Maybe David Cameron, Britain's Prime Minister, was considering the fate of Ai Weiwei's Shanghai Studio, when he gave his carefully worded speech on 10 November 2010 in front of a group of Beijing University students. Mr Ai, who designed the 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium, had made documentaries about Chinese dissidents and human rights issues, which, it would appear, were not to the liking of the authorities. It turns out that his studio in Shanghai has not got proper planning permission and is to be knocked down. At least Mr Ai is not in prison.
Mr Cameron, for his part, insisted that he be allowed to address an audience in China to tell them that they should embrace freedom and the rule of law. One presumes laws and freedoms more akin to ours than theirs.
On 16 November 2010, 76-year old British author, Alan Shadrake, was jailed in Singapore for six weeks and fined the equivalent of £9,700 for contempt of court over his book Once a Jolly Hangman, Singapore Justice in the Dock, a critique of Singapore's use of the death penalty and the Singapore Judiciary.
Both the above cases highlight major differences in perceptions between societies in the East and West concerning the rights and duties of the state and those of the individual. Presumably, both Mr Cameron and Mr Shadrake believe that they have a right to express their opinions on such matters in other countries, whether or not invited to do so. It seems that both gentlemen think they are advocating a superior system or moral code to the ones current in China and Singapore. Equally likely, Mr Cameron and Mr Shadrake will probably be considered arrogant and less than best mannered in these respective countries.
As a private citizen, Mr Shadrake makes his pitch and takes his chances. No surprise that he found "democracy" and "free-speech" a little different in Singapore to Surbiton. As Britain's representative, Mr Cameron's pitch can have knock-on affects. Fortunately, his Chinese hosts anticipated just such a problem, hence his speech in front of a student audience.
Simon Jenkins in an article in the Guardian on 09 November 2010 had an apt title: "Only Britain can beg for scraps from China and tell them how to behave....It is an exercise in bluff concealing hypocrisy"
A graver offence in the eyes of the Chinese and adding a touch of insult to injury, was the insistence by the British to wear poppies during the visit. The poppy would have been a constant reminder to the Chinese of their defeats at the hands of the British in the First (1839-1842) and Second (1856-1860) Opium Wars. Although it is a different variety of poppy from which opium is produced, the British politicians refused to remove them when requested to do so by their Chinese hosts.
The Opium Wars are not forgotten or really totally forgiven in China. In 1976, the late Brian Inglis wrote a book entitled The Opium War. Philip Mason of The Spectator wrote a summary for the end-cover: "Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, called it 'a national sin of the greatest possible magnitude', and many have echoed his verdict. For when Britain sent an expeditionary force in 1840 to compel the Chinese to accept imports of opium, they opened what was to be one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of the Empire.
"How did the situation arise? How did opium exports become so crucial to the British economy? How did the British come to be as addicted to opium revenue as the Chinese were to the drug itself? Shocking, shaming..."
It might be no big deal to Mr Cameron and company but it is surprising that our Embassy in Beijing did not forewarn the party that wearing a poppy could be perceived in a different light to that in the UK. One is left to ask whether either wearing a poppy or giving a speech on democratic politics as practised in the West was of any relevance to the visit?
There is a passage in the late Immanuel C.Y. Hsü's book The Rise of Modern China which describes the importance of the family in Chinese society: "The basic unit of the Chinese society was the family rather than the individual...Within the family, respect was claimed and given according to age and sex, the older members enjoying a status superior to the younger ones...The family head was the father, who had complete authority over the other members. He decided all family issues...disciplined the unfilial and disobedient...Yet for all his authority, he still had to act within the moral code of Confucianism and behave like a father - strict yet benevolent, authoritative yet paternalistic....the Chinese family was a laboratory of human relationships."
The passage is from part of the book concerning the Ching Dynasty but could just as easily be about China 2,000 years ago and fairly recognisable still. For the "family", read "state" and whether Imperial China or Communist China, one can still recognise the same fundamental principle in play.
John Humphrys reporting from China on 04 November 2010, comments that prior to his visit this time, he told the BBC News Asia editor that he was sceptical of just how much freedom he would have to properly investigate and report. He was astonished at just how much freedom he did have to go where he pleased and talk to anyone he wished. Obvious exception was the wife of the dissident Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu is presently serving 11 years in prison.
Regarding democracy as understood in the west, Mr Humphrys found that there was little desire for it. "Not even a group of extremely bright, young students, some of whom have spent years studying in foreign countries, including Britain." He found that these students enjoyed the degree of freedom and reforms they already have and want a prosperous and stable China. If the Communists deliver this, why change the system.
His argument to them that "the ultimate freedom is the freedom to throw out the people in power if you don't like them" baffled the students. One student retorted: "You do that in your country all the time and it doesn't seem, to make much difference. What we want is stability - and that's what we've got."
Massive changes are happening in China, a country of 1.35 billion. The statistics, wherever one looks are difficult to comprehend. Watching a news bulletin in Hong Kong a year ago last April, I remember the reporter announcing China's February estimate of iron-ore imports: 51 million tons. There, President Obama, China does import as well as export!
In 1960, China had a dozen cities with a core population of over one million. Currently, over 140 cities have surpassed this figure. The authorities have moved some eight million people from the countryside to towns and cities every year for at least the past two decades. The intention is to move another 150 to 250 million into towns and cities by 2020, depending on economic growth.
The Government is struggling to burst a property price bubble in the cities, is wrestling with food-price inflation of 10 per cent; had to send back to the country 35 million city workers during the economic downturn 2008-2009; then arrange for a monitored return.
To offset the downturn, the Government put into action a $580 billion stimulus package, made plans for new highway and housing construction and developed plans for 20,000 miles of high-speed rail lines. The "package" continues and some estimates show it will top $2 trillion by 2011.
It is doubtful whether a democracy could execute such programmes and as Mr Humphrys and others have pointed out, there is little desire to follow West European or American political models. For all that, there is a democracy of sorts in China as could only be expected once society becomes more urbanised in an era of cheap and cheerful communications. It is of course, the internet and although the Chinese Government blocks, it also listens.
If the Chinese want greater "democracy", it is certain that they will find a way and system suitable to their political and cultural needs. They don't need westerners telling them how.