As Chinese President Xi Jinping clinched investment deals worth some U.S.$30 billion on his state visit to the United Kingdom on Wednesday, rights activists hit out at the British government for going back on its own principles and ignoring the ruling Chinese Communist Party's ongoing crackdown on rights lawyers and ethnic minorities.
"If the U.K. is going to totally ignore the ever-worsening rights situation that we have at the moment in China, then that will cause a fundamental conflict with its principles as a democratic country," U.S.-based Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao said.
He said focusing on the economic benefits of warmer ties wasn't a wise move.
"The Chinese economy is built on unjust foundations, and its infringement of civil liberties will damage the interests of the whole world, including those of the U.K.," Teng said.
He said Xi is a different sort of president from his predecessors.
"He is much more ambitious, and he has a lot more power concentrated in his hands," Teng said. "He is very likely to turn China into a fascist country with Chinese characteristics."
London-based academic Xu Yi agreed, echoing other commentators' comparisons on Tuesday with the appeasement policies towards the Nazi regime in Germany before World War II.
China also needs West
Xu said a flagging Chinese economy means that Beijing needs good ties with Britain and the U.S. as much as those countries need its investments.
"The Chinese economy needs Britain and the U.S., and even if they were to say the things that China most hates to hear, they would still keep coming back to fawn on [those countries]," he said. "Communist Party rule is totally dependent on the economy, because it has long since lost the support of the people, and now the economy is starting to
Xi and Cameron on Wednesday inked a multi-billion dollar deal to finance nuclear power stations in the U.K., in a deal that Prime Minister David Cameron hopes will pave the way for further incoming Chinese investment, which reached U.S.$5.1 billion in 2014.
"China and the U.K. are increasingly interdependent and are becoming a community of shared interests," Xi told members of both houses of parliament in a speech on Wednesday.
Critics have raised security concerns over Chinese involvement in the industry, citing allegations of cyberattacks sponsored by the Chinese government on commercial and government targets overseas.
Cameron, meanwhile, told China's state broadcaster CCTV: "China is investing more in Britain now than other European countries," amid plans to make London one of the major hubs for the trading of China's currency, the yuan.
While human rights protesters have made an appearance during Xi's trip, their protests have largely been eclipsed by pro-Xi protesters, who were seen waving identical banners from a supply bearing the diplomatic bag address of the Chinese embassy in London, local media reported.
According to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, at least 293 lawyers, law firm staff, human rights activists and family members have been detained, questioned by police, forbidden to leave the country, held under residential surveillance, or are simply missing.
While many have since been released, 31 remain under criminal detention, enforced 'disappearance' or residential surveillance, with the majority being held in unknown locations, the group said.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress representing the interests of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur group in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, said the Uyghur community was "disappointed" by Xi's regal reception in Britain.
"This sort of high-level treatment [of Xi] by the British government is really disappointing," said Raxit, who has frequently spoken out against Beijing's repressive policies in Xinjiang, where a string of violent incidents has sparked an all-out "anti-terrorism" campaign from Beijing. "I hope that the U.K. government will treat human rights and economic matters separately."
"At the same time, I hope they will take a hard line policy, rather than changing traditional British values in favor of Chinese economic development," he said.
Raxit's words were echoed by senior law lecturer Rosa Freedman from the University of Birmingham.
"China’s economic might is created by one of the most brutal regimes in the world," Freedman wrote in an online article published to coincide with Xi's trip. "None of that seems to matter to the British government."
"Instead, the U.K.’s eyes are firmly on the financial benefits of a closer relationship with this repressive regime," she wrote. "And that pernicious calculus seems to be seeping out of the halls of power and into the public sphere, with British civil society organizations warned to consider the scale and type of protests they’re planning."
Writing in the online academic journal The Conversation, she said London's attitude to Xi should have been predictable after Cameron's ruling Conservative Party announced plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.
Such a move "would radically scale back and modify the UK’s legal commitment to European and international human rights norms," Freedman said.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong also took aim at Cameron in a speech at Oxford University, saying that the Chinese government is unlikely to be a trustworthy business partner if it hasn't kept promises of fully democratic elections made to Hong Kong ahead of the 1997 handover to Beijing.
Wong and other activists have criticized Britain, former colonial ruler of Hong Kong, for not doing enough to stop Beijing from eroding promised freedoms in the city, which saw 79 days of the mass Umbrella Movement occupation protest in 2014.
Hong Kong youth activist Chau Man-fong said Wong had voiced the concerns of many in Hong Kong.
"Many young people in Hong Kong who many not be as famous as Joshua Wong are nonetheless courageously expressing similar views through a number of different channels," Chau told RFA after Wong's speech.
And Cameron's former policy adviser Steve Hilton hit out at the prime minister for failing to confront Xi over human rights and cybersecurity concerns.
"This is one of the worst national humiliations we've seen since we went cap in hand to the IMF in the 1970s," Hilton, who left Downing Street in 2012, told the BBC, in a reference to the 1976 debt crisis prompting a loan request to the International Monetary Fund.
"The truth is that China is a rogue state just as bad as Russia or Iran, and I just don't understand why we're sucking up to them rather than standing up to them as we should be," Hilton said.
China has repeatedly denied accusations of espionage, saying it is itself a victim of cyberattacks.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.