Jonathan Mirsky

A gangster comes to town

Jonathan Mirsky says that the state visit to Britain of China’s President is no cause for celebration

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Jonathan Mirsky says that the state visit to Britain of China’s President is no cause for celebration

When China’s President Hu Jintao sits next to the Queen at her state banquet for him on 8 November he will be a contented man. In the words of the Royal Academy of Arts, ‘China Turns London Red’. Somerset House, the London Eye and other buildings will be illuminated in the Communist party’s preferred colour to mark, says the Academy, ‘an extraordinary moment in Britain’s continuing relationship with China’. To deepen this relationship, Mac Cosmetics is launching ‘Ruby Woo’, a new range of lipsticks, and Shanghai Tang, already a byword in sucking up to Beijing with its watches bearing Mao Tse-tung on their faces, will display a shearling coat embroidered with 90,000 crystals.

During President Hu’s visit, the Academy will exhibit Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) art emphasising the greatness of three of China’s most powerful emperors. According to an article in the Times (22 October), which is sponsoring this show, Dame Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, Oxford, a respected Sinologist and chief curator of the exhibition, feels that today’s Chinese leaders will appreciate the Qing rulers’ view of themselves at the centre of the universe ‘as Chinese nationalism displaces old-school communism as the state ideology’.

In early September, as he was leaving China, Tony Blair observed that ‘the whole basis of the discussion I have had in a country that is developing very fast — where 100 million people now use the internet and which is going to be the second-largest economy in the world — is that there is an unstoppable momentum toward greater political freedom’.

But the Prime Minister’s ‘Sinologues’, as the Foreign Office quaintly calls its Chinese experts, will have furnished Mr Blair with a dossier on his guest. At their banquet, the night after the Queen’s, its many unpleasant details will hover between them like a bad smell.

You don’t have to believe every word of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s new biography of Mao Tse-tung to recall that more citizens died before their time — 50 million? —during the Chairman’s regime than those who perished under Hitler or Stalin. Mao’s huge portrait still hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen, from which his heirs, as they proclaim themselves, still appear on China’s National Day. Here is what Hu Jintao said on Mao’s 110th anniversary, two years ago: ‘Today, the baton of history has passed into our hands. The best way for us to cherish the memory of Comrade Mao Tse-tung is to continue to advance the great cause painstakingly pioneered by revolutionaries of the older generation and continue to compose the epic of achieving the Chinese nation’s great rejuvenation. This is a sacred mission bestowed on us by history.’ No German, Russian or Cambodian leader today could speak like that about Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot and be received in polite company.

It was common when Mr Hu’s presidency was announced in 2002 for Western headlines to ask ‘Who’s Hu?’, and he was described as ‘colourless’. But leaders’ personalities are not important in China: what is vital is total reliability. This is a regime whose watchword is ‘stability’. Its favourite song begins ‘Without the Communist party there would be no new China,’ and its most formidable statement reads, ‘The Communist party makes mistakes but only the Communist party can correct those mistakes.’

Hu Jintao represents all that.

In January 1989, when he was 46, Mr Hu arrived in Tibet as Communist Party Secretary. The Panchen Lama, who lived in Beijing and was Tibet’s second highest religious leader after the Dalai Lama, said at the time, ‘The price paid by Tibet for its development over the last 30 years has been higher than its gains.’ That summed up the entire period of Chinese rule and a few days later the Panchen suddenly died. On 5 March 1989 a few monks paraded through the centre of Lhasa, protesting against the killing of other monks the year before. Soldiers fired on them and on protesters who looted Chinese shops. Hundreds died. I met Mr Hu in Lhasa when I was the Observer’s China correspondent. He told me that he disliked Tibet’s altitude, climate and lack of culture. He was keeping his family in Beijing, he told me — he lived there himself most of the time — adding that if there were an uprising, no Tibetan would protect him. Every statement on Tibet by Mr Hu since then has reflected that attitude. Chinese persecution in Tibet remains internationally notorious.

Mr Blair won’t, but he should raise certain matters from a long list with his guest. Let’s begin with the internet, the Prime Minister’s example in Beijing of China’s march towards freedom. On 20 March the authorities decreed that all China-based websites — commercial or otherwise — must provide the identity of those responsible for the sites. The aim? To control information that ‘endangers the country’. This includes key words like Tiananmen, Tibet and democracy, and with the aid of servers like Yahoo the authorities have identified some of those using these words who are now behind bars. Google omits from its Chinese website entries that Beijing dislikes. The Times wrote on 30 August, ‘China’s police have developed what are probably the most sophisticated internet filtering methods in the world. They had the advantage of starting early and knew what they did not want: political dissent and porn.’

China broke relations with the Vatican in 1951 and continues to arrest priests and bishops from the ‘underground Catholic Church’, said to number upwards of 10 million members; while every known member of China’s tiny Democratic party is in detention.

China has attempted to enlist the international community in an anti-terror campaign directed at Muslims living in the north-western Xinjiang region who for 150 years have called for independence. Human Rights Watch and others have detailed the extent of political imprisonment in Xinjiang. There are several innocent Xinjiang Muslims in Guantanamo; the Americans know better than to repatriate them.

Amnesty and other organisations charge that China leads the world in extrajudicial executions — at least 3,000 a year, more than all other countries put together — and condemn its use of torture.

The country is racked by hundreds of peasant and worker strikes and uprisings that local authorities crush with maximum force. These events represent a stark fact about the gangster capitalism often praised abroad: the growing gap in living standards between China’s east coast and the rest of the country, and between city and country.

Beijing regularly threatens Taiwan with invasion. Earlier this year a Chinese general warned, ‘If the Americans interfere in the conflict, if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition into the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.’

Tony Blair insists that what Britain is doing in Afghanistan and Iraq is helping to spread Middle Eastern democracy. China’s population of 1.5 billion is well over four times the population of the Middle East. A substantial proportion of the planet’s population, therefore, is deprived of basic freedoms, while Beijing props up an axis of evil stretching from Burma to North Korea to Sudan.

Here is a modest proposal: keep those Red lights off unless Beijing agrees to free ten political prisoners. Names on request.