As George Osborne returns from his trade mission to China where he encouraged Chinese businesses to invest in UK’s infrastructure, it’s pertinent to consider what Osborne didn’t say and why his muted response shames Britain.
Beguiled by prospects of finance, irrespective of its source, he avoided much discussion about China’s human rights abuses. If he was aware of Amnesty’s annual report on China, he’d obviously filed in the drawer marked ‘low priority’. But Amnesty’s report includes incidents of torture, arbitrary detention, trade in torture instruments, misuse of law enforcement equipment, systematic repression of freedom of speech and restrictions on religious freedom and on reproductive rights.
The Chinese were delighted by Osborne’s approach. An editorial in the Beijing-based English Language paper, Global Times, wrote:
‘He is the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region's business potential instead of finding fault over the human rights issue.’
The article goes on to praise Osborne’s ‘pragmatism’ and ‘etiquette’ in not drawing attention to such things. The Chinese cannot adopt all the West’s approaches to balancing the rights of individuals against those of the state, the editor writes, because it would be ‘too risky’.
Osborne has not considered whether it would be ‘too risky’ for the UK to be in hock to China for decades. Neither has he reflected on whether China would be a trustworthy or ethical partner. The pursuit of cash overrides such concerns.
It’s now been revealed that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doesn’t give human rights ‘the profile it had in the past’. Giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service at the FCO, said human rights was ‘not one of our top priorities’ although it was ‘still an integral part’ of FO work. When he was pressed, he said he ‘would not dispute that right now the prosperity agenda is further up the list’.
In other words, attracting investment trumps ethics. Never mind human rights, feel the cash.
What has this to do with education? There are two reasons.
First, this Government is in thrall to what it believes are ‘Chinese’ methods of teaching. This is based on the fact that Shanghai regularly tops the OECD’s PISA tables. But Shanghai isn’t the whole of China. 25% of Shanghai’s cohort was missing from the last round of PISA in 2012. This makes the results unrepresentative of the whole of Shanghai let alone the whole of China. And there’s evidence that methods of teaching in Shanghai’s schools are not as rigid as described by politicians who think English children need a good dose of teaching-facts-from-the-front. When Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths, visited Shanghai in 2014, he found ‘teaching that emphasised deep conceptual understanding’.
In any case, education methods can’t be disentangled from the culture in which they operate. However worthy ‘Chinese’ methods may or may not be, the atmosphere in which they’re used – one which encourages conformity, discourages dissent and stifles criticism – can’t be ignored.
Second, schools in England are supposed to promote ‘the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.’ And yet we have a Chancellor of the Exchequer and possible future Prime Minister kowtowing to an undemocratic country which ignores such niceties as individual liberty and religious freedom in order to attract investment.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with cultural ties, the ‘soft’ influence which builds bridges and promotes humanitarian values. But Osborne has told the world the UK is prepared to ditch these standards in return for dosh. This sends out the message that there is one undeclared British value. It is hypocrisy.