Why do we care more about pandas than a Briton’s very suspicious death?

Published in The Daily Mail (April 16th, 2012)

The picture speaks volumes: a damning snapshot of British impotence and Chinese intransigence. A government minister sits grinning for the camera in his pac-a-mac like an excited child at the zoo, while beside him a plump panda munches insouciantly on a carrot.

The politician with the smug smile is Jeremy Browne, a leading Liberal Democrat and the second most senior minister in the Foreign Office. He was engaging in the latest bout of ‘panda diplomacy’, with a five-day tour of China to promote investment opportunities for British business — plus, of course, the requisite trip to a bear sanctuary.

Among the stops was the south-western city of Chongqing, where he spent time chatting to the local Communist Party capo, Bo Xilai. Even as they met, however, police were passing on details about the mysterious death of Neil Heywood, a British citizen seemingly poisoned with potassium cyanide in a hotel room nearby.

Nothing was said, of course, that might rattle the cosy cups of tea and talk of trade deals. Now, it has emerged, the prime suspect in the probable murder is Mr Bo’s wealthy wife, with reports Mr Heywood was threatening to expose her network of corrupt dealings. The married couple ran the city like their personal fiefdom before Mr Bo’s fall from grace in recent days.

We may never discover exactly what happened in the lonely last moments of Mr Heywood’s life. The Old Harrovian’s body was hastily cremated, ensuring the destruction of any conclusive evidence of how he met his death. His family was first told he died of heart failure, then of alcohol poisoning.

It is a strange saga. But what makes it even more surreal, even more shocking, is the slothfulness with which the Foreign Office has reacted to such a suspicious death involving a prosperous British businessman — possibly one with intelligence links as well as close and well-advertised connections to the rising star of Chinese politics.

Almost immediately, British businessmen based in China raised concerns with consular officials, urging an inquiry into the 41-year-old’s death. They pointed out he was fit, healthy and a light drinker. But they hit a wall of silence.

Even worse, it was revealed that — incredibly — a senior British diplomat stood alongside two Chinese police officers, watching the disposal of the body. The cremation took place on the day Mr Browne flew home, no doubt delighted with his successful trip cuddling up to the Chinese dragon.

Scandalously, it took Britain three months to raise even the most basic questions over Mr Heywood’s death with Chinese officials, despite a chain of events that should have set the loudest alarm bells ringing in Whitehall. British officials only acted after rumours hit the internet and began to appear in the Press.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Britain’s diplomats are more concerned with the welfare of pandas than the welfare of British people; after all, they pulled out all the stops to help ship a breeding pair to Edinburgh Zoo at a cost of £600,000 a year.

Little wonder senior MPs from all three major parties are now raising questions over the inept and shameful response. The Foreign Office, it is worth pointing out, proclaims its duty to protect British citizens around the world on its own website. Sadly, it has failed to meet such noble aims.

‘It beggars belief that a Foreign Office minister met up with a major figure in this titanic struggle for the fate of China only days after the suspicious death of a British citizen, who appears to have been put to death as a disposable pawn,’ said Labour’s Denis MacShane. He is absolutely right.

The desperate search for economic growth drives such subservient dealings with this emerging Asian superpower, just as it drives so much British foreign policy. Only two per cent of British exports go to China, and ministers are — rightly — determined to boost this.

But it is hard to imagine our rivals, such as France, Israel or the U.S., being so timid and tongue-tied in similar circumstances. The Foreign Office, however, seems to believe even the murder of a British citizen cannot jeopardise its hard work sucking up to Communist Party bigwigs.

After all, China’s shameful repression in Tibet, its censorship of the internet, the jailing of dissident artist Ai Weiwei even as his work was being exhibited in the Tate Modern, have never been allowed to derail the panda diplomacy.

This is far from the first evidence of such Foreign Office failures. As MacShane — himself a former Foreign Office minister — put it to me, Whitehall believes trade is so important that human rights and the odd dead Briton are seen as acceptable ‘collateral damage’.

This can be seen in the hypocritical way we launched a war to liberate Libya, but ignored the continuing repression in Bahrain and carried on selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite its treatment of women and funding of Islamic extremism.

The latest case bears striking similarities with the muted official reaction to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian exile poisoned with radioactive chemicals six years ago in a Japanese restaurant in central London.

Litvinenko fled to Britain for sanctuary after upsetting President Vladimir Putin by revealing an assassination plot against a British-based billionaire.
Yet Britain meekly accepted the refusal of Russia to hand over the main murder suspect, who is a former security officer-turned-millionaire member of parliament.

Just as it meekly accepted a one-sided extradition treaty with the U.S., under which American prosecutors use terror laws to target Britons accused of white-collar crimes — such as Asperger’s sufferer Gary McKinnon, accused of hacking military computers in search of UFO evidence.

Unfortunately, those paid to fight for British interests have a poor record in protecting the interests of ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances in foreign lands.

About 6,000 Britons die abroad each year, with one in six deaths from unnatural causes. At the weekend, the father of Meredith Kercher, the British student murdered in Italy, was the latest to lambast lack of support from the Foreign Office.

Even the Prime Minister has been frustrated by this hapless and often hopeless reaction to helping Britons in trouble.

David Cameron had to apologise last year after embarrassingly cack-handed attempts to rescue people stranded by the Libyan uprising. The Foreign Office dithered over finding aircraft, while France sent in its air force to evacuate 556 of its citizens, and Germany sent in three warships.

Mr Cameron would do well to take a long, hard look at the Foreign Office. Its inept response to the apparent murder of a well- connected Briton in China is just the latest in a series of humiliating blunders, such as its over-enthusiastic support for Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and obsession with a disastrous war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps this is because successive governments have cut back its influence, slashed its budgets and been obsessed with exporting floods of aid-money rather than the finest diplomats prepared to stand up for British interests. As a result, the budget of Kent County Council is now bigger than that of the Foreign Office, while in several key embassies — including Egypt and, at one point last year, Afghanistan — no one even speaks the local language.

A new generation of activist diplomats is being restrained by an old guard of complacent mandarins, seemingly happy to perpetuate the ideals of Lord Salisbury, the 19th- century Prime Minister who said British foreign policy ‘is to float lazily down the stream, occasionally putting out a diplomatic boat hook to avoid collisions’.

This is no longer good enough. It is one thing to engage in panda diplomacy. It is quite another to pander to people involved in corruption, cover-up and the death of a British citizen in the most suspicious circumstances.

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