British PM 'must urge China rethink'

As British prime minister David Cameron arrives in Beijing for two days of talks with Chinese leaders, activists hope the UK premier will take China to task over its staunch support for Burma’s military regime. Cameron’s main aim is to boost China-Britain trade – yet he has also promised to broach the thornier subject of human rights.

The British leader’s visit comes just two days after Burma held elections condemned by much of the international community as neither free nor fair. China’s foreign minister today applauded the polls, saying they had been carried out “in a steady and smooth manner” and calling them a “critical step” in Burma’s roadmap to democracy, according to AFP.

David Mathieson of New York-based Human Rights Watch said the elections were one of several issues Cameron should press Beijing on. “I think [he] should be talking about how they can work together to effect change in Burma and tell the Chinese what they’re doing wrong,” he said.

Describing China as an “arch enabler” of human rights abuses in Burma, Mathieson said the emerging superpower was prioritising its own interests at the expense of those of Burma. China was sensitive to international criticism, he said, as shown by its change in approach to investment in Sudan.

When the Chinese realised “just how awful the Bashir regime was treating people in Darfur”, they changed their policies there, he said. “They should realise the positive benefit they could have in Burma, not the potential danger to their own self-interest.”

Dr Maung Zarni, a democracy activist and research fellow at the London School of Economics, said Cameron should tell the Chinese their role as “resource imperialists” was generating resentment in Southeast Asia. The country’s massive investments in environmentally damaging hydro-power projects risked creating social instability in Burma which could spill over the Chinese border, he said.

There was an element of hypocrisy in Britain bringing up human rights issues with China, he conceded, saying the UK had “a pile of historical skeletons in its closet”. But Western hypocrisy was preferable to China’s “immoral” foreign policy, he added.

But Benjamin Zawacki of London-based Amnesty International argued the UK had an obligation to raise human rights concerns. “Human rights are universal, they’re indivisible; they’re not specific to any particular country,” he said.

“While the UK’s human rights record isn’t perfect, it’s certainly able to come to China with some moral authority on these issues and on Myanmar [Burma] and hold the Chinese to account for their silence,” he said.

Cameron should take China up on its alleged diplomatic manoeuvres against a United Nations commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, he added. “I think this campaign by the Chinese needs to be chipped away at. I think it’s self-defeating for the international community to cite China’s opposition to the commission and to simply back away on account of that.”

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