“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
For many years now I have had the privilege of travelling to work with teachers and researchers in many parts of the world. Sharing ideas with colleagues and sometimes wrestling to interpret these in different cultural contexts has been a great privilege, and has afforded me opportunities to see how other people live, work and try to make sense of the world. Amidst all this, I hope that the experience has taught me to be respectful of other societies and to be prepared to engage in critical discussions whilst making an effort to understand a broad range of motivations and contexts.
The British media today is dominated by reports of the visit to the country by China’s President Xi Jinping. Yesterday he was afforded all the pomp and ceremony in which this country excels. State banquets, an audience with the Queen, an opportunity to address the UK Parliament and a ride along the mall in a carriage more suited to a performance of Cinderella than to the streets of twenty first century London. Unsurprisingly the President’s visit has divided the nation, with those who are in favour of accepting potentially high levels of investment from China into the development of UK infrastructure, juxtaposed with others who believe that we should not be welcoming a dictatorial leader who has overseen increased human rights atrocities in his country.
I have visited several parts of China on a number of occasions and over the past fifteen years have made a number of good friends and colleagues in the country. I have also worked with some outstanding Chinese students who are now making a significant contribution to education back in their homeland. These valued contacts have often afforded me kind hospitality in their country and sometimes in their homes. As with others from around the world, they are proud of their country with its rich history and traditions, though in private many are also critical of the many injustices that they see as characterising modern day China.
China is a vast country and I cannot claim to have seen much of its broad spread. However, I have seen enough to form some idea of the rich diversity within its peoples and culture. As well as Han Chinese colleagues in the East of China and Beijing, I have enjoyed time with friends in the Muslim Uygher communities in Xinjiang Province, and recognise that not all citizens of this vast country have the same interpretation of what it means to be Chinese. I am quite sure that my brief visits to China have shaped much of my thinking about the kind of society that has been created in this diverse part of the world. These thoughts have been very much to the forefront of my mind as I have watched the red carpet treatment given to President Xi Jinping following his arrival in London.
It seems to me that when visitors come to the UK, whoever they are, we should ensure that they receive a warm welcome and that they are made comfortable. Inevitably if they are a Head of State we would expect that they should be granted access to those in positions of responsibility and leadership in the country. However, if we are welcoming visitors as friends, as was implied by both the Prime Minister Mr Cameron, and by President Xi Jinping in speeches yesterday, we should expect that a frank exchange of views, as is common between friends might ensue.
Yesterday in the Guardian newspaper there was an interesting article written by the exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian whose excellent books Stick Out Your Tongue, and The Noodle Maker won international praise. Having been at the receiving end of Chinese Government oppression over a number of years he is fully justified in making a number of observations about how President Xi Jinping’s visit will be reported in China. Emphasising the dangers of being critical of the administration in the country, Ma Jian writes:-
“The message from the Chinese tyrants to their subjects will be clear: if the queen of the UK, the oldest democracy in the world, lavishes your president with such respect and approbation, then what right have you to criticise him?”
Freedom of speech is something which was hard won and is now treasured in many of the world’s great democracies, including the UK. Ma Jian has every right to voice his opposition to Chinese Government oppression, and it is to the credit of the UK Government that he has been made welcome as a resident of this country and is provided with a platform from which to express his opinions. Sadly there are many other Chinese nationals who are in a similar position to Ma Jian and find that whilst their work and ideas are appreciated and indeed honoured outside of China, they face imprisonment and torture if they express themselves within their own country. The artist Ai Wei Wei has received many plaudits for his exhibition currently to be seen at Royal Academy in London, the Nobel Prize winning writer Liu Xiaobo is currently being held as a political prisoner in Jinzhou, Liaoning, whilst his work is honoured in most parts of the world, and the lawyer Xu Zhiyong founder of the Chinese New Citizens’ Movement which has campaigned for the rights of Chinese citizens is similarly incarcerated. These individuals and many thousands of others who, being less well known have escaped the attention of the western media, do not appear to have a voice in the current negotiations being conducted between the UK Government and the Chinese President.
Unlike some who have written in the British press or appeared in interviews on the radio, I do not believe that we should have refused President Xi Jinping entry to the country. However, if as Mr Cameron suggests, there are opportunities for strengthening bonds between the governments of two countries, I would hope that he provides the kind of critical friendship that in recognition of those values of human rights and social justice that are often said to characterise the UK, enables him to express his abhorrence of the repression and ill-treatment of those who voice opinions contrary to those of the totalitarian regime that administers China.
Having been lavishly entertained at Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament President Xi Jinping may now be in need of a day of leisure. If so, he could do far worse than visiting the Royal Academy to see the work of his fellow countryman Ai Wei Wei. I suspect that this is an unlikely scenario as it would demand a willingness to engage in a learning experience that could be in danger of broadening his perspectives.