JAMES LAURENCESON. The efficacy of being very vocal: Australia and human rights in China (ACRI)

Last week’s news that the Australian Dr Yang Hengjun was being moved to a criminal facility in China was, to use Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s words, “deeply disappointing” to say the least.

Despite China’s foreign ministry “deploring” the Australian government’s public statement, there was nothing unreasonable in the assessment that Minister Payne provided.

In the six months Dr Yang has been detained, the accusations against him have remained vague. The most that has been provided is that he is “suspected of criminal activities endangering China’s national security.”

China has said that its investigation will “fully protect Yang’s legal rights.” But Beijing’s track record on this front doesn’t inspire confidence. And the fact is that Dr Yang has already been denied basic standards of justice such as being granted access to his lawyers.

The latest developments are doubly disappointing for the Australian government after having made the calculation that keeping Dr Yang’s case out of the headlines was the best way to achieve a favourable result.

Canberra has been on the receiving end of criticism for not being more vocal. In March, Dr Yang’s friend and former academic supervisor, Associate Professor Feng Chongyi described the government’s handling of the matter as “very, very weak.” He added, “my suspicion is that they [the Australian government] want to maintain a good relationship for trade.”

This is not the only recent instance where the Australian government has faced remonstrations for not doing more on human rights in China.

Another example is China’s mass surveillance and internment and forced indoctrination of its Turkic Muslim population in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Aside from being a gross human rights injustice in its own right, it has also been reported that three Australian citizens have been caught up in the detention facilities, with thousands of others affected through the fear inflicted on family members and restrictions placed on their movement.

One op-ed writer in the Sydney Morning Herald said the Australian government had done “little or nothing to help.” He described Canberra’s response as racist and driven by dollars: “Australia has made a cold-hearted decision: the wellbeing of the Australian economy outweighs the wellbeing of…non-Caucasian Australian citizens….”

The public expression of such views is part of the democratic process and should be welcomed, particularly when it comes from those with personal experience or other direct links to human rights violations.

At the same time, what is the counter-factual if the Australian government were to adopt a more assertive approach?

Leave aside for the moment Australian business concerns that increasing outspokenness could provoke Chinese retaliation and hurt their operations.

It is not at all clear that publicly “demanding” Dr Yang’s, or any other citizen’s, immediate release would see their rights better protected, much less them walking free.

In December last year Canada demanded the immediate release of two of its citizens detained in China, in a deplorable case of what appears to be “hostage diplomacy.” Canada’s protests received strong international support. Yet the fate of their citizens is tracking no better than Dr Yang’s.

This is not to say that Canada got it wrong. Rather, there are no clear-cut right or wrong approaches and governments in Ottawa, Canberra and elsewhere are having to make complex decisions based on their best assessment of the facts and circumstances pertaining to each case.

A double standard can be applied to Australia’s diplomats. Some security commentators can be quick to lend support to the assessment of intelligence agencies — such as the recommendation to bar Chinese tech company, Huawei, from the local 5G rollout — on the basis that these officials have the expertise and access to the best available information, often classified. Yet when it comes to sensitive diplomatic matters, the same commentators can be the first to lambast the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as being clueless. One former Australian government minister — outrageously, it must be said — went so far as to accuse DFAT policy advice of having been compromised by “fellow travellers” of Beijing in its midst.

It is also erroneous to say that the Australian government or its diplomats have been silent or inactive on human rights in China.

In fact, they have become notably more vocal since the Howard government days when Australia’s human rights concerns with China were largely reserved for a closed-door, bilateral dialogue at senior levels.

The Australian foreign minister who instituted the dialogue, Alexander Downer, wrote last year, “It’s not ideal, of course. But you’re hardly going to change the political system of a country of 1.3 billion people by yelling at them.”

As China’s human rights record under President Xi Jinping has worsened, Australia has re-calibrated its response. It does not appear out of place compared with other middle powers, or even great ones. Indeed, in some instances it has done more.

In March 2016 Australia signed a joint statement with 11 other countries, including the United States, at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) “highlighting China’s ongoing problematic human rights record.”

In March 2017, Australia lent its weight to a joint letter with 10 other countries sent to then-Chinese Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun, expressing concern over “credible claims of torture” inflicted on rights activists and lawyers.

In November last year Australia joined 14 other Western ambassadors in seeking a meeting with Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party official responsible for administering Xinjiang.

This was followed in July this year with a letter in conjunction with 21 other countries to the president of the UNHRC calling out China’s actions in Xinjiang as being inconsistent with its national laws and international obligations.

In each of the three preceding examples, it is notable that the United States did not extend its support.

This should not preclude the Australian government from doing more. Taking a stronger stand by acting in unison with international partners is a key recommendation of a thoughtful policy brief on how Australia should promote human rights in China by former Australian Consul-General to Hong Kong, Professor Jocelyn Chey, published in February this year.

China has responded with harsh rhetoric to such Australian interventions but it can hardly complain, especially when it refuses to reinstate the bilateral human rights dialogue that last met in 2014, despite reported attempts by the Turnbull government to revive it.

Another step advocated by Professor Chey is that Australia should pass its own version of the Magnitsky Act, providing the option of deploying targeted sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations.

But these sorts of measures need to be considered against the broader context of effectiveness. For example, University of Sydney historian and Xinjiang expert, Dr David Brophy, cautions that in the case of China such measures are unlikely to be effective. Even if it were the United States implementing sanctions, China would respond in kind and “have no difficulty coming up with a comparable list of American officials implicated in human rights abuses.”

The Australian government isn’t sitting on the fence when it comes to human rights in China. But the steps it takes may continue to disappoint those on both sides of the spectrum. To be fair though, it is not clear there is an unequivocally better approach in the offing.

Professor James Laurenceson is Acting Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney. 

This article was published by the ACRI on the 24th of July 2019. 


James Laurenceson is Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute with the University of Technology, Sydney.

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2 Responses to JAMES LAURENCESON. The efficacy of being very vocal: Australia and human rights in China (ACRI)

  1. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    If we accept “efficacy” to mean “the ability to produce a desired or intended result”, then being very vocal in human rights issues by Australia has no impact on China, and is just like barking up the wrong tree!
    There is a wide cultural divide in the definition of human rights as championed by the West and the East; and yet most human rights activists in the West refuse to recognise the other side of the coin.
    The article “Is there a problem with Australia’s approach to human rights in the PRC” was a presentation of the views of western scholars who understood the Chinese culture and presented a view of Confucianism and human rights.
    Succinctly, the East views the rights of a group transcend the individual whilst the East takes the opposite view. (see: https://www.quora.com/Is-there-a-problem-with-Australia-s-approach-to-human-rights-in-the-PRC). This article was written primarily in response to Prof Chey’s article on Human Rights approach to China.
    The inability to accept an alternate political ideology by western liberal democrats have been described by others as “ideological bigotry”. Thus, the refusal to accept alternate concepts of human rights may also be a form of bigotry.
    In terms of human rights abuse, western countries were involved in slave trading, war crimes, opium profiteering, gun boat diplomacy, genocide of indigenous people etc.; and yet their descendants are preaching human rights? For only those who has no sin, cast the first stone.
    Would anyone not consider the following acts as not consistent with human rights?
    • The liberation of serfdom in Tibet and bringing education and economic improvements in the province? See https://www.quora.com/How-do-Tibetans-feel-about-China
    • The lift of 850 million people in China from poverty? (see: https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/china/overview)
    Any thesis presented to show a lack of human rights in China would fail to impress the Chinese government, when the facts are mixed with fiction or controversial allegations. The case in point is the call on China to stop arbitrary detention and allow “freedom of movement of Uighurs and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”
    The Guardian reported that more than 20 countries have written to top United Nations human rights officials condemning China’s treatment of Uighur and other minorities in the western Xinjiang region. UN ambassadors from 22 states – including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Japan – co-signed the letter released Wednesday and sent to the Human Rights Council president, Coly Seck, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet.
    In contrast, GENEVA, July 27 (Xinhua) — Ambassadors from 50 countries to the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG) have co-signed a letter to the President of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to voice their support for China’s position on issues related to its Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
    In the view of many overseas Chinese, the “re-education” of some of the Xinjiang people is a sure way of containing radicalisation and to assimilate/integrate these minority as part of the wide Chinese civilization where they do belong and included; and also sharing the economic wealth of the nation. In contrast, Muslim communities living in the West are being demonised. Religion has never been a divisive entity in the Chinese civilization.
    Furthermore, approach to human rights to China sprinkled with ideological bigotry does not work.
    Yes, we want to bring our citizens home despite how and why our fellow citizen fell foul of the Chinese law. However, those Chinese born Australians who ventured into China, should not “poke the tiger in the cage” as they are familiar with how Chinese government treats “political dissent”. It would be harder to get them out.
    If the Chinese government considers the case to be a national security, they are unlikely to let them go as they are insensitive to western allegations that there is no due process of law; simply because they have their own system and not answerable to outside world.
    “Australia has made a cold-hearted decision: the wellbeing of the Australian economy outweighs the wellbeing of…non-Caucasian Australian citizens….”. In the eyes of the Chinese, it is a good thing to have the needs of the whole over the needs of the individual. In contrast, the statement supports the needs of the individual over the whole. Here lies the cultural divide in human rights, so plainly obvious.
    Unless we approach the problem in a culturally diplomatic way, with mutual respect understanding and equal footing, then East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet (Rudyard Kipling).
    Finally, the objective to promote human rights universally is good for mankind, but it has to be done with efficacy and operating beyond ideological bigotry.

  2. As we saw during the Cultural Revolution and other events, when Chinese officialdom decides it wants to crack down on people the result is usually not pretty.
    That said the Muslim question in China is more complex than most realise. China is said to have 20 million Muslims. They have a long history of integration. When you meet a man called Ma it is likely his ancestors were Hui (Muslim) Chinese.
    But when Muslims decide they do not want to integrate, things can get violent.
    Incidents in China’s northwest and elsewhere have seen several hundred Han Chinese killed, many brutally.
    One answer is Chechnya-style suppression – totally ugly, destructive and long-lasting. Another is Beijing’s so-called re-education efforts – crude and probably not very effective. But short of giving Xinjiang virtual independence and undoing efforts for integration to date, it should not be surprising if Beijing thinks there is no alternative.
    In any case, remember Chechnya. No one should want to go down that path.

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