• A recent visit by UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to China and the announcement of a series of one-sided Chinese deals in critical UK infrastructure has raised concerns about the implications for Britain’s future and its core values of human rights and democracy.
  • The new agreements with China follow a period of diplomatic chill in UK-China relations, which the Chinese authorities blamed on a meeting in May 2012 between the Dalai Lama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg, although there was no evidence of an adverse impact on trade ties.

The Dalai Lama meeting David Cameron

The Dalai Lama meeting David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg.

Kai Muller, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet in Germany, said today: “The Chinese insistence on the Dalai Lama as the ‘problem’ in bilateral relations with the UK was likely to be part of an elaborate strategy by the Chinese authorities to gain the upper hand in the diplomatic relationship. The new developments following the UK Chancellor’s visit to China raise serious questions about the relationship with a Party state whose values, interests and practices are so clearly at odds with European democracies. Of course engagement and trade links with China are important, but not at the expense of European values of freedom and democracy, and certainly not without reciprocity and transparency.”

There was no immediate evidence of any impact on trade ties between Britain and China as a result of the PM’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, as they continued to grow in 2012. Two-way trade between the countries topped $63 billion in 2012, up 7.6% from 2011, according to data provider CEIC, and was up 2.6% year-on-year during the first half of 2013. (The Wall Street Journal – October 17, 2013). Sources in the UK said that UK businesses appeared to be primarily concerned about possible future impact on trade, while others said that China’s assertive approach caused it to create delays and make vague threats in discussions about trade with the UK.

ICT has urged European countries to develop a common position that it is the right of all European Union Member States leaders to welcome and meet with the Dalai Lama in whatever manner they deem appropriate, in order to counter attempted interference or threats from the Chinese government. This would demonstrate solidarity within the EU, protect individual Member States from Chinese pressure, and send a message that it is not up to the Beijing leadership to dictate a political agenda to democratic European countries.

Downing Street officials in London denied any policy change on Tibet following an editorial in the Chinese state media People’s Daily alleging that the UK’s admission that their ‘mishandling’ of the issue had paved the way for the financial agreements with the PRC (Bloomberg News, U.K. Tibet Pledge Fostered China Deals, People’s Daily Says). “Our position on Tibet is long-standing and there’s been no change,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said. “We want strong commercial and diplomatic ties with China, We want to continue to strengthen those, and that’s at the heart of the visit to China that you’ve seen the chancellor making this week.” (The Herald, Downing Street denies Tibet policy change).

The UK government did not apologise for meeting the Tibetan religious leader despite repeated Chinese requests to do so, but the government also did not take the opportunity to assert its concern for human rights and Tibet. The UK did make a strong intervention today (October 22) at the United Nations in Geneva as China’s rights record came under scrutiny by the international community. At the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the UK government specifically expressed its concern about freedom of expression and human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang. (ICT report, China’s rights record in Tibet to be scrutinized by UN).

There is widespread concern in the UK that austerity-hit Britain has compromised its leverage as a strong member state in the EU as well as its competitiveness in business through the lack of a national debate and no sign of reciprocity in a series of new Chinese investments in the UK, including China’s proposed future majority stake-holding in Britain’s nuclear power industry. Chancellor George Osborne also welcomed a $202 m investment in the UK by controversial Chinese internet company Huawei, whose operations have been limited or banned in the US, Australia and India due to concerns around spying by the Chinese Communist Party authorities. Economist Will Hutton wrote that the UK Chancellor’s decision to allow Chinese banks to trade in London through branches is potentially disastrous. (The Observer, George Osborne in China – wide-eyed, innocent and deeply ignorant – October 20, 2013). New deals on the Chinese yuan will make London a major trading hub for China’s currency, its first outside Asia.

Leading correspondents in the British press called into question the merits of offering investments without reciprocity with a Party-state that has contravened World Trade Organisation rules and failed to enforce its own laws in a transparent manner. Journalists cited China as the only country in the world that keeps its only Nobel Peace Prize winner in jail – Liu Xiaobo, serving 11 years for ‘counter-revolution and subversion’ for publishing views on free speech and democracy – and linked the 122 self-immolations in Tibet to China’s oppressive policies.

Kai Muller of the International Campaign for Tibet said: “If China wants to be taken seriously as a business partner on the world stage, it is essential that Western democracies speak openly to the leadership about such issues as human rights and Tibet, as the British Chancellor has previously acknowledged.” In September, 2005, Mr Osborne wrote: “Some say that it is not in the interests of Britain to confront China over its poor human rights record and nationalist sabre-rattling: it will make it more difficult for British businesses trying to break into the Chinese market. From what I’ve seen and heard, I think they are wrong. China wants to do business and above all seems to crave international respectability. It wants to be taken seriously as a world player […] Well, if it wants to be a part of the world community, it should be told in no uncertain terms when its behavior is unacceptable. Threatening free, democratic Taiwan with military annihilation is unacceptable. Suppressing Tibetan autonomy is unacceptable. Persecuting religious minorities and political dissidents is unacceptable.” (The Spectator, Losing out in China).

China’s aggressive diplomacy towards European leaders meeting the Dalai Lama and on Tibet undermines European values of dialogue and conciliation, and ultimately weakens EU leverage rather than contributing to the development of strong EU-­-China relations that encourage China to become a better global citizen.[1]

On September 11, 2013, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite met the Dalai Lama during his visit to Vilnius – an important signal as Lithuania currently holds the six-monthly rotating Presidency of the European Council. In contrast to the UK’s approach, a video of the meeting was uploaded to the President’s YouTube site immediately afterwards.


[1] International Editor of the Economist Edward Lucas wrote that blaming the Dalai Lama as a way of achieving political gain for China is: “A test of European and transatlantic political will. If Europe and the US adopted a common position (something on the lines of ‘we will meet with anyone we choose to, regardless of diplomatic bluster’), then the Chinese protests would be fireworks not cannons. China can afford to pick off individual countries, punishing them with a ban on high-level meetings and visits, or even trade and investment sanctions. But it cannot do that to the entire West. […]The importance of this goes far beyond Tibet. If Europe cannot stick up for principle and defend itself against bullying when the stakes are relatively low, what chance is there that it can do so when the stakes are higher?” (The European Voice, May 16, 2013, http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/imported/the-tibetan-test/77253.aspx).