Not speaking a word of Mandarin, I find it hard to work out exactly how hacked off Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was with David Cameron’s stance on human rights yesterday.
‘Finger-pointing’ is certainly not an everyday diplomatic word, but I just have to think of the foreign languages I do know to realise how difficult it would be to translate. In diplomacy, the tone can be as important as the words themselves, and the interpretation can only tell you so much; one other factor – was it the media he was accusing of finger-pointing, or Mr Cameron?
Tony Blair was always sensitive to the twin pressures of a China that did not like being lectured, and of pressure groups, Parliamentarians and strands of public opinion which wanted the lectures to be delivered very sternly indeed.
Cameron is equally sensitive to them, I have no doubt, and the tensions could be heard in his comments at yesterday’s press conference. But if you had to state in which direction his rhetoric and body language were pointing, I would say marginally in favour of human rights. TB, as my diaries recall, was probably pointing slightly the other way.
The FT front page story today contains anonymous quotes from Chinese officials suggesting Britain is paying an economic price already for Mr Cameron’s stance.
You just need to flick through the rest of the paper to see why China matters so much more than it used to. Pages 1, 3 and 5 of the main paper, the main feature on the inside back page, (Global Pioneers of ‘China Inc’) and the second lead of the Companies and Markets section are basically about China and the economy.
Cameron clearly prides himself on a leadership style capable of standing up to anyone – defence chiefs at home, or fellow leaders from abroad, even those as powerful as the Chinese.
It is clearly right to stand up for human rights. But at a time when economic recovery is his core objective, it is also a risk. Plenty of new deals were signed yesterday. But I wonder how many in the future may go unsigned if the Chinese Premier’s words and tone were accurately translated, and he leaves the UK with a broadly unfavourable impression.
*** Talking of fearsome opponents capable of unsettling Prime Ministers, may I wish the Women’s Insitute well in their campaign to save local libraries. Their encounter with the last Prime Minister but one is a highlight of volume 3, Power and Responsibility, out July 7. It is a memory still capable of making me laugh and shiver at the same time.
Ps, don’t read too much into the blue cover.