Richard Heller invites Jeremy Corbyn to disprove the charge that he regards China’s Xi Jingping more favourably than Trump.
Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to snub Donald Trump and join the public protests against him has understandably revived memories of his very different attitude to the visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015.
Corbyn donned white tie and tails (did he hire them or does he keep a set of his own in some secret attic?) to attend the state banquet for Xi. He gave no support to the scattered protesters, even though they needed him badly to gain media exposure against Xi’s drum-banging cheerleaders. Corbyn had a private meeting with Xi, in which he claimed to have raised human rights issues. One must wonder how much time these received in the half-hour meeting, in which he also begged China to stop sending Britain so much steel and gave fulsome praise to China’s record in fighting fascism in the Second World War and its “huge achievement in helping more than 600 million of its people out of poverty.”
Since then, I have been unable to find a single public criticism from Corbyn of China’s record on any issue. He has been silent on China’s repression of Tibet and on the million or more Uighur people in concentration camps, or the millions of other detainees in China, and the macabre harvesting of body parts from dead prisoners. Although often vocal on climate change he has said nothing about China’s contribution, nor its long record of environmental recklessness and destruction. He has done nothing in public to help any dissidents in China or combat the crackdowns on freedom of thought and expression and free trade unions, and its attempts to stifle critics overseas, including in our country.
Corbyn has now made four speeches to Labour party Conference (I wrote the best bit myself in his first). None have contained any criticism of China, although there have been four attacks on Donald Trump. The 2016 Conference speech actually praised China for its spending on research. The same year he contrived to give a speech on International Human Rights Day without mentioning China at all.
In its 2017 General Election manifesto he promised that Labour’s foreign policy “will be driven by progressive values and international solidarity…. It means championing human rights and democracy everywhere and not just where it is commercially convenient.” There was one glancing reference to China, in a list of countries also including Egypt, the Gulf States, Myanmar, the Philippines, Russia and Turkey where Labour promised to “urge respect for human rights and the rule of law” (yes, and I can call spirits from the vasty deep).
Of course Corbyn is not alone in kowtowing to China. It has been public policy for many years under successive governments (and will become worse after Brexit, when we will have to beg China even harder for investment and trade concessions). It is almost universal among our ruling class. To give just one example, from one of Corbyn’s fiercest opponents, Peter Mandelson produced this account, on the blog of his secretive consultancy Global Counsel, of a delightful tea party with Xi Jinping, praising the dictator’s remarkable composure.
However, since the outset of his leadership Corbyn has appealed to higher ethical principles, and all his conduct must be judged against them. His long march into silence over China demeans him and undermines him. This is highlighted painfully by his public posing against Donald Trump. There are crucial moral differences between Trump and Xi. Trump is genuinely accountable to democratic institutions and to the rule of law: Xi is beyond them. Life for American critics of Donald Trump is much more comfortable – and much longer – than for Chinese critics of Xi. However noxious in words and action, Trump does not compare as an agent of human suffering to Xi, the greatest violator of human rights in the world.
For a hundred years or more, certainly since the emergence of Soviet Communism, people on the Left have regularly been accused of having a selective conscience, attacking the crimes of ideological enemies, being silent or even acquiescent towards the crimes of states and causes judged to be progressive. Worse still, the Left has appeared to follow the enemy’s enemy principle – assuming that anyone opposed to an ideological foe belongs in the progressive camp. Corbyn has accumulated much baggage of this nature already, but he now seems determined to pile up more. He has invited the charge that he regards Xi more favourably than Trump. I would love to see him disprove this, and I look forward to meeting him at a protest underneath the Xi blimp.
Richard Heller is an author and journalist and former chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. His latest book (with Peter Oborne) is White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.