internal weaknesses that make the government feel insecure.     

It is tricky to know how the outside world should deal with problematic China. A balance is needed. Countries such as Britain and companies such as Google will need to engage with this large, increasingly powerful country, but fundamental values and concerns should not be compromised for the sake of pleasing the Chinese Communist Party.

Human rights activists inside China are trying to change their country for the better. Even if the Western states cannot be crusading liberal imperialists who come to their aid, they must avoid making life harder for them. The question of how Western democracies and businesses work constructively with China is amongst the most pressing of our time.

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