As with a poem or a dance, a symphony or a drama, there are times when the deeper narrative of human experience comes to expression more clearly only through art. Political events, or their interpretation, are no different. The title of a French film released last year, “Cartoonists: Foot-soldiers of democracy,” captures this exactly. Cartoons have spoken too loudly to power before now, such that power could not handle them; the tragic example of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo proves that. It took a cartoon on the Op-Ed pages of one of our national dailies (The Guardian) to voice the unease that many people here have felt during this week, when Chinese President Xi JinPing came to Britain on a four-day state visit. The cartoon depicted a beaming Xi boarding his Air China 747, turning at the top of the steps to wave goodbye to his farewelling hosts. Fluttering from his hand was not a handkerchief, still less the flag of either nation, but a man’s shirt. On the tarmac, waving back, stood a naked George Gideon Osborne, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister, in any other part of the world). Xi, suggested the cartoonist, has just ripped the shirt from Osborne’s back. China has thus ripped the shirt from the nation’s back, goes the story of the cartoon. That is why many here feel uneasy.
If the United Sates is becoming more circumspect in its posture towards China, the United Kingdom is adopting a different trajectory, perhaps even an opposite stance. It seemed that there was hardly a public moment during the trip when there was not a Royal, major or minor, beyond a ceremonial sword’s length of the president; they do not, after all, have much else to do. If it wasn’t a Windsor, then it was a Tory and the omnipresent carpet, rolled out the rain for the massive Chinese entourage surrounding the President, was an even deeper red than their flag. Xi got to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster. The photo opportunities, all trumpets, tiaras and faux tradition, were carefully arranged. So was the purportedly casual quick pint of room-temperature ale down PM Dave’s local pub, for which neither leader wore a tie but the theoretically surprised landlord did—possibly for the first time since his wedding—and the handpicked natives who appeared in shot did their best to avoid appearing distracted from their contented games of dominoes. The official story from 10 Downing Street is that the visit secured up to GBP40 billions of investment in the United Kingdom’s infrastructure, and is therefore a Good Thing. All the imagery was set up to send a wondrous message back home but it didn’t work so well here.
The deal the two countries struck that caused the greatest anxiety will see a Chinese state-owned company finance, build and control, with a minority French interest, two giant new nuclear power stations. One of those will be the most expensive new plant that the world will ever have seen. The U.K. government has tried to wave away fearfulness about committing such a vast part of the nation’s infrastructure to foreign hands, particularly those of a country intent on super-power status. Economists pondered the wisdom of such a drastic deal while unconfirmed but persistent reports surfaced of the security agencies’ concerns. London’s Times reported, just prior to the visit, “a big division between the money men and the security side”. The Treasury saw it as an opportunity while the security chiefs worried about concealed software systems that could be built in, threatening not only future UK energy security but strategic national security, were the new Sino-British “best-friend” status to turn sour in the future. There is anger, too, at the concurrent closure of almost all that is left of Britain’s steel industry, a collapse triggered almost entirely by China’s recent dumping of below-cost steel on the world market.
Further opposition to the visit, let alone the deal, cited China’s human-rights record, although protestors were carefully hidden from the view of the television cameras. Cameron took the usual stance of claiming that only big business deals could open up bilateral discussion on human rights and religious freedom matters while Xi stated that human rights were a matter of great concern to his government and then moved on. Recently elected Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at least tried but the issue did not surface again. Windsor-watchers noted the absence of Prince Charles from the state banquet at Buckingham Palace, suggesting that his personal friendship with the Dalai Lama, and their shared concerns over China’s treatment of Tibet, led him to boycott the dinner and eat a TV take-away with Camilla.
Environmental campaigners were left aghast at the scale of this new investment in nuclear energy, regardless of who is in charge of it. To incentivize the Chinese outlay, a whopping guaranteed rate of return that is twice the normal commercial kilowatt-hour rate here, is part of the deal. Yet simultaneously the government is withdrawing subsidies to homeowners who wish to convert to solar and wind power, just at the moment in the development of these new sustainable technologies when encouragement is needed. This ought to be a serious concern, just as questions of human rights, religious freedom and ethical policy-making generally should be. There is a detectable and growing public engagement in the consequences of unrestricted burning of fossil-fuels. Nowadays, to build a new nuclear plant takes not only a lot of money but many years before it comes on-stream. Encouraged by the debate opened up by Pope Francis in "Laudato Si'," there is a real and pressing need to extend this conversation. A green energy provider, Ecotricity, has claimed that almost all the United Kingdom’s electricity needs could be supplied by renewables by 2030. Yet the rush towards the Chinese, the Government’s constant refusal of all planning applications for onshore wind-generation and the deep slashing of subsidies to wind and solar equipment developers, that has already caused several companies to collapse, will only increase the fossil-fuel burn.
A less ideological, and more imaginative policy would see massive investment in renewable energy production. It is not only Britain that could make this radical choice; any nation could, if they thought it through and finally broke away from denial of fossil-fuel induced climate-change, or denial of their share of responsibility for it. We need a stronger than ever faith perspective on such questions; we need to be able to demonstrate that another way is not only possible but ethically unavoidable. Anxiety about the Tories’ rush to become new best friends with China is quite rightly based on security fears, economic concerns and disquiet over human rights. There urgently needs to be an accompanying sustainability argument. We have heard from and been challenged by Pope Francis and, even if the just-concluded synod briefly shifted our focus, we need to raise and sustain the argument. Perhaps, with or without red carpets, fanfares or kow-towing, even the Chinese President would listen. And what a wonderful cartoon that would make.