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Friday, 12 November 2010

The China Conundrum

Interesting watching David Cameron attempting to negotiate his trip to China through the clarion calls for him to speak up about human rights abuses. As was rightly pointed out on 'Question Time' last night, he does have a choice between 'money' and 'human rights' in that if he wants trade deals with China right now that might lead to jobs being created in the UK through China's export demand he needs to prioritise that over the human rights issue.

There is a point to be made there that right now the priority IS jobs. We've just come out of a recession and have a large amount of unemployment and a huge deficit and we need demand to come from somewhere given the cuts in the public sector.

But actually for me this is not about David Cameron, who will probably be damned whatever he does, but about China. It is about what we in the West regard as the most important human rights, and what we in the West expect of countries who are yet to develop fully economically.

There is a lot of misunderstanding in the UK about China. First of all - they may have the World's second highest GDP but this is shared amongst such a large population that they have a GDP per capita of around $3,000 a year (World Bank estimate). Ours in the UK is over $40,000. Most of all - they have over 200 million of their population still living in absolute poverty. That means they survive on less than $1.25 a day, the amount the World Bank feels is needed to enable a person to fulfill their needs of food, water, shelter, warmth and clothing.

That is their priority. Simple as that. We can make trite comments like that of an unnamed US negotiator who returned from last year's failed Copenhagen climate conference having not achieved any kind of agreement with China and muttered that it "shows what happens when you try to negotiate with a nation of only children". Or we can understand the following:

1) China's priority needs to be developing their country to the stage where they do not have citizens in absolute poverty.

2) As part of this they need to provide jobs for their population, food for their population and energy for their population.

3) Committing to a deal to limit their carbon emissions at the expense of their development would be tantamount to a form of 'sovereignty suicide' - their first priority is the prosperity of their citizens, given they have very little security issues. Their citizens need the fruits of development and growth and need them now, far more than we do in the UK.

4) Futhermore, they may also need to import food, raw materials and energy from countries regarded by the West as 'rogue'  states. They can get those vital resources cheaply and they can provide them for a population that actually needs them to live.

5) China's idea of 'human rights' may well be the right to live. It is generally thought that democracy may not be appropriate at times of either war or where economic development needs take priority. They do take priority, so when China complain that people don't understand the concept of 'human rights' the same as they do they are probably right.

I am not an apologist for the way China treats its' citizens who ask for democracy. I am not an apologist for their actions over Tibet. I am, though, prepared to understand from an economics point of view why China acts they way it does.

Sometimes, those who complain the loudest about China  need to put themselves in the position of their leaders. Leadership is an onerous responsibility, and sometimes you have to make unpalatable choices.

Do we really have any better ideas? 200 million people would like to hear them.


  1. Part of the problem is the triumphant tone which gripped the West at the end of the Cold War - best demonstrated, of course, by Fukuyama's 'End of History' nonsense. How incredibly convenient that liberal democracy turns out to be inseparable from free-market capitalism, and that in the long run you can't have one without the other! What a stroke of luck that was...

    In all seriousness, it's perfectly possible to support both 'democracy' and 'capitalism' as basically good things which can mutually co-exist within the right context. But neither is a pre-ordained 'natural state', and China is not simply 'deviating' from capitalism for an undefined period of time until they have 'caught up' with us, whereupon it will be compelled to switch to 'our' system (whatever *that* is) for its long-term prosperity. It's just different, is all, which is hardly surprising, being a different country and all.

    'Human rights' is yet another concept which we foolishly pretend is some universal absolute. The only reason we have our current language of 'human rights' is the very specific historical circumstances which generated it midway through the last century. But they are a conceit - a metaphor - an idea which appeals partly because they build on the legal language of property ownership 'rights'. When we say that 'China abuses human rights', we actually mean that 'China does things that we don't like'. Which is fair enough, and I share those feelings, but we shouldn't pretend they're not rooted in our very specific historical experiences which will inevitably differ from China's, no matter what 'stage' of development it's at.

  2. (*Second para - that should have been 'deviating' from democracy, not capitalism. Sorry!)