11-Country Letter Stirs Fears on U.S. Rights Stance

The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe reported on Monday on a letter to Beijing from 11 countries—Australia, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and seven E.U. member states—protesting its treatment of detained rights lawyers, and calling for investigation of alleged torture and the abolition of the secretive and abuse-prone “residential surveillance system. The letter, which was not publicly released, was sent shortly before Chinese state media denounced several lawyers’ accounts of torture as “fake news.” After describing the letter’s contents, VanderKlippe presented reactions to the letter, and to the failure of the U.S. and most E.U. nations to sign it:

“Beijing always hears a clearer and firmer message when it’s delivered by multiple governments,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for . The issuance of joint letters is “a strong indication of the widespread concern about human rights erosions in China today.”

[…] In an interview Monday, Mr. Chen [Jiangang, the lawyer of alleged victim ] questioned why the 11-country letter was submitted quietly.

Had it been made public, “the effect would have been much stronger,” he said. In a closed and restrictive system like China’s, he said, “secret talk and private questions will have no effect whatsoever.”

[…] “When a country like the U.S. is silent on this, it’s really interpreted by Beijing as a free hand to do what they want. And that costs people their lives,” said Sarah Cook, senior East Asia research analyst at Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog on political, religious and economic liberties. “So it’s unfortunate if the U.S. removes itself from that type of leadership role.” [Source]

The letter follows recent public statements from parties including a panel of U.N. experts, the E.U.’s delegation to China, and former U.S. ambassador Max Baucus.

Richardson reported on Twitter that the U.S. had been invited to sign the letter, but declined, in what she described as “a very bad sign for human rights in China and elsewhere.” This is far from the only development under the fledgling Trump administration to stir such fears. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kept a conspicuous distance from the launch of his department’s annual human rights reports earlier this month. Activists urged him to press China on rights issues during a visit to Beijing over the weekend, but many feared that his decision to travel without the traditional press pool would be seen as indicating a lapse in America’s commitment to press freedom. Then Tillerson’s repeated and unprecedented adoption of Chinese rhetoric during the trip drew praise from Chinese state media. In a press conference on Monday, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner denied a reporter’s suggestion that it signaled “some sort of shift on Taiwan, on Tibet” and other “issues and areas […] that Beijing believes are its own purview.” Toner responded that “we’re not walking away from our concerns about human rights, personal freedoms within China,” which remain “embedded […] in all of our conversations and in all of our discussions.”

Eyebrows were raised still further on Monday by reports that that Tillerson would skip a meeting of NATO foreign ministers next month in order to host Xi Jinping in the U.S., and would visit Russia later in April, leading to accusations of prioritizing autocracies over democratic allies. On Tuesday, the ACLU reported the U.S.’ unprecedented absence from a meeting of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at which Trump’s immigration policy, among other issues, is scheduled to come under scrutiny. The organization described “today’s refusal to engage the commission at all [as] a deeply troubling indication of its disrespect for human rights norms and the institutions that oversee their protection.” Tillerson has also threatened withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council if the body is not reformed.

The head of the Chinese mission to the U.N. in Geneva also called for efforts to improve global human rights governance on Monday. He urged U.N. human rights institutions to “give equal attention to all categories of human rights.” China often highlights its enormous achievements in poverty reduction as serving the “right to development” in an effort to tip the scales of judgment on human rights in its favor. Similar appeal to the “outstanding” aspects of China’s rights record came in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ response to the 11-nation letter on Tuesday, as reported in an update by VanderKlippe at The Globe and Mail. The Ministry spokesperson’s responses were omitted from the official transcript of the daily press conference.

“You mentioned this expression of opinions by 11 missions in China,” said Ms. Hua [Chunying], in response to a question from The Globe. “I believe this in itself is violating the spirit of rule of law.” She added: “All sovereign states enjoy the independence of judicial affairs, and no country has the right to interfere with the independence of their judicial affairs.”

[…] Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, called on foreign powers to “voice these kinds of criticism consistently including at highest level of government, because the Chinese government is paying attention.”

[…] “China is outstanding in many aspects,” said Ms. Hua on Tuesday, after scolding a reporter for asking why the country maintains its detention system, which has been the subject of much international criticism.

“Maybe you can spend more time talking to everyday Chinese and learning about the feelings of the Chinese people,” she said. “Then there could be a change in your point of view in looking at human rights issues in China.” [Source]

Not all Chinese authorities appear to endorse Hua’s suggestion. A BBC team was recently assaulted and forced to sign a confession after attempting to visit a petitioner. At the same time, official demonization of Western media and pressure on sources have made many Chinese unwilling to speak with foreign reporters. 26% of respondents to a poll by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China last year said that their sources had been “harassed, detained, questioned or punished at least once for speaking to them.”

Ahead of Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia this week, meanwhile, HRW’s Richardson noted another sign of defiance from Canberra besides its participation in the joint letter, and encouraged the government there to press Li on internet and media freedom and set clear conditions for a prospective extradition treaty:

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will land in Australia for an official visit later this week. On the eve of his visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivered an unusually sharp warning to China on its need to move towards democracy. “While non-democracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system…[h]istory shows that the embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability,” Bishop said during a speech in Singapore on March 13.

[…] Far too few leaders of democracies bother to call out China’s autocratic rule, especially about the rights to political participation, so Bishop’s comments are indeed welcome. But they’ll be even more welcome when she and other Australian officials use their leverage to press for actual and meaningful change in China. [Source]

At South China Morning Post, Catherine Wong describes Australia’s “increasingly delicate path in balancing its relations with China and its traditional ally the United States amid sometimes erratic behaviour and unclear policy direction.”