China plays tough with Cameron

China plays tough with Cameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected accusations that his visit to China earlier this week was a flop, a trip which only provided Beijing with an opportunity to belittle his political standing and heap ridicule on Britain's international reputation.

"Concentrate on facts and figures," Mr Cameron urged journalists upon his return, claiming that the trip resulted in £6 billion (S$12.3 billion) worth of commercial deals as well as "substantial discussions" with China's leaders.

But notwithstanding the upbeat tone of their leader, British diplomats are still debating how to interpret the unusual behaviour of China's officially controlled media, which subjected Mr Cameron to an unprecedented torrent of abuse while he was on Chinese soil. The consensus which is emerging in London is that this is not just a fluke, but an early indication of the way China is likely to treat most European leaders in the future: as supplicants paying homage to the world's new rising superpower.

This week's visit was Mr Cameron's first since November 2010, and first since the current generation of Chinese leaders took office in November 2012. Until recently, all senior British ministers have been refused meetings with their Chinese counterparts, in protest against Mr Cameron's decision to meet the Dalai Lama.

And when the Chinese finally relented, British officials went into overdrive to ensure that Mr Cameron's trip would be a success. Some of the tricks they used were the same old tired and tiresome ones deployed by every Western leader visiting China: the practice of rolling together of all the past, present and potential future trade contracts into one single big sum to give the impression that the visit was a huge economic success, the obligatory photograph of a visiting Western leader shaking hands with a Chinese business entrepreneur (preferably female, and preferably young) against the backdrop of Shanghai's Pudong district, and an encounter with students at a university, where one local youth inevitably asks the Western leader a profound question such as "What would you do to improve friendly relations with the Chinese people?"

Mr Cameron did all of this and more. He included footballers in his visiting retinue. He urged Britons to give up learning French and German, and study the Chinese language instead. And he wasted no opportunity to differentiate himself from other Europeans: "Some in Europe and elsewhere see the world changing and want to shut China off behind a bamboo curtain of trade barriers. Britain wants to tear those trade barriers down," he said.

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