Before, during and after the recent visit to Northern Ireland by Madame Liu Yandong of the Communist Party of the China, many people and special interest groups raised the issue of China's terrible record of human rights abuses. In doing so, they were trying to get the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to raise the issue with Madame Liu Yandong directly.
Most of these calls were dismissed with the excuse that Yandong was here to discuss matters of trade and commerce and strengthen links with the University of Ulster. The implication being that human rights weren't an appropriate subject of discussion when much more important issues had to be discussed first. In a reply to an assembly question from TUV leader, Jim Allister, OFMDFM stated that there had been private discussions with Yandong where human rights issues were discussed.
What's interesting to note is the language that OFMDFM used in their reply to Mr Allister; the initial question specifically asked what discussions were had with Yandong on the subject of human rights abuses. The reply said private discussions included the subject of human rights issues. Ignore for a minute the fact that Mr Allister's question was insufficiently answered and what you realise is that OFMDFM could have discussed our own human rights issues without ever mentioning China's human rights abuses.
Of course, this 'elephant in the room' approach to dealing with China is hardly unique to Northern Ireland and in fairness to our own political leaders, there's really no upside to annoying China other than a tiny fraction of moral capital. What is needed is for the US, Russia, Europe to get together and discuss China's human rights abuses.
I'm not an idiot; I know the obstacles standing in the way for such an approach. I just think the logic behind current thinking is flawed. It's based on the idea that trade with China steadily helps to improve things like some kind of very slow, very ineffective conversion therapy. All it does really though is allow China to make the least amount of effective change for the maximum amount of reward.
I don't think there is an easy solution to the problem, but I think it's easier to fix if the terms are along the lines of 'if you play by these rules, you can come into the club' instead of allowing them into the club and then asking them ever so nicely to abide by the rules which didn't prevent us from letting them in the club in the first place.