‘Why I believe China is abusing human rights’

Cameron must speak out: The PM with China’s premier in Beijing © Getty Images
by Allan Hogarth

At Amnesty International UK, Allan is responsible for developing political analysis and strategy. He recently completed an MSc in Global Politics at Birkbeck and was once a carpenter.

Britain’s prime minister has been on a mission to drum up business for British companies in China. But should the human rights record of the host nation be foremost in his attentions?

It cannot have escaped your attention that David Cameron is in China this week – doing business. Chinese president Xi Jinping and his government have literally rolled out the red carpet for Cameron and his extensive delegation of tycoons and business leaders, all eager to get a bite of the pie, in what is being billed as a feeding frenzy of Chinese investment.

In these cash-strapped post-banking-crisis times, say the ‘realists’, that is exactly what a leader should be doing: cosying up to the financial behemoths and ensuring that UK interests are being pressed. Now is no time to start bleating on about trivial matters such as human rights, surely?

Well, actually there has never been a more apt moment. And there’s a false dichotomy in the assertion that a country must prioritise either profit or principle in its dealings with China. There can – and must – be room for both.

The British visit comes at an important time for human rights in China. The Asian superpower has just been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, while Chinese leaders have just announced the abolition of the notorious ‘re-education through labour camps’ and have banned the use of torture to extract confessions. Promising stuff. But promises need to be followed through – not only should those pledges be fulfilled (no small matter), but there are other issues which should be raised.

China, for example, executes more people than the rest of the world put together. The British leader should call for an end to that. He could also condemn the persecution of government critics like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate serving 11 years after he called for free elections and respect for human rights. Cameron could also mention Liu Xia, his wife, who has endured years of surveillance and isolation.

The Chinese authorities have long used a sprawling network of more than 300 camps to detain hundreds of thousands of dissidents. Many individuals are sent multiple times and spend numerous years in such camps, without charge or trial – the government punishes any individual who exercises their human rights in ways that the authorities find threatening.

So the menu of human rights violations from which Cameron can select concerns to raise is lengthy. The only untenable option is to say nothing.

Artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, who has become one of the most vocal critics of the Chinese government, has explicitly said that Mr Cameron has a duty to speak out against human rights abuses if he wishes to do business with China. Speaking ahead of a previous UK-China trade visit, the artist said: ‘Many people are under house arrest. We are dealing with a country that has sacrificed a lot of human rights just for the growth of business and anybody who is dealing with China in business has an obligation to emphasise that, otherwise they are committing some kind of crime.’

This is well said. These concerns should be raised loudly and in public so that there can be no question that the UK has traded away its right to speak out. This is no time for Chinese whispers.

You Decide

  1. Should David Cameron be visiting China?


  1. Write a letter to the prime minister, or to your local MP, expressing either support for the trip or criticising it.

Word Watch

United Nations Human Rights Council
This body, consisting of 47 nations elected from the full UN general assembly, has only existed since 2006. It is supposed to promote and uphold human rights through the governments of those nations on the council working together. But there is generally controversy around which nations are elected to serve a three-year term as members.
Liu Xiaobo
Winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China’, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2008 for ‘undermining state authorities’. He denies the charge. His wife is under house arrest.
Ai Weiwei
Probably the most widely-known and recognised dissident voice in China at the moment, Ai Weiwei describes himself as an ‘artist and social activist’. In 2011 he was detained for 81 days – although he has been released, he is not free to leave China.

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