Beijing: Trade not rights
Beijing: "It's a trade mission."
The message on board the prime minister's plane to Beijing could scarcely have been clearer. David Cameron has brought the largest-ever British delegation to China to secure business deals - to open British supermarkets and English-language schools and even to export British boars to sire Chinese pigs.
He has not come to pick a fight with China on human rights. In an article for this morning's Wall Street Journal the prime minister writes coyly about addressing areas of disagreement "with respect and mutual understanding acknowledging our different histories".
On his last visit here - as leader of the opposition three years ago - David Cameron was much less coded. He spoke then of his "deep concerns" about freedom of expression, of religion and of the media in China. He declared his hope that by the time of his next visit China would have ratified and implemented the International Covenant on Social and Political Rights. His hope was in vain. The covenant remains unsigned.
Veterans of the Sino-British relationship insist that the advice given to Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago remains true today - namely that British prime ministers can choose whether to play to the crowd by condemning China in public or to have influence by keeping their disagreements private.
The problem with this advice is that those who have witnessed Britain's quiet diplomacy in recent years say that it has amounted to little more than British politicians pointing at a piece of paper which formally raises their concerns about human rights before moving on to more pressing topics. When recently Britain did publicly criticise the death sentence handed down to a drug smuggler who was almost certainly mentally ill, the Chinese authorities reacted by cancelling the so-called "human rights dialogue" - the channel designed to ensure that trade and human rights could be discussed concurrently but separately.
Ai Wei Wei, the campaigner and artist whose ceramic sunflower seeds are on display at the Tate Modern, has only just been released from house arrest. He has urged the PM to say that the civilised world cannot see China as a civilised country if it doesn't change its behaviour. Mr Cameron is unlikely to take that advice but will, no doubt, raise the case of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, the political reformer who is languishing in a Chinese jail.
It is no surprise that David Cameron's deepest concern now, like that of every recent prime minister, is to secure for Britain a growing share of China's growing wealth. Today he and Premier Wen will agree to double the value of trade between their two countries over the next five years to $100 billion. He also wants to persuade China's leaders to buy more foreign goods in order to help re-balance the world economy and to play a role equal to their economic might in tackling the political problems of Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe, to name just a few.
It may not be a surprise but it is a reminder of how limited is the power of our government to even express deep concern let alone do anything about China's continued policy of repression and opposition to democracy.