China really hates foreign visitors delivering “lectures” about human rights.
The government is quick to respond.
It usually stresses the country’s policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other nations and, without batting an eyelid over this contradiction, gleefully lists the human rights lapses of other nations, notably the United States, to make the point about why people living in glass houses should avoid throwing stones.
However, China had a real problem with the recent, and sadly under-reported, visit of the German President Joachim Gauck.
Gauck, who grew up in the one-party communist state of the German Democratic Republic, was able to tell students in Shanghai about his personal experiences in a nation where “most people were neither happy nor liberated”.
He didn’t need to spell out the parallels with China and must have hit home when explaining that in the old East Germany “the entire system lacked legitimacy. Free, equal and secret public elections were not held. The result was a lack of credibility, which went hand in hand with a culture of distrust between the rulers and those they ruled.”
And there was more about how the old Soviet Union “silenced its own people, locked them up and humiliated those who refused to comply with the will of its leaders”.
Nobody in his Shanghai audience can have failed to understand what he was talking about but, for once, the bristly Chinese foreign ministry chose not to comment.
After all, what could they have said?
The Chinese government is much happier dealing with human rights comments made by Americans.
In fact, Beijing regularly publishes a dossier outlining all manner of human rights abuses in the United States, ranging from racial discrimination to racial profiling by the police and it never fails to mention the undeniable infractions of human rights in America’s Guantanamo Bay detention center while also listing the impact of US army drone attacks on civilians.
China’s accusations are not without foundation but, of course, the difference is that when these same issues are raised inside America, those who castigate the government for its poor human rights record are neither detained nor hounded into silence.
President Obama made this point forcibly on his recent visit to Cuba, where the communist regime is no less sensitive to criticism of its human rights record.
President Obama has reason to stress this point but there remains some unease over Western countries lecturing China on these matters.
Are they not indeed internal matters that need to be sorted out by the Chinese people themselves?
Moreover is it perhaps the case that intervention from abroad actually complicates the problems of China’s small band of human rights advocates who can be accused of acting as foreign agents?
There is a need for rational debate over these issues but it should be evidence-based.
While it is true to say that accusations of foreign meddling are routinely attached to the work of China’s dissident community, it is equally true to say that this alleged meddling has allowed high-level dissidents to leave the country and saved others from torture in jail.
Secondly, it is possible to gauge China’s sensitivity to overseas human rights criticism by the intemperate and obsessive nature of its response.
China takes its position in the world very seriously and dislikes any suggestion that it may be a pariah state.
External pressure makes the government in Beijing somewhat but only somewhat, wary of striking against dissidents and it is not without significance that it strikes hardest in regions where there are very few foreign eyes on the ground observing what the state does. Tibet and Xinjiang are obvious examples here.
Thirdly, there is the important matter of what human rights defenders in China believe.
After years of bitter experience, almost everyone working in this dangerous field has become convinced that foreign pressure helps and that the more there is, the safer they are.
Yet, many nations that have previously been vocal on the issue of human rights in China have now decided that their domestic trade and investment interests are better served by keeping quiet.
The Cameron government in Britain is perhaps the most notorious recent example of this change in stance.
Let’s see how this actually pans out because although a recent state visit to Britain by President Xi Jinping ended with a flurry of trade deals and investment projects, it is widely expected that a high percentage of them will come to nothing.
Meanwhile China’s biggest trading and investment partners in the West, the US and Germany, have not adopted Britain’s compliant attitude but trade flourishes simply because of a mutual need for this business.
In this sense, the leaders in Beijing are practical people who privately nurture a special kind of contempt for foreigners and nations who go that extra mile trying to please them.
If anyone doubts this, look how China toys with Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg, who loses no opportunity to court and flatter the leaders in Beijing.
However, he is in the business of the free flow of information and seems not to understand that all this fawning will, at best, produce little more than permission for Facebook to enter China on terms that simply would not be acceptable elsewhere.
At this point, he will need to consider the possibility of a highly adverse reaction in the company’s established markets.
Finally, there is the not-so-small matter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that obliges all signatories to defend these rights in nations where they are not observed.
Cynics say that treaties of this kind are hardly worth the paper they are printed on but the cynics are thwarted by evidence of how this treaty has served as the basis for bringing about substantial change in places ranging from South Africa to Myanmar.
For the time being, however, let’s take a moment to savor the difficulties China is having with President Gauck.
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