China must improve its human rights record

Last week saw the state visit of the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, to the USA. This was ostensibly a commercially motivated visit, with the official aim of promoting trade between China and the USA. China has enjoyed a meteoric rise to become one of the world’s economic superpowers. Inevitably this has sparked a host of western interest, eager to test the country’s financial potential.

However, the relationship between China and the west is not a comfortable one. It is haunted by the spectre of China’s human rights violations. This diplomatic occasion raised eyebrows in certain quarters, from human rights activists to fashion designers.

Oscar de la Renta voiced his qualms about the first lady’s choice of dress. She wore a red and black Alexander McQueen gown to the state dinner. De la Renta posed the question: “My understanding is that the visit was to promote American-Chinese trade – American products in China and Chinese products in America. Why do you wear European clothes?” Others have replaced that question with: “Why are you so preoccupied with China’s human rights record?”

President Obama devoted parts of the international discussions to the issue of human rights. The Chinese President’s discomfort was obvious, and telling. Obama raised the issue both at the official welcoming ceremony and during a joint press-conference. Whilst acknowledging the clear cultural divergences between China and the US, Mr Obama identified certain universal values. These included freedom of expression, religion and assembly. Proponents of liberal democracy would agree that these rights are fundamental to effective society.

China has repeatedly been criticised for violating these rights by organisations such as Human Rights Watch. Responding to such accusations, the Chinese government has asked that its cultural identity and relative lack of development should be taken into account. It is true that China is comparatively underdeveloped, as it appears in the second lowest category on the Human Development Index. Of course, development in both the US and UK is considered ‘very high’.

Nonetheless, it occurs to me that China should not be allowed to have it all the way. If it wishes to compete on the global market as an economic superpower, it has to adhere to certain standards. The Chinese government is hardly slow to point out the financial success it enjoyed in the face of a global recession. It doesn’t ring true for them to hold their hands up now and say: “Don’t blame us. We are less developed” or “This is part of our national culture.” Unsurprisingly, they have also claimed that human rights protection is improving. It would have been politically fatal to say anything else.

And yet we are still inundated with reports of widespread human rights abuse. Organisations such as Amnesty International have revealed serious violations which have become politically entrenched. They are inherent to China’s most controversial policies, such as the infamous one-child policy and the treatment of Tibetans.

There is an uneasy balance to be struck between condemning China’s appalling human rights record and enjoying the benefits of its trade. This is not the first time we have seen this struggle. David Cameron undertook a similar trade mission to China in November. News of this visit was met by exhortations for the Prime Minister to decry China’s human rights abuses, which, up to a point, he did.

The trip took place just one month after Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Price. Described as “the foremost symbol of the human rights struggle in China”, Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese dissident. He was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment in 2009. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr Liu brought much needed media attention to the writer’s plight.

Freedom of expression is one human right on which China’s record is especially poor. Even though press freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, government censorship is rife. Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution has been so audaciously ignored that the provision has become almost laughable. These restrictions on free speech are very dangerous both ideologically and practically. A particularly apt example of this is offered by the Sanlu Group poison milk formula scandal. Control of the press intensified in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

In August 2008, the Government decreed that Chinese journalists were prohibited from writing about “all food safety issues, such as cancer-causing mineral water” until the Games period officially ended on 17 September. Such a shocking degree presents a clear public health risk. The public interest in such information is obvious, and it seems very sinister that the Government should seek to keep it hidden. In striving to create a flawless image they revealed themselves to be a country which suppresses the press and trades in dangerous products.

The poison milk powder affair was detailed on a personal blog written by Jian Guangzhou, an Oriental Morning post reporter. He published this information on 14September, just before the end of the Games. Within three days the entry had been deleted by state censors.

This was not the only human rights violation which was committed in relation to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Western readers received alarming reports of etiquette related documents which were sent out to Chinese citizens. These reminded them to refrain from torturing animals and being hostile towards strangers. They also offered guidance for maintaining basic personal hygiene. They were clearly intended to ensure that the Chinese were ‘on their best behaviour’ whilst under global scrutiny. Needless to say, it is disgusting that this conduct would be accepted in other circumstances.

Tragically, it is not just the animals in China which have been subjected to torture. Officially, torture has been illegal in China since 1996. That is shockingly recent in itself, but allegations of continued brutality persist, especially in detention centres. One problem is the limited definition of unlawful torture, which is that it must “leave physical marks”. This ignores violations such as sleep deprivation and psychological torture. The Chongqing gang trials revealed that such practices were prolific as recently as last year.

Various groups operate within China itself to address these grave problems. Human Rights in China and Chinese Human Rights Defenders are just two examples. This task is made even harder by the pervasiveness of the Chinese Government’s abuse. The government’s message is clear. It will control and censor its citizens’ activities. Anyone who objects to this will be punished. One need only look at Liu Xiaobo’s story to realise this.

This increases the importance of international organisations like Human Rights Watch. As we have seen, intervention by other states is a diplomatically controversial exercise. One might ask what gives the US the authority to dictate how another nation should behave. This is a legitimate question. The US does have the right to decide on its own trading alliances. If not for the abundant financial incentives, China’s record on human rights would likely make it an unattractive trade partner. The Chinese government’s practices have consistently shocked the western world, but now it seems they hold the key to global economic growth.

Perhaps Hu Jintao will take note of the serious human rights concerns expressed by western leaders. Regardless of the economic impetus, it is deeply unpalatable that China should be a dominant global actor whilst it continues to violate basic human rights.


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