I can’t remember what sort of foreign policy we have right now. When New Labour was elected we were told it would be an ‘ethical foreign policy’. A year or so later, Robin Cook altered this to a ‘foreign policy with an ethical dimension’, which is a rather different thing. I assume it is now something like ‘a foreign policy with no ethical dimension whatsoever’ or maybe, since about five years ago, ‘a vigorously unethical foreign policy’. In this, I don’t suppose we are very different to most other nations and one should at least be glad that the pretence otherwise has been long dropped. But watching those stolen images smuggled out of the fires of Lhasa this week, you do hope that the vestigial tail of a conscience is being tweaked somewhere within our government.
It is one thing to behave cravenly toward the appalling Saudis in order to ‘protect our security interests’; it is another to suck up to the even worse Chinese simply because they are bigger than us and we want a slice of their burgeoning economy. Gordon Brown mentioned human rights, as a sort of afterthought, of course, the last time he visited Beijing — and was told by his cheerful hosts, ‘Oh, don’t you worry yourself about that, everything will be fine.’ This seemed to keep Gordon happy. He did not visit opponents of the world’s most long-lived totalitarian communist regime; he did not raise the plight of human rights lawyers imprisoned in China, nor the dissidents, nor the journalists. He did not so much as mention Tibet. He posed with ping-pong players and visited interesting power plants instead — conveying, every time he grinned that weird rictus grin of his, British support for a regime which 50 years ago visited genocide upon the Tibetans and continues to oppress, torture, detain and murder those who voice the mildest objection to its policies.
It is estimated that the Chinese murdered one million Tibetans and destroyed 6,000 monasteries back in the 1950s. It would take too long to catalogue the crimes against humanity committed in every year since then by a succession of China’s Communist party leaders; it would take decades worth of Spectator issues to list the names of those murdered or starved to death or imprisoned for so-called ideological crimes, for believing in a God of one kind or another, or those forcibly relocated from their homes. We are enjoined to understand that China has changed; that it is embracing, to a certain degree, a liberalism. But ‘liberal’ means many different things to different people, from Tariq Ali to Milton Friedman — to the extent that it means very little at all. China is, if anything, worse today than before, combining the most oppressive aspects of state Marxism with the most brutally rapacious aspects of capitalism. In this new improved China there are still no independent trades unions, scores of Catholic clergy have been arrested for proselytising, hundreds of human rights activists bundled into the back of police vans to disappear for ever; journalists censored and detained; lawyers roughed up by police thugs. Minorities, such as the Uyghur Muslims, are persecuted and find their leaders arrested and executed. Those beneficial, if accidental, consequences of capitalism — improved standards of living, better health and safety and so on — are denied to the vast majority of Chinese people. So too, with the connivance of greedy Western corporations, is freedom of information. We now have the Great Firewall of China, which is one reason why those protests in Tibet take so long to reach the West.
Abroad, China lends its diplomatic support and implied military muscle to anybody sufficiently basket-case and despotic enough to be considered a pariah by the rest of the civilised world. If they’re whacko and vicious enough, you can bet that China will be the closest ally. Especially if they’re whacko, vicious and, uh, what was the word... ‘socialist’. For years, China has blocked the United Nations Security Council from doing anything meaningful about Burma; we are always told, in earnestly optimistic tones, that China will use its influence independently, don’t worry. It has done nothing of consequence, of course. Similarly, China has offered succour to one of the very few governments in the world more paranoid and authoritarian than its own — North Korea. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is still not allowed access to China’s border with the PRK; China’s ‘influence’ upon the regime in Pyongyang has again amounted to nothing. And it may have surprised you, but it didn’t surprise me very much, to find that Beijing was helping to prop up the quasi-terrorist government in Sudan. The Chinese have been swarming into Africa of late, always to the worst countries of that benighted continent, and raking in the cash.
No governments care to annoy the Chinese by giving voice to any of this stuff — but then, still less do the athletes who will gather beneath the filthy Beijing smog in August, presumably equipped with respirators and oxygen masks. The former director general of the International Olympics Committee, François Carrard, of course believes the Games must go ahead, in the interests of human rights and democracy. Without the Games, says M. Carrard, we wouldn’t be talking about China’s human rights, so therefore the Games must be a good thing. Well, by which criteria we may as well drop London and hold the next Olympic gathering in Darfur or Pyongyang. Carrard, displaying a flair for the disingenuous and the expedient, said he thought that the ‘human rights situation’ in China would improve as a result of the Games. But when questioned by the BBC’s Mihir Bose about this, he confessed that ‘it might not be possible to identify any advances in the short term’. No kidding, Frankie. The truth is that he could not give a monkey’s about human rights in China — or he might at least have raised an eyebrow at China’s forced eviction of those who had been living where the government wanted to put its various Olympic stadia.
The official death toll in Tibet so far, at time of writing, stands at 16; the Tibetans in exile reckon it is nearer to 80 — but neither figure, even if multiplied by 100, would lead to any meaningful form of protest from the rest of the world. That’s the final irony for those protesting monks — they think that the Olympics shines a spotlight on Beijing and that the international community might at last be forced to act. They somewhat over-estimate our collective bravery, morality and strength of conviction.