On Trade, Hypocrisy, And China's Human Rights

A ship moored up at the London Container Terminal at Tilbury this morning, in from Hong Kong.

Her name is the Maersk Lins and she’s pretty big. She’s not as big as these things can get, but still three hundred metres, more than a hundred thousand tonnes. 

Now, do you know what she does?

She carries about 9,000 of those hefty steel boxes you see in endless lines on trucks - Twenty Foot Equivalent Units is their professional title. They hold almost all the stuff we buy these days as it gets transported from China.

No human rights protestors marked the good ship Lins’ arrival. None will hurl themselves between the containers and the lorries as the offloading grinds on for the couple of days it will take.  No one will scream for China’s wrongly imprisoned at the warehouses, or on the goods’ onward journey to the shops.

fundamentally we don’t care about human rights in China. We certainly don’t care enough to let it stand between us and the espresso maker we want at a price we’re prepared to payWe’ll buy them without a thought - probably at about the time one of the Lins’ sisters is nosing her way into Tilbury, again unmet by righteous fury.

Because fundamentally we don’t care about human rights in China. We certainly don’t care enough to let it stand between us and the espresso maker we want at a price we’re prepared to pay.

Now we can argue for as long as we like about whether things should ever have been this way, whether we should ever have done business with a one-party communist state of precisely the kind Orwell raged against. Or whether we should have won our battle for workers’ rights only to sack all our workers and buy instead from places where those rights are a little more than an unreachable dream of paradise. 

But we did. In our defence, others did too. 

Indeed UK trade with China is a laggard compared to that of our major European partners (none of whose’ ambassadors face protests in London from those who care about human rights in China). The US is China’s biggest trading partner.  The pavements outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square are clear.

This laggard status is precisely why we are gearing up to fawn over Chinese President Xi Jinping as only we can. State banquet at the Palace next week, if you please.

In some respects of course this is all highly embarrassing stuff, even without the huge elephant marked Human Rights in the State Dining Room (perhaps Prince Phillip will shoot it). As the inventors of commercial nuclear power, oh, and railways, it is astonishing that we now need Chinese expertise in both. But again, that’s the way it is.  We may not like it, but no one cares about that.

It’s too late. Decades too late. 

We’re trading with China. We are going to trade more with China. 

Perhaps increased exposure to international norms will one day make a difference to China’s oppressed.  They and we will have to hope so because it’s the only way it’s going to happen.

Now excuse me, I need a new espresso maker.

More about the author

About the author

Born and raised in Swansea West, one of the safest Labour seats in the country, David is perhaps unsurprisingly a High-Tory, Euroskeptic Royalist Libertarian with an unhealthy adoration for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As a result he is seldom pleased by anything that ever happens, and always on the verge of quitting the whole jamboree. A former Special Writer at the Wall Street Journal, he knew the crash was coming when he saw a piece about Louis XVI reproduction furniture "for your Winnebago."

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