China Pandas to Public Opinion in Britain

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British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) speaks as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo listens on during a press conference at the Foreign Office on June 27, 2011 in London, England. British businesses are expected to sign multi-million pound deals when the two leaders meet. (Photo: Carol Court / Pool / Getty Images)

He called us his “dear friends from the press” and said he wished “to announce a piece of good news.” Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, on his first trip to London since David Cameron entered Downing Street, appeared in the most cordial of spirits at a June 27 press conference with Britain’s Prime Minister. And Wen’s news, or at least the context in which he placed it and the way the translator rendered it, was indeed attention-grabbing. During talks that morning with Cameron, said Wen, China had agreed “to donate a pair of giant pandas to Edinburgh Zoo. In addition we also exchanged views on human rights.”

If Wen hoped the pandas would deflect discussion from China’s hounding of dissidents and crackdown on stirrings of a “jasmine revolution,” he might at least have considered giving Britain a second pair of bears. The gift of 8-year-old pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang to a Scottish zoo had been trumpeted as long ago as January, during a London visit by his Vice Premier Li Keqiang. On the other hand, Wen must know that with Europeans increasingly dependent on Chinese investment in the region’s sovereign debt market and increasingly avid to find ways to hitch their sluggish economies to Chinese growth, European leaders prepared to publicly excoriate his government for human rights abuses are rarer than pandas.

The headline announcement from Wen’s British visit is a £1.4 billion trade deal that will see the U.K. shipping to China far more animals than it gains in return, with a big order for British pigs in place and the lifting of a Chinese ban on British poultry imports. Cameron did find diplomatic turns of phrase to express the British view that China needs to match its economic development with the development of civil society and its attendant freedoms and rights. Even that mild point elicited from Wen a reprimand about Western “finger-pointing,” albeit buried in an answer of such length and then laboriously translated that Cameron may not have noticed. It was left to one of the big beasts of British journalism, Sky News political editor Adam Boulton, to raise China’s record more forcefully, asking Wen if his country needed to make progress on human rights and quizzing Cameron about whether Britain risked compromising its principles in doing business with China. “We do believe the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress to go in step together,” said Cameron. Wen suggested Boulton hadn’t taken enough buses in China to make informed criticisms. Boulton later took to Twitter to give this bemused response:

Still recovering from clash with Chinese PM Wen, says I haven’t traveled much in #China – pity my last visa app was turned down!