What to do about Human Rights in China

Feb 25, 2019

Human rights in China are under threat. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) government ignores international representations. Should Australia even attempt to intervene? What would we risk? The easy course would be to do the minimum and restrict our representations to cases where Australian citizens and interests are directly involved. Despite possible repercussions for other aspects of our vital bilateral relationship, Australia should take a stand and declare to the PRC and other countries that the ideals of human rights are central to our cultural identity.

Human rights are universal. All national governments committed to upholding them have a duty to call out abuses wherever they occur. If speaking out threatens bilateral relations or trade, parts of government and businesses may be concerned, but the final decision on whether to confront abuses cannot be in doubt. The issue is not whether to take action, buthow to do so.

Human rights issues in the PRC are inherently controversial. Beijing’s official position is that the PRC is not subject to international rights standards, but upholds “human rights with Chinese characteristics” and it maintains that criticism by others contravenes a basic principle of international relations – non-interference in another country’s internal affairs.

World attention has focused on the detention and ‘re-education’ of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. The practice of Islam is largely proscribed. Elsewhere in China, house churches have been closed, Tibetan and other ethnic languages and cultures are being suppressed, and activists and lawyers have been detained and threatened. Domestic lobby groups for human rights have been severely restricted. Academics and journalists are advised not to investigate infringements of international standards such as labour rights. Hong Kong’s independence under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is under threat.

Two Canadian citizens were arbitrarily detained in December 2018. Another Canadian has been sentenced to death for drug trafficking. These actions are no doubt in retaliation for Canadian treatment of the telecommunications company Huawei. Earlier this year, Chinese-Australian author and blogger Yang Hengjun was detained in China and accused of endangering state security, or possibly of espionage, which might render him liable for the death penalty.

Defence of human rights is central to Australian political culture, but the government’s public position on rights in the PRC has been reactive and inconsistent. Canberra prefers a ‘closed door’ approach although sometimes it has been accused of ‘megaphone diplomacy’. Neither has proved effective, but the latter has provoked stronger reaction from Beijing. The Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade’s approach in its own words “aims to be constructive and is based on dialogue”. The dialogue process has been in abeyance since 2014.

Beijing largely ignores international pressure. Some countries have been punished for taking a stand on human rights. Australian political leaders therefore generally avoid mention of human rights in their public utterances. Beijing consequently concludes that rights are not a priority for Canberra and disregards representations.

Dialogue on human rights issues may descend into tit-for-tat accusations. Australia is sensitive to this possibility since being elected to the UN Human Rights Council and would prefer not to expose its own shortcomings such as the treatment of asylum seekers and Aborigines to international scrutiny.

Foreign policy under President Xi is trending against internationalism, affected by residual and continuing anti-foreign sentiment from public opinion campaigns. If Australia wishes to see actual results from its lobbying on human rights, it will have to try much harder and expand its efforts beyond existing measures. This is more likely to prove effective if it is coordinated with international organisations and partners.

As a first step, the Australian Government should draw up a statement of the principles on which our defence of human rights is based. The wording should be broadly canvassed with regional partners before being put to China in a coordinated fashion.

Coordinated targeted sanctions may also be considered. Within the PRC government the need to respond to the threat of sanctions would raise the discussion above the MFA to senior echelons of the Party and government. Australia should strongly consider passing legislation similar to the US Magnitsky Act that would make it easier to place sanctions on individuals involved in egregious human rights abuses.

Since Australia and the PRC are both members of the UNHRC, this forum presents valuable opportunitiesfor informal and formal discussions. Although the PRC response to the November 2018 Periodic Review was widely panned, the PRC highly values its UN membership. It has signed more than twenty international treaties (but not the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and drawn up an official Action Plan on human rights for the period 2016 to 2020.

Taking a long-term view of the development of PRC rights policies, it is clear that some standards have changed over time to conform more closely to international norms. For instance, women’s rights have improved greatly since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. That conference introduced international perspectives and encouraged local participants to lobby for greater protections.

Where human rights issues involve both countries’ interests, Australian Government action should be coordinated with international players where possible. Private representations are more effective if backed up by public statements.

Protection of the rights of Australians is a priority. The recent detention of Australian citizen Yang Hengjun shows that the PRC government will not hesitate to warn Chinese-Australian communities of the risks of political activism. Canberra’s travel advisory service should advise about dangers such as the arbitrary rule of law.

Non-governmental organisations play a vital role in liaison with other countries and lobbying for international representations and actions. Canberra should support them financially, and encourage them to maintain their networks of contacts. Scholars should also continue research programs that have yielded invaluable information on rights issues in China.

The PRC government has pursued Party officials and businessmen accused of corrupt practices who have fled overseas. Beijingsigned an extradition treaty with Australia in 2007, but that treaty has not yet been ratified due to Australian concerns about the PRC legal system, including the frequent resort to the death penalty. China is keen for Australia to ratify. Delay in doing so presents an opportunity for Canberra to insist on observance of international norms.

In 2019, as the human rights situation in the PRC deteriorates, action is essential.

In a policy brief for think tank China Matters published this week, I argued that Australia’s approach to human rights should be recalibrated as outlined above.

Jocelyn Chey’s last diplomatic posting was as Australian Consul General to Hong Kong 1992-95. She was the founding Director of the Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture, Western Sydney University 2016-17.

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