Britain has “sold the store”, “surrendered” and “totally capitulated” in its efforts to get back into the good graces of the Chinese leadership, in the words of several senior Beijing-based diplomats from Asia and Europe.
There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy from the representatives of countries that have themselves gone to great lengths to ingratiate themselves with China.
But, as Prime Minister David Cameron arrives in Beijing today to begin his first state visit in more than two years, it is hard to avoid the perception that the UK, like most other countries, is struggling to cope with a more assertive China.
British diplomats insist the UK’s position has not changed on human rights or on Tibet, but European diplomats and human rights groups say London has clearly downgraded these issues over the past year. What Britain has gained is not clear.
The UK was thrown into the diplomatic deep-freeze in May 2012 after Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, posed with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, during his trip to London.
China reviles the Nobel Peace Prize-winning lama as a “wolf in monk’s robes”, bent on Tibetan independence. It views any official meetings with him by foreign leaders as part of a western plot to split China.
Other European nations feel the UK mishandled the meeting with the Tibetan leader and then gave in too quickly in its efforts to placate Beijing.
When Mr Cameron decided to emphasise Britain’s opposition to Tibetan independence in the House of Commons this year, the UK was made to look weak when the decision did not yield an immediate thaw. And the subsequent lobbying to arrange official visits before the end of the year looked overeager.
Trade and investment between the UK and China seemed unaffected after the Dalai Lama visit, which has only added to the perception that London is trying too hard.
British exports to China have doubled to ￡15.9bn in the past five years; and last year, even after the May meeting, the UK ranked fourth as a destination for outbound Chinese investment, behind only Hong Kong, the US and Kazakhstan. In 2011 Britain was eighth and in 2010 it was 21st.
European diplomats say British euroscepticism has made it less able to come to a unified position with other European countries when dealing with China on issues such as meeting the Dalai Lama.
That leaves the UK exposed to even more pressure from Beijing, which is adept at exploiting rifts and rivalries within the EU.
There is a wider question here that has been around for as long as liberal democratic political systems have had foreign policies: does it do any good to lecture authoritarian regimes on universal values?
To Chinese ears, there is something faintly ridiculous about the UK, which China blames for the opium wars, colonialism and “100 years of humiliation”, coming to Beijing with sermons on human rights.
As Boris Johnson put it in his inimitable way during a visit to China in October: “I don’t walk into a meeting and say:
‘I say, you chaps, how’s freedom doing?’”
The business community looks at the potential opportunities in China’s enormous market and asks how useful British finger-wagging actually is.
“If defending the rights of the Dalai Lama puts the UK behind the French and other countries in the relative pecking order in the eyes of the new Chinese leadership, then that is a big mistake and very depressing for Britain,” one western financier told the Financial Times this week.
The answer, of course, is that abandoning the defence of universal values in the hopes of more market access or better political relations is an even less effective way of earning the respect of China’s leaders, or of anyone else.
And it is not just the UK that appears reluctant to raise such issues with China. Given Beijing’s willingness and ability to inflict diplomatic and economic pain, it is quite likely that the ageing Dalai Lama will never again be granted an audience with a European leader in his lifetime.
2012年5月，卡梅伦和英国副首相尼克?克莱格(Nick Clegg)会见了在伦敦访问的西藏精神领袖达赖喇嘛(Dalai Lama)，此后英中外交关系进入冰冻期。