Britain sells out on human rights for Chinese investment

Written by Rosa Freedman.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has arrived in the UK on an official state visit and it seems that he will largely be welcomed in most quarters. Indeed, the British Conservative government’s approach to China seems to reflect its lack of concern for human rights both at home and abroad.

President Xi is coming partly to discuss economic investment in the UK, following of chancellor George Osborne’s visit to his shores. The strengthening of the relationship cannot be separated from the government’s desire to bring Chinese money onto UK shores and into UK businesses.

Make no mistake about it: that money is no less blood money than Congo’s diamonds are blood diamonds. China’s economic might is created by one of the most brutal regimes in the world.

China’s ambassador to the UK insists that his president does not fail to engage on human rights issues, but then warns the UK not to “interfere” in what he opaquely calls China’s “internal affairs”.

China has always claimed that while it does not afford much weight to civil and political rights, it supposedly advocates economic, social and cultural rights. And while those artificial distinctions between types of rights have long been revealed as nonsense, it is important to point to China’s arguments because even those claims are false.

Yes, China is party to the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(while refusing to ratify the sister Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), but its participation is borderline farcical. For all its grandiose talk of ideology and culture, China systematically violates all types of rights and denies very many of its citizens their fundamental freedoms that fall under both of those core international human rights treaties.

President Xi rules over a country with one of the poorest domestic human rights records in the world. Political dissent is not tolerated, with government opponents and civil society members routinely involuntarily disappeared, tortured and executed. Lawyers and activists in particular are targeted, as shown by a recent spate of arrests and detentions.

Rights abuses are not limited to vocal opponents of the regime. Occupation and confiscation of land continues with impunity, and ethnic and religious minorities are systematically subjugated and treated as second-class citizens. There is no freedom of the press, but instead widespread censorship and restrictions on internet access.

Crucially for Xi’s business-focused visit, China’s financial clout is inseparable from its violations of international labour standards and the denial of individuals’ rights to property, to security and to welfare . Workers’ rights essentially do not exist, with almost no laws governing wages, working hours or conditions. Extreme poverty is widespread. Property, particularly of the poorest and the peasants, is expropriated without compensation, and forced displacements are common.

None of that seems to matter to the British government.

Instead, the UK’s eyes are firmly on the financial benefits of a closer relationship with this repressive regime. And that pernicious calculus seems to be seeping out of the halls of power and into the public sphere, with British civil society organisations warned to consider the scale and type of protests they’re planning.

Of course, past Conservative governments provide ample precedent for engaging with grave human rights abusers. Margaret Thatcher enjoyed an all-too-cosy relationship with General Pinochet, a brutal dictator who tortured and slaughtered his own citizens. While her personal attitude to apartheid South Africa is still a matter of some debate, plenty of others in her government and the wider party stridently supported the country’s white supremacist government well after it was ostracised by most of the world.

And even leaving China aside, the current government has pinned its colours to the mast where it comes to human rights by threatening to repeal the Human Rights Act, a move that would radically scale back and modify the UK’s legal commitment to European and international human rights norms.

As was made clear by a former Labour minister on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme as the visit began, national interests of infrastructure and business are trumping any moral imperative to call out a grotesque human rights violator. Britons may be rightly disgusted at this spectacle – but we might also ask ourselves why we didn’t see it coming.

Rosa Freedman is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Birmingham. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by Toumi Fethi/Flickr 

Categories: ChinaTags: , , , ,


  1. Let me add an important detail: “financial benefits” should be “short-term benefits for the financial industry and a dangerous nuclear plant for the rest of Britain”.

    You don’t need to go back to the times of Thatcher…: “MI6 was known to have assisted the dictatorship with the kidnap of two Libyan opposition leaders, who were flown to Tripoli along with their families – including a six-year-old girl and a pregnant woman – in 2004.” (

    Beware: The CCP is no Gaddafi and China is not Libya. Britain is just a little pawn, the real game is the China-US competition; once the CCP has got what it wants from Britain, they will not care at all about any “commitment” or “agreement” they have made with the UK. You will be just an irrelevant little island with a nuclear plant built and run by a PLA-controlled SOE…

    Goodnight and good luck.

  2. Anonymous


  3. – The author has clearly pointed out that the UK government has engaged with HR abusers in the past, so I don’t see the 优越感 you mention. The article is an unambiguous critique of the UK gov’s actions.

    – I cannot see how China’s rapid economic growth can make state violence or extralegal detentions acceptable or necessary.

    – Let me remind you that “China is party to the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (while refusing to ratify the sister Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)”.

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