Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Consequences of the whole Olympic Torch Business

Gordon Brown got severely criticised by all the talking heads plus the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for allowing the Olympic torch to enter Downing Street in his presence, and agreeing to go to the closing ceremony, especially as the French announced they would stay away from Beijing unless "certain conditions were met". The Lib Dems indulged in grandstanding to the extent of writing to the PM to advise him to stay away.

Luckily Gordon didn't listen to them and luckily he didn't follow the French line either.

There has been widespread coverage of the protests in the Chinese media (particularly of the way a disabled female Chinese athlete was attacked by a pro-Tibet protester in Paris, which was wrong no matter how you look at it). China had been furious with France for taking such a high-profile attitude over the Olympics anyway, and the incident with the disabled athlete gave them the chance to scapegoat France for all the protests in Europe. There have been demonstrations and protests outside French businesses like Carrefour in China, and boycotts have been organised.

The business implications are so big that President Sarkozy has had to do a public U-turn from castigating China to appeasing them. He has written personally to the disabled Chinese athlete apologising to her, and has dispatched three high profile envoys to China to patch things up. Meanwhile the CEO of Carrefour has publicly distanced himself from the protests in France.

Given the way the Chinese have made the French bend the knee to them, does anyone believe that the French have the authority to make any further protests to them about human-rights?

It makes our Gordon look like a diplomatic genius, because compared to Sarkozy all he had to endure were a few uncomfortable minutes watching the torch in Downing Street. And businesses like Tesco, competing in China against Carrefour and Wall-Mart, are serenely unaffected. And we still retain the authority to express concerns in private and have them taken seriously because the Chinese know we won't play grandstanding games with them.

Of course human rights in Tibet matters, but concerns need to be voiced in private behind closed doors, especially as the Chinese put great store on not losing face. The Chinese have a long history of reacting positively to approaches made in private but very badly to approaches made in public. In the run-up to the expiry of Britain's lease for Hong-Kong, the private negotiations were going well, the Chinese were all set to extend the lease for another century - till Mrs Thatcher couldn't resist opening her mouth and demanding in public that they renew the lease. Then it became a matter of patriotism to get Hong-Kong back - which they did. Britain had been moving towards full democracy in Hong Kong, and had Mrs T kept her gob shut and let the negotiators get on with it in private, the 7 million Hong-Kong citizens would have been enjoying full democracy by now under a renewed British lease. As it is, the shouting delivered them into the hands of the Chinese Communist party. Chris Patten too found when he was governor of Hong-Kong that publicly criticising China did him no favours (to the extent that Sir William Purves, chairman of HSBC at the time, got visibly irritated with the way he was damaging British business).

It's also not clear whether sports is the correct forum to express concerns on human rights as it hurts innocent athletes and make the target of the protests even more stubborn. And while the Chinese were heavyhanded and over-the-top in putting down the Tibetan demonstrators, the demonstrators were disturbingly xenophobic towards the Chinese (imagine if the Spanish rioted because the English have moved there in numbers, or if the English rioted because Scots live in England in numbers).

China is now a de facto superpower, just like the United States, and just as we express criticism to the Americans in private, we need to express criticism to the Chinese in private too. However much our press and opposition parties may like to pretend that we live in a Love Actually world, we don't.

Much better to have a cautious and discreet Prime Minister like Gordon than a "shoot your mouth off one minute, publicly abase yourself the next minute" leader like Sarkozy. And it's lucky we have a Labour govt in power - because according to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, they would have gone the Sarkozy route.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not updated for a while snowy ? I'd be interested on your take on the 10p tax row.