Friday, 23 October 2015

China: a prosperity agenda?

I chose to mark the State visit of President Xi Jinping of China this week by spending some time at a wonderful art exhibition that somehow our honoured guest couldn't fit in to his crowded schedule.

Whether by coincidence or not, the Royal Academy in London is currently showing a deeply moving collection of works by China's best-known contemporary artist and dissident, Ai Weiwei. It's a real shame that the Foreign Office couldn't find a way to inveigle the President in to see it.

He could have stopped to ponder the 90 tons of steel reinforcing rods, laid out on the floor like a deep carpet of rusted metal, each one meticulously straightened after having been retrieved from the mangled ruins of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 which killed more than 85,000 people. Many of those who died were victims of shoddily built structures erected by corrupt construction companies. Hence the symbolism of the steel rods.

Or perhaps the President could have spent a few moments squinting through the viewing apertures of Ai's half-lifesize prison cell dioramas, reconstructions of scenes from the artist's 81 days of incarceration in a secret prison in 2011. Inside each iron box are fibreglass figures, showing Ai being questioned, asleep, having a shower -- always with two green-unformed guards at his side. The installation is entitled S.A.C.R.E.D, the initital letters standing for supper, accusers, cleansing, ritual, entropy, and doubt, each describing a different diorama.

The Chinese authorities weren't involved in the planning of the exhibition, although earlier this year, the co-curator Tim Marlow was quoted as saying: “I think the authorities are totally aware of what’s going on. We’re aware, they’re aware. Ai Weiwei is probably aware that they’re aware that we’re aware that they’re aware.”

Which means, I imagine, that somewhere in President Xi's briefing pack, there may well have been a mention of the exhibition, just in case it came up in conversation during his time in the UK. Although, to be honest, I do find it quite hard to imagine that the Queen would have brought it up during their dinner at Buckingham Palace.

"Oh, by the way, Mr President, I do hope you have time to pop down to the Royal Academy while you're in town. They've got an absolutely fascinating show on at the moment -- I'm sure you'd find it most interesting."

Unlikely. Indeed, as far as I've been able to ascertain, not even the culture secretary John Whittingdale has been to see the exhibition, although I shouldn't really be surprised, given that British immigration officials were reluctant even to issue Ai with a full six-month visa to allow him to visit.

The word in Whitehall, apparently, is that in this new, officially-heralded golden era in relations between our two countries, UK government policy is to prioritise what is being called the "prosperity agenda" ahead of the "rights agenda". Which is another way of saying that because we can't afford to pay for our own essential infrastructure development (nuclear power stations, high-speed rail services), we'll invite China to come up with the cash instead. No other Western nation would dream of being so indiscriminate in its use of the begging bowl.

George Osborne and the Treasury are now firmly in charge, even though, according to an excellent programme on Radio 4 last Monday by the BBC's estimable China editor Carrie Gracie, this new approach does represent a strategic shift in foreign policy. And it comes just as there are growing concerns both about China's long-term economic prospects and its increasingly muscular approach towards its neighbours.

There have been times in the recent past when critics of Britain's foreign policy have complained that we have been much too close to the US -- specifically, of course, over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But soon we may start hearing similar complaints about our ties to Beijing: if Chinese state enterprises are to be responsible for some of our key transport links and power supplies, how likely is it that we will resist Beijing's attempts to assert its control in, for example, the South China Sea?

So as we watch Chinese enterprises prepare to build our new nuclear power stations, I shall try not to think too much about Ai Weiwei's steel rods in the Royal Academy, the 85,000 people who died in Sichuan on 12 May, 2008, or the human rights activists, lawyers and ethnic minorities who have been harassed, imprisoned and tortured. Repeat after me: prosperity agenda, not rights agenda.

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