Outspoken Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is once again ruffling feathers with the release of his musical debut, a heavy-metal song mocking China’s government. The politically charged (and expletive-laden) video has predictably been blocked by censors in China but has gone viral internationally. While Ai’s newest form of protest is generating a lot of public attention, a quieter appeal against Beijing’s policies by fellow Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng on Wednesday has already made diplomatic waves.
Chen, the blind civil rights activist known for exposing government abuses (and escaping house arrest in 2012), is currently in London accepting a human rights award from the British Parliament. The situation is an already delicate one for Prime Minister David Cameron, who is in the midst of an awkward diplomatic spat with Beijing after receiving another persona non grata for the Chinese government — the Dalai Lama– last May. Cameron’s attention is currently consumed by another crisis, concerning a gruesome act of possible terrorism, but Chen’s accusation on Wednesday — that Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague are refusing requests for a meeting because they are ‘scared of upsetting the Chinese government’ — is poised to reignite the embarrassing and inconvenient issue for the prime minister.
Chen told the Daily Mail that ‘the British government is letting down its people by refusing to see me. This country has for centuries, from the slave trade to Nazism, faced up to dictators, fascism and oppression. This is not what the British people vote for.’ The evocative appeal is geared at bringing renewed scrutiny within Britain to bilateral ties between the two countries and has already put pressure on Cameron to account for his government’s China policy.
Strong stuff indeed. Where China is concerned, Cameron does not have the upper hand and, despite persuasive appeals by activists (as well as pressure from political rivals), cannot afford to jeopardize relations with the country, which has significant investments in Britain. Further speech (or rocking out) from Chen and Ai will continue to make that pragmatic position look less and less defensible in the court of general public opinion. But there’s no indication that this is a potent enough political issue to alter Cameron’s position. The frantic response within Britain over the possibility that a Chinese-funded infrastructure project, the massive High Speed 2 rail network, could be at risk because of Cameron’s handling of the Dalai Lama issue is evidence enough for that.