Standing Up for Democracy: Human Rights Defenders and China

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The following piece, by CHRD’s International Director Renee Xia, originally appeared on the website of The Tibet Post International on June 28, 2011. It is available there at

Considering the plight of human rights defenders in China and the responsibility of governments around the world in their negotiations with Beijing.

By Renee Xia

After the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, China is now one of the few remaining countries ruled by dictatorship or, in this case, by a single party that has monopolized power for more than 60 years. Many Chinese people draw inspiration and encouragement from the Arab Spring. The fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak’s dictatorships followed the trend of a wave of democratization that started 22 years ago near here, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Arab Spring gives us great hope: undemocratic and repressive governments, big or small, will sooner or later be ousted by their own people.

This month we marked the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, when Chinese troops killed hundreds if not thousands of peaceful protesters. Tiananmen serves as a reminder that popular demand for democracy and human rights also lives in the soils of China. The good news is such desires remain alive and strong toady despite heavy censorship and brutal repression by the government, and no matter how different is the Chinese cultural context.

There is no denial that China has changed tremendously since 1989. It is an economic powerhouse today. Hundreds of millions of people have lifted themselves from poverty through their own hard work-without union rights, without freedom of expression or legal recourse. But the gaps between the rich and poor have rapidly expanded. By raising the GDP, the regime has not provided guarantee of its citizens’ social-economic rights. Chinese citizens have no say in policies affecting their lives. There is no independent judiciary for them to seek remedies when they suffered injustice. Basic civil-political liberties are widely and systematically denied.
The situation has gone from bad to worse during the past few years. Intensified violations include the excessive use of death penalty, torture, arbitrary detention, disappearance, censorship, and broadened repression of religious and ethnic minorities, the Uighurs and Tibetans, Falungong practitioners, and underground Christians.

In the recent crackdown on the “Jasmine revolution” protests, the Chinese government relied on the use of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture to intimidate anyone who might try to start an Arab Spring in China. Human rights defenders, civil society activists, lawyers, journalists, even artists, like Ai Weiwei, paid great personal price for advocating rights and democracy in China. The assault on human rights defenders and civil society activists is the case in many other countries – in Russia, in Columbia, Nigeria and Burma, to name just a few. Defenders are targeted for advocating and promoting respect for human rights.

The persecution and harassment defenders face are often horrendous, designed to strike fear, and often targeting their families including children. I want to highlight the case of the AIDS activist and environmentalist Hu Jia, who has served almost four and a half years in prison, and is due for release in 12 days. The European Parliament awarded Hu Jia the Sakharov prize in 2008. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, is facing growing pressure from police in recent days. She fears that she and her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter will be put under house arrest with her husband soon after his release. Releasing from prison followed by detention at home has become the fate of China’s well-known prisoners of conscience. The most horrific case is that of Chen Guangchen, who is blind. Mr. Chen was house-arrested with his wife and two young children after he was released from prison last year. Many efforts to visit them in their village, including attempts by activists, journalists and EU diplomats, have been blocked by security guards, often violently. And of course there is the case of lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had disappeared after his release from prison where he was severely tortured.

Authoritarian governments target human rights defenders because such governments fear that they would organize others and voice their discontents, which would undermine the governments’ grip on power. International pressure can make a big difference – by exposing or condemning abuses, conditioning access to military aid, imposing targeted sanctions on abusers, and calling for prosecution of those responsible, the international community can increase the cost to these governments for violating human rights and harassing defenders.

Repressive governments, especially those with growing power and influence, will fight back. They would threaten with economic sanctions of their own against governments that are tough on their human rights. That should be expected. But that is not the reason to give up public pressure and replace it with closed-door ‘dialogue’ and ‘strategic partnership’ with such governments.

The government-to-government ‘human rights dialogue’ does more to appease critics of complacency than to secure change – it’s a diversion from the fact that nothing of consequence is being accomplished, because governments know there is nothing to fear from delivering no concrete results. Authoritarian governments welcome closed-door dialogues because they remove the spotlight from exposing their human rights abuses. They love to cite the mere annual affair or resumption of dialogue as sign of ‘progress’ in human rights.

It is encouraging that Western governments are willing to apply pressure on behaviorally outrageous states, such as North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Libya. Such pressure should be consistently applied to big powers that behave outrageously even though they might threaten to undermine EU or US economic and strategic interest. There should not be double standards in human rights implementation. Defending human rights can be inconvenient. It may sometimes interfere with the interests of governments.

When governments choose to trade human rights for the pursuit of other interests, they leave human rights defenders without support. Our experiences tell us international pressure helps create space for local activists to push their governments to reform, allows defenders to know they do not stand alone, and discourages repressive governments.

When repressive governments clearly lack any political willingness to curtail their violations, any ‘quiet diplomacy’ and behind-the-door engagement with them must be coupled with public pressure. Dialogue and cooperation can be useful, but only when the abusive government shows political willingness to improve. Human rights dialogues must be tied to concrete and publicly articulated benchmarks, which would make participating governments accountable for concrete outcomes. These benchmarks should not be ignored when they prove inconvenient.

If bilateral trade or cooperation agreements with repressive governments are conditioned on basic respect for human rights, then any such agreements must comply with such conditions. Sanctions imposed for human rights violations should not be lifted if the conditions for lifting them are not met.

Governments pledged to promote human rights must have a strong public voice, especially when abusive governments are raising their own voices to undermine human rights principles and enforcement. For example, in the past two years, the Chinese government mounted vigorous lobbying efforts in pressuring countries to suppress a report to the UN Security Council on the discovery of Chinese weaponry in Darfur despite an arms embargo, and in another case to block a proposed UN commission of inquiry into war crimes committed in Burma.

Many have argued against publicly criticizing rising economic powers on human rights because, they contend, economic marketization will lead to greater political freedoms. Enough time has passed for critically examining this position. 30 years of economic development in China has not brought fundamental changes in human rights. An unaccountable government is more likely to be corrupt and irresponsible to their people’s most urgent needs. In China there have been rising numbers of protests, some 90,000 annually for the past few years by the government’s own count. The protests are fueled by growing discontent over corruption and arbitrariness of official policies. Moreover, China has used its economic clout to strengthen its censorship, increasing police surveillance and political repression domestically and internationally, boosting its lobbying efforts to undermine human rights standards and weaken their implementation. China tries to take any teeth out of the international human rights system that might one day be applied to its own shameful records.

The Chinese government is aggressively replicating its ‘economic growth at the expense of human rights’ to other developing countries – in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America. You may have heard that, a few years ago, China bought a key sea port in Greece and hired local workers. However, it has apparently also brought Chinese labor practices to Greece, and these practices are clearly in violation of Greece’s labor laws and the EU labor standards. The story raises the question, how far will the Greek government and the EU want to pursue economic interest at the expense of their citizens’ rights?

Standing up against human rights abusers is not just a matter of protecting people ruled by abusive governments far away. Increasingly, it is also about protecting the rights of citizens in democratic countries, and always about defending universal values that the EU, US and other democratic governments are committed to do.

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