Tag Archives: human rights

Human Rights Drives Deeper Wedge Between Beijing and Washington

Screenshot of US State Dept 2020 Country Report on Human Rights in China

BEIJING IS LIKELY to bat aside as false and hostile the latest annual human rights report issued by the US State Department on March 30 as readily as it did a statement of concern by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights the day before about allegations of the forced labour of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

The US State Department’s reaffirmation of its designation of China’s treatment of Uyghurs as ‘genocide’ will do nothing to reduce tensions in the China-US relationship. If anything, these have increased under the new Biden administration, not eased as expected.

Announcing the report, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also signalled a broadening of the US human rights focus from the previous Trump administration’s narrow concern with individual freedom and religious rights.

Further US economic sanctions and visa restrictions against Chinese officials are likely with Washington looking to act in concert with its allies.

Commensurate retaliation can be expected from Beijing, along with more rhetoric about Western nations’ hypocrisy over their domestic civil rights issues and Trump-like denigrations of Western media for not reporting the party line at face value.

More trouble for Western businesses seems likely as Beijing experiments with expanding consumer boycotts‘ scope to apply leverage on the US and other Western governments through their multinational companies.

However, Blinken made clear that human rights were ‘front and centre’ of the Biden’s administration’s foreign policy, and Beijing will find that US business does not have Biden’s ear in the way that it did Donald Trump’s.

Retaliation against European companies will also do little to encourage European countries to ratify the EU and China’s investment agreement that Beijing rushed to conclusion ahead of Biden taking office and which it saw as a potential wedge issue it could drive between Brussels and Washington.

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One World, Two Norms Of Human Rights

DECEMBER 10TH WAS International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that enshrined the principle that human rights are indivisible, inalienable and universal. It was also the opening day of the two-day South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing which brought together some 70 representatives of developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America on the premise that human rights are country-specific. The forum is another building block in China’s systematic attempts to construct a new international order with Chinese characteristics.

The first such forum, in 2017, issued the Beijing Declaration, which defined human rights primarily in economic terms, framing the rights to subsistence and development as the primary basic human rights. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that definition yesterday, highlighting China’s achievements in providing food and shelter, the alleviation of poverty, and the provision of health, education and social security as evidence of human rights advancement in the country.

The Chinese government and people attach great importance to human rights cause, espouses a people-centered view of human rights, integrates the principle of universality of human rights with national conditions, and regards the rights to subsistence and development as its primary and basic human rights, opening a new path of human rights protection with Chinese characteristics based on its national conditions.

Such inversion of the notion that human rights are universal was called out by the European Union. In a wide-ranging statement marking International Human Rights Day, its delegation in China noted:

China has made remarkable progress in the social and economic situation of its citizens, including poverty alleviation, gender equality, improved access to health and education, and reduced maternal and infant mortality.

At the same time, basic human rights in the civic and political field, including rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration and also in the Constitution of China, are not being guaranteed. China is yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it signed in 1998.

China was one of the countries that voted for the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but that was during the civil war that led to the founding of the People’s Republic.

The EU expressed its particular concern over human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Reports point to severe restrictions of the freedom of expression and association, and of the freedom of religion or belief in all of China; as well as continuous large-scale extra-judicial detentions. Destruction of mosques, temples and other religious sites take place systematically. Mass detentions of Uyghurs and other minorities in political re-education centres and intimidation of citizens by mass surveillance in Xinjiang still continue. Uyghurs abroad, including in the EU, are being harassed and in some instances returned to China involuntarily.

With the revelation of two troves of leaked documents on the Xinjiang detentions and the US House of Representatives passing legislation calling for targeted sanctions in response to the detention Uighurs, Beijing has been put uncharacteristically on the back foot. Shohrat Zakir, the deputy Party boss in Xinjiang and regional government chairman, said earlier this week that all those sent to what Beijing calls re-education camps had now ‘graduated’ from their ‘de-radicalization courses’.

How many of the reported up to 1 million detained Uighurs that covers is impossible to verify independently. The official line is that the figures are dynamic, with people coming and leaving. So no precise number can be provided.

Regardless, state media continues to portray this in the light of the new norms of country-specific and economically based human rights China wishes to establish.

Until only a few years ago, Xinjiang often fell victim to violent terrorist attacks which killed many innocent people. It was precisely the regional government’s decisive counter-terrorism measures including the establishment of vocational education and training centers that turned the situation around…Xinjiang’s preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures so far have proven effective in protecting the human rights of the 25 million people in the region.

The BBC’s account of Zakir’s statement, which asserted that those released from the centres had ‘realised stable employment’, implied that that could mean forced labour in factories. That would be a different and far darker interpretation of subsistence and development-based human rights.

Chinese officials are deeply aggrieved that Western governments and media portray the situation in Xinjiang as one of domestic human rights and not as tackling international terrorism.  They take this rejection of their line to be (yet one more) purposeful attack on China, and a willful disregard of the ‘truth and facts‘ released by Chinese authorities. Those same officials will readily point out that the United States fights Islamic terrorism by waging foreign wars — although that is an analogy that Beijing should be careful in pushing too far with regards to Xinjiang however differently it wants to frame its own norms of human rights.


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The Chen Case: A Inconvenient Test Of China-U.S. Relations

The flight of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong to the refuge of the American embassy in Beijing comes at a highly inconvenient time for Sino-U.S. relations. U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and her counterpart at the U.S. Treasury, Timothy Geithner, are due in Beijing this week for what were routine bilateral talks. These will now be overshadowed by what is an embarrassment to Chinese authorities and a problem U.S. diplomats could do with out given all the other glowing embers of contention between the two countries. Clinton has advanced the dispatch of some of her sherpas in an effort to defuse the situation before she arrives. Her assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, is already in Beijing, several days ahead of his planned arrival.

Both governments are staying mum on Chen’s case. The Americans haven’t officially acknowledged Chen is sheltering in their embassy. China’s foreign ministry spokesman says they have no information about Chen’s whereabouts. Whatever. With China’s leadership mired in the Bo Xilai affair and Amerca’s in a presidential election, both governments will want a quiet solution, but are unlikely to get it because of the domestic political pressures.

The Obama administration was criticized domestically for not granting Wang Lijun, Bo’s police chief in Chongqing, asylum when he went to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to reveal that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was implicated in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. To deny asylum to Chen, if he asks for it, a person whose case the Americans have repeatedly raised on human rights grounds, would open the Obama administration to charges by his Republican opponents of again being “soft on China”, just as they accuse him of being over trade, currency and other economic issues. The administration, which doesn’t have the luxury of being able to criticize from the campaign trail without having to deal with the fallout from “interfering in China’s domestic affairs”, has been trying to walk a tightrope between promoting human rights without that a getting in the way of working with Beijing on global and regional issues that affect U.S. national interests.

With China’s rise as a regional and economic power, the two countries’ national interests intersect ever more frequently–Syria, Iran, North Korea, South China Sea, Taiwan–to list some current points of tension. All are ones where nationalist voices can be raised strongly at any time, and amplified by domestic politics. Within China, it doesn’t take much for the conservatives in Beijing to resurrect the specter that Washington is exploiting Chinese domestic events to weaken or encircle the country. One reason that the diplomats on both sides want a quiet, face-saving resolution to the Chen affair is that both sets know they have bigger issues to fight over.

Older readers may remember the case of Fang Lizhi, who sheltered in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for more a year in the wake of Tiananmen in 1989. It was caustic to China-U.S. relations.  The relationship has matured but also become more complex since. Yet a diplomatic sweeping under the carpet of an inconvenient affair is not what the diplomats are likely to get.  Chen is going to be a stern test of the bigger relationship.

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A Lot Still Needs To Be Done To Narrow The Perception Gap

Hu, Obama Press Conference, Washington, January 2010

“A lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” was President Hu Jintao’s well rehearsed answer at his joint White House press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama (above) to the question he rarely has to face in public. There is more news in the fact that he had to give an answer than in the substance of what he said (his earlier European hosts didn’t trouble him with the inconvenience of press conferences). Hu’s full response, as read by his translator:

“China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform. In this context China still faces many challenges in economic and social development, and a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”

What has been lost in translation is that the primary human right in China is viewed as the right to an improving standard of living for all Chinese. In this regard, a lot unquestionably needs to be done to lift even more Chinese out of poverty and to close the widening wealth gaps. Questions of political rights in, say, Tibet or Taiwan, are questions of national sovereignty. Questions of rights to, say, free speech or religion aren’t even questions.

It has long been Beijing’s position, reiterated by Hu on his visit to Washington that China respects the universality of human rights, but as the president also repeated that “we need to take into account the different national circumstances”.  As with so many moments of his Frenemies tour so far, Hu avoided coming off as browbeating, without anything actually changing.

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Bush Attends To Human-Rights Admonishment Duty

President George Bush has dutifully admonished China for human rights abuses. Beijing has been suitably outraged that one country would interfere in the internal matters of another. Now that is done with, everyone can get down to enjoying the politics-free Olympics.

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Olympic Games

A human rights boycott of the Beijing Olympics has long seemed more threat than probability. But it has gained a bit of substance with Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning American film director who made a film about the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, withdrawing as an artistic advisor to the games’ opening ceremony. His pull out is a protest against China’s backing for Sudan’s policy in Dafur, a cause that has gained some backing in Hollywood where it is being championed by Mia Farrow.

China has extensive investments in the Sudanese oil industry and imports two thirds of the country’s oil. It maintains close links with the government which is fighting rebels in the south and west. Some 200,000 people have died in Dafur from the combined effects of war, famine and disease since 2003, when a civil conflict erupted pitting the government-backed Janjaweed militias against non-Arab ethnic groups.

Spielberg’s announcement came on a “Global Day Of Action” over Dafur. Among several protests, Farrow tried to deliver an open letter about Dafur to the Chinese U.N. mission in New York. The letter signed by several former Olympic medalists as well as politicians, entertainers and peace activists. Meanwhile, the U.K. has just lifted a controversial gagging order on its athletes that had been intended to stop them commenting on China’s human rights record.

This is all no more than a slight embarrassment to Beijing so far. Its standard response has been to ignore protests connecting its human rights record to the games (state TV blanked out reports of the British Olympic Associations gagging order being lifted) or to criticize its critics for what it calls attempts to “politicize” the games. It won’t become a concern unless corporate sponsors start to pull out. And there is no sign of that yet.

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How Do You Yahoo! In China?

Did any good come out of Yahoo! chief executive Jerry Yang’s appearance before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday?

Yang and his company got the expected tongue lashing from chairman Tom Lantos, a fierce defender of human rights, over Yahoo!’s turning over of e-mail records to Chinese officials that led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a Chinese dissident journalist. The family got an apology from Taiwan-born Yang and some post-hearing discussions between Shi’s mother and Yang and Yahoo!’s general counsel, Michael Callaghan, may lead to Yahoo! settling the suit the family has brought against it.

But the rest was theatre, another exercise in Congressional China bashing on the one side and a recitation of the lesser-of-two-evils argument on the other: i.e., despite the censorship Chinese know more about the world thanks to companies like Yahoo!.

But most of all it was a reminder that it is hard for internet companies to stand up to Chinese officials when China is such a potentially lucrative market.

Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and others are working on guidelines for companies that operate in countries like China that censor the Internet, though Yahoo! having sold Yahoo! China to Alibaba, in which it has a 40% stake, is able to claim arms-length distance from its operations there. Congress might just pass law to constrain U.S. tech companies from cooperating with internet-censoring regimes (the House passed a bill last month) but the problem with both the mandatory and voluntary approaches would be enforcement.
That all said, the issues and the solutions for Western companies operating in China were no different at the end of Tuesday than they were before the hearing opened in the morning.

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