Theresa May’s visit to China and human rights
The human rights situation in China is dire. The list is long and includes excessive use of the death penalty. The numbers are unknown because they are a state secret but are believed to be in the thousands. China leads the world and may even execute more than the rest of the world put together. Torture is common. There is precious little freedom of speech and journalists reporting in China quickly find police arriving and stopping any interviews. Under its current premier, repression has increased significantly.
The Great Firewall of China prevents contact with the outside world. Lawyers and activists are monitored, harassed, arrested and detained. Religions have a difficult time practising there. Finally there is Tibet and the poor treatment of Tibetans. China is a leading exporter of torture equipment including devices that one might have thought to be confined to the middle ages. Altogether, China infringes nearly all international norms of good behaviour and it matters especially because they are one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But they are a massive and growing economy and countries want to do business there. None more so than the UK which hopes to increase trade following our departure from the European Union. Hence the prime minister’s visit there this week. As ever with these visits the question of human rights is brought up. There is a kind of dance performed where the prime minister or her spokespeople claim the matter is brought up and the Chinese say nothing was said. The Chinese are very sensitive on the subject and historical memories of the Opium wars and the resultant national humiliation are still keenly felt.
But China wants to be considered a modern country yet its dreadful reputation in the way it treats its citizens and minorities holds it back.
It’s not often we get an insight into what was actually said but after this visit, an editorial in the Global Times waxed lyrical over the visit and praised Mrs May for not mentioning human rights. The prose is odd but the relevant passages are:
May will definitely not make any comment contrary to the goals of her China trip either. For the prime minister, the losses outweigh the gains if she appeases the British media at the cost of the visit’s friendly atmosphere.
China’s robust development has instilled impetus for Europe to overcome its prejudices against Beijing. David Cameron’s government gained Britain strategic initiative by joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Some European media pressed May and Macron on human rights, but the two leaders sidestepped the topic on their China trips. This shows that the Sino-European relationship has, to a large degree, extricated itself from the impact of radical public opinion. Leader 2 February 2018
The central problem is that China is a one-party state where dissent is not permitted. Hence the crackdowns, arrests and suppression of free speech. As time goes by however, more and more Chinese will travel the world and despite the great wall, gain access to the internet (we note some hits from China on this little site!). As the country develops, more and more Chinese will look for freedom and to criticize the politicians. So the Chinese authorities will find it harder and harder – and more expensive – to maintain the status quo. The denial of human rights therefore is not some kind of esoteric luxury or the west seeking to impose its moral order on them. It is a crucial part of their development and ramping up repression and arrests is taking the country in quite the wrong direction.
Failure – if failure it was – by Mrs May to bring up the issue of human rights would not have been just another lecture from a western liberal (if that term can be applied to Mrs May) but a crucial issue for the Chinese themselves as they develop into the world’s largest nation.