Written by Astrid Nordin.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK has come to an end, and both sides can give a sigh of relief. President Xi’s appearances at Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Manchester City football ground all ran smoothly. Activists protesting against Chinese human rights abuses were there as expected, but were largely obscured by “pro-Chinese” Chinese protesters with drums and flags (even if these turned out to be supplied by the Chinese embassy). Prime Minister Cameron could announce up to £40 billion of trade and investment deals between China and the UK (even if that figure turned out to include previously announced agreements). Jeremy Corbyn wore a tie (even if he also declared his evening with Xi the most boring night he had ever had).
As could have been expected, much UK media coverage of the visit was negative in tone. Most portrayed a Conservative government bending over backwards in order to pursue its “golden relationship” with the People’s Republic for the purposes of financial gain and at the expense of human rights. After George Osborne’s visit to China earlier this year, however, this came as no surprise to anyone. The UK government has been clear that it might raise human rights, but that this will not be an impediment to doing business. Chinese state media and scholars have praised David Cameron’s apparent “pragmatic” prioritization of economics over human rights, in the same way that it did with Osborne’s visit.
If a purpose of Xi’s visit was to charm foreigners and build Chinese soft power abroad, the results must be said to have been mixed at best. Joseph Nye’s influential concept of soft power describes it as the attraction that a state can build beyond the military sticks and economic carrots that are also significant ways of getting what you want from others in international relations. As President Xi travelled down the Mall lined by Chinese expats demonstrating their patriotism by waving Chinese flags, the story the British public encountered through UK media concerned the Chinese government’s enabling or even organizing these expressions of support.
To many, this shows how clumsy the Chinese state still is in its attempts at building soft power abroad. Photographs of flags being distributed from “diplomatic cargo” boxes addressed to the Chinese embassy do not make the British public believe the Chinese state has genuine popular support, it does the opposite. To others, the whole visit demonstrates how Chinese efforts to build soft power abroad might be redundant. China is clearly getting a lot of what it wants from the UK through traditional economic “carrots”. As Simon Jenkins points out in the Guardian, if the UK government really cared about China’s human rights record, it would not do business there. Perhaps, as I have argued in a different context, the distinction between Chinese “hard” and “soft” power is not easily made or upheld.
Ultimately, however, Xi’s primary audience is not the British public, but the Chinese audience at home. William A. Callahan and Kingsley Edney have both recently argued that Chinese soft power is not primarily about shaping public opinion abroad, but at home for the purpose of maintaining consent to Communist Party rule. It is to his domestic audience that Xi needs to show that foreign states like Britain won’t prioritize finger-wagging over human rights at the expense of trade, that business will thrive in the midst of a clamp-down on human rights advocates in China, and that Chinese patriots line the streets with flags waving as “daddy Xi” rides by with the Queen.
In terms of feeding this narrative, the UK government has delivered. Former Cameron adviser Steve Hilton argued in this Sunday’s Guardian that “This is not a choice between money and morals. By standing up to the Chinese regime we can assert our commitment to decency and avoid the embarrassment of overlooking behaviour we know to be repugnant.” By keeping any comments about human rights low key rather than following Hilton’s recommendation of a “tougher stance” on China, the UK government is helping the Chinese government tell the story it wants at home. Perhaps it is not the financial gain that is the most important outcome for the PRC of its state visit to the UK, but the symbolic material that can help the Party-State tell the stories that legitimize its continued rule.
Dr Astrid Nordin is a Lecturer in Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. Recent articles include ‘Futures beyond ‘the West’? Autoimmunity in China’s harmonious world‘ and ‘Targeting the Ontology of War: From Clausewitz to Baudrillard‘. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.