China Buying International Silence on Human Rights

Last week offered one demonstration of the application of China’s growing economic leverage to political ends with the transfer of diplomatic recognition by Taiwan’s longstanding ally Panama from Taipei to Beijing. (Read more on the shift in a subsequent ChinaFile discussion.) This week brought another display: on Monday, The New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Somini Sengupta reported on the Greek government’s blocking of a joint E.U. statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Chinese human rights violations. , which has become increasingly dependent on China since the 2008 , said that the statement would have constituted "unproductive criticism," and appeared to endorse the Chinese position that rights violations are a necessary bulwark against social instability.

It was the first time that the did not make a statement in the Human Rights Council regarding rights violations in specific countries, including China, which has a seat on the council. That silence was an embarrassing reversal for the 28-country bloc, which has prided itself on taking progressive positions on human rights on a council where some nations with poor human rights records habitually resist country-specific resolutions and examinations of their conduct.

Greece is increasingly courting Chinese trade and investment as it faces pressure from international creditors and a cold shoulder from its traditional rich allies in . China’s largest shipping company, known as China COSCO Shipping, bought a majority stake last year in the Greek port of Piraeus. The Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, has visited China twice in two years. And China will be the “country of honor” at Greece’s annual international business fair in September in the port of Thessaloniki.

[…] “When the stability of a country is at stake, we need to be more constructive in the way we express our criticism,” a spokesman for the Greek Foreign Ministry said in a telephone interview, “because if the country collapses, there will be no human rights to protect.”

[…] Diplomats in Geneva noted that Greece was not alone in arguing against the European Union’s statement to the council. Lengthy discussions in Brussels on the text of the statement failed to overcome Hungary’s objection to mentioning human rights concerns in Egypt. [Source]

Although in this case it later relented, Hungary had previously blocked joint E.U. participation in a joint diplomatic letter expressing concern at treatment of detainees in China’s ongoing crackdown on rights lawyers. The letter, to Beijing’s apparent outrage, was eventually sent with signatures from 11 nations, including only seven individual E.U. members. (The United States was also absent, agitating fears about its own commitment to rights advocacy.) The Wall Street Journal’s Nektaria Stamouli and William Wilkes also noted China’s other European defenders:

“Greece’s position is that unproductive and in many cases selective criticism against specific countries doesn’t facilitate the promotion of human rights in these states, nor the development of their relation with the EU,” a Greek foreign ministry official said.

[…] Chinese President Xi Jinping has called Greece China’s “most reliable friend in the EU.” Hungary and Croatia have also blocked EU statements chastising Beijing. The three countries last year repeatedly thwarted a statement from the 28 member states taking issue with China’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea.

“Those countries are in a weak situation economically and they want those investments,” said Nadège Rolland, a senior China analyst at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said while Beijing didn’t know specifics of internal EU discussions on the issue, China wanted to commend “the relevant country” for taking the right position on the matter.

“We oppose politicizing the human-rights issue” and using it to interfere with countries’ sovereignty, Mr. Geng said.

[…] Hungarian politicians have lauded and moved to shield China from criticism. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in Beijing last month that developed countries lecturing on human rights has become “increasingly offensive.” [Source]

At Foreign Affairs earlier this month, Nicola Casarini pointed out that deepening engagement with China is by no means limited to a few individual E.U. member states, highlighting the possibility of a "new era for E.U.-China relations" with the two parties "forging ahead without the United States":

[…] Between 2002 and 2016, total EU-China trade has risen dramatically, from 125 billion euros to roughly 515 billion euros. Today, China and the EU trade more than 1.5 billion euros in goods each day, and total bilateral trade in 2016 was 514.6 billion euros according to the European Commission—nearly equivalent to what China exchanges with the United States. In fact, the EU is now China’s most important trading partner, although China ranks number two for the EU, after the United States.

In addition to buoyant commercial relations, Beijing is trying to charm Europe through investments. Europe is now the top destination for Chinese foreign investments, surpassing the United States. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, a joint project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, China invested nearly $164 billion in Europe between 2005 and 2016. During that same period, it invested $103 billion in the United States.

[…] Make no mistake, however. A China-EU alliance would be more a marriage of convenience than a solid partnership—one that is facilitated by Brexit and that revolves around a shared antagonism for Trump. We must wait and see whether the new dynamics within both the United Kingdom and the United States transform this axis into a more permanent one as new possibilities for China-EU relations open up, unthinkable only a few months ago. [Source]

Regarding the blocked human rights statement, a Greek foreign ministry official told The Guardian that "we acted from a position of principle [….] There is an upcoming dialogue between the EU and China on human rights and we think that could be a more efficient and constructive way of delivering better results." But a joint statement from ten human rights groups on Monday urged the E.U. to cancel the "meaningless" dialogue, which "has steadily deteriorated into an exercise whose purpose is largely to secure another round of the dialogue, not to make meaningful change in China." The statement was issued by International, Initiatives for China, the International Campaign for Tibet, the International Service for Human Rights, Human Rights in China, , the International Federation for Human Rights, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the , and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.

The EU and its member states have committed to throw the EU’s “full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy and human rights throughout the world,” and the groups have long urged that the EU demonstrate a unified, unambiguous position on human rights in China as the situation there has deteriorated.

Yet, at a summit in Brussels on June 1-2, the EU Council and Commission presidents in public did not forcefully condemn China’s deteriorating human rights situation, nor call for the release of political prisoners, including EU citizens. The EU also did not mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4. And the EU and its member states on June 15 did not deliver a statement under agenda item 4 in the Human Rights Council – a first for the EU, whose statements over a decade at the council have generally sent a message of solidarity to activists and of warning to Beijing by denouncing the Chinese government’s crackdown on critical voices and persistent violations of basic freedoms.

“On three occasions over three weeks the EU demonstrated no intention, compassion, or strategic vision to stem the tide of human rights abuses in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should not further harm its credibility, but rather redirect its efforts toward bringing meaningful change to China.”

[…] “The EU’s failure to speak out on Beijing’s rights violations is a body blow to independent activists across China and a betrayal of the EU’s proclaimed human rights commitments,” said Iverna McGowan, head of European Institutions Office at Amnesty International. “Instead of a forum for promoting rights, the EU-China human rights dialogue has become a cheap alibi for EU leaders to avoid thorny rights issues in other high level discussions.” [Source]

In response, Global Times quoted Li Daojun of Shandong University’s Law School Research Center for Human Rights, who dismissed the call as "a customary tactic to attack the Chinese government" by organizations which "have never responded positively to the country’s changes and progress."

At Politico.eu, Diego Torres examined the broader trend of reluctance by foreign governments to criticize China over human rights or otherwise anger it with actions such as high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama. Torres attributed much of this to the deterrent effect of retaliation suffered or narrowly avoided in the past by countries like Norway and Spain.

“The international community and Western countries pay less and less attention to human rights in China,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who fled the country in 2014 and is currently a visiting scholar at New York University. “The West is unwilling to offend the Chinese Communist Party,” he added. “Governments, scholars, NGOs … there’s a generalized self-censorship in regard to Chinese problems.”

[…] Across the Continent, Chinese pressure has sharply curtailed coordinated criticism of Beijing’s human rights record. While human rights remains one of the EU foreign policy’s official priorities on China, “most member states were reluctant to raise the issue directly with Beijing,” reported the ECFR in 2016. “Most often, was outsourced to the EU or to third parties such as the Council (UNHRC), or to civil society, NGOs, and media outlets throughout Europe, which unfortunately have a limited impact on Chinese policy,” it stated.

[…] Some also argue that Beijing’s rising power may have a perverse effect not only in China, but even abroad.

China is “seeking to weaken international human rights mechanisms … and even if the governments won’t fight back on the principles and the rights of people inside China, they should understand that their own peoples’ rights are at risk as a result of China’s aggressive posture,” said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. [Source]

CDT rounded up several recent reports on China’s activities to undermine human rights activities at the United Nations earlier this month. South China Morning Post’s Phila Siu reports that its hand there could inadvertently be strengthened by the United States’ threatened withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has attacked the presence of China and others on the council, arguing that "no country that is a human rights violator should be allowed a seat at the table." But critics suggest that American withdrawal would simply provide the worst rights abusers with an opening to consolidate their positions.

“It’s probably very unlikely that Duterte and China would form some new UN-like system,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

“What’s more probable is that countries like China, keenly recognising that the UN maintains considerable global prestige, will do everything possible to gain as much influence as possible within the UN, and shift the way the UN operates and its priorities in order to fit China’s own interests,” he said.

[…] Farzana Aslam, principle lecturer of law at the University of Hong Kong, said that if the US withdrew from the rights council it would be a blow to the legitimacy of the UN itself.

“Despite its flaws the council is at least a forum that exists and operates, albeit somewhat dysfunctionally,” she said. “The US would do better to petition for reform than it would to abandon the institution, since there is no viable alternative in place at present.”

She said that the US could not lay claim to a clean record regarding human rights, citing the Guantanamo Bay detention centre where terrorist suspects are detained without trial.

“I don’t believe any nation comes to the council with clean hands,” she said. [Source]