SCMP Saturday, November 10, 2001
Pulling the wool over diplomacy?
Ireland's tough-talking Mary Robinson had another chance to tackle President Jiang Zemin yesterday, at the end of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' (UNHCHR) first year of technical co-operation with China.
Beijing's willingness to receive Mrs Robinson, who first came to the country three years ago, has been part of the complex diplomatic deals which smoothed the way for China's accession into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), expected to be approved tonight.
That the two events occur so close together shows that the link between human rights and trade continues, although the two are no longer tied as closely.
China is now freed from the threat of a United States trade embargo, and the prospect of any American administration - now or in the future - being able to push through a resolution in Geneva either condemning China's human-rights abuses or calling for an investigation seems remote.
Alleged human-rights abuses, such as the crackdown on followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, have been relegated to the bilateral dialogues on the subject held between China and a host of countries including the US, the European Union, Australia and Canada. These meetings, which bring together obscure experts and diplomats, are rarely reported by either the domestic or international press. Aside from Mrs Robinson's periodic visits, an issue which was once central to China's relationship with the outside world now appears to have been taken out of the spotlight, much to the relief of investors and diplomats. Yet the process has left many deeply disappointed by the small gains made after years of bargaining.
"China has been very clever at giving small sops which foreign governments can talk about to pacify public opinion, but there has been no movement on real issues," argues Sophia Woodman of New York-based group Human Rights in China.
Western diplomats credit Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, who has been running China's foreign policy for more than a decade, for masterminding a strategy by which Chinese leaders disarm Western leaders by acknowledging the existence of human-rights abuses, but without binding China to very much.
China has, for example, ratified the UN Convention on Torture but does not allow its special rapporteur, Sir Nigel Rodley, to visit prisons and investigate allegations. Beijing is now prepared to admit that torture of suspects to extract confessions takes place, but detainees find it as hard as ever to lodge complaints.
As Mrs Robinson stressed this week, China still has not brought in a definition of torture compatible with international standards.
Western diplomats defend the dialogue process saying that, given China's history, it represents a fundamental step forward. Yet human-rights lobbyists such as Ms Woodman complain the price is too high because Western governments are no longer in a position to apply any pressure to obtain concessions.
During meetings with Chinese leaders, Western heads of government now spend less and less time on human rights. They still appeal for clemency for high-profile names by handing over lists of imprisoned dissidents, but this is treated as a routine gesture and no response is expected.
None of the dozens of dissidents who formed the Democracy Party in 1998 - in the brief spring before former US president Bill Clinton's visit - have been freed, including well known activists such as Xu Wenli.
Political prisoners no longer seem to be valued as diplomatic bargaining counters by either side.
In the past, the central Government considered releasing such prisoners as essential in order to prepare the ground for major events such as bidding to host the Olympic Games or welcoming an American president. China has responded to American appeals by expelling, rather than keeping in detention, a number of overseas Chinese, but none of these were overt political activists. Those who directly criticise the Communist Party continue to be jailed.
As with the WTO rules on trade, Western hopes of bringing about change rest with China's willingness to adopt international definitions and enforce the international treaties on human rights that it is adopting. The three workshops that the UNHCHR has organised in China are not going to do much to bring about the major changes required. The first was on the punishment of minor crimes, the second on human rights and the police, and the third, held this week, was on human rights in secondary and primary schools.
These consist largely of an exchange of academic papers because the UNHCHR has yet to be allowed to start training courses and is still far from being in a position to monitor compliance of any treaties, such as that on torture.
In her meeting with Mr Jiang, Mrs Robinson has again tried to raise a number of individual cases in the hope of winning clemency. But it is far from clear whether China is ready to allow her to be used as a court of last appeal. It is unlikely China would want this to happen or permit the UNHCHR to open an office in the country.
Many Chinese who feel they have been unfairly treated by the domestic legal system turn to the UNHCHR in desperation. But China continues to insist on the supremacy of national sovereignty above international treaties, and just before Mrs Robinson arrived, the China Daily newspaper ran an article reiterating Beijing's position.
Therefore, there is doubt over whether China would accept arbitration on international trade disputes by a body such as the WTO. When Beijing ratified a treaty on terrorism this week, it explicitly excepted itself from such procedures. China is not alone in taking this stance. The US shares a similar reluctance to expose itself to the UN machinery and has yet to ratify such treaties as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Beijing ratified this year.
The centrepiece of Western efforts to bring about change hangs on China's willingness to adopt a host of international agreements which define and protect the rights of members of ethnic or religious groups, trade unionists, refugees, non-governmental organisations and many others.
But the value of diplomatic bargaining is put in question by the poor marks given to China's implementation of its own legislation. Many of the legal reforms intended to give individuals some protection from abuse of power by the state or its officials have not been well enforced.
The state continues to ignore its own legislation on procedures for treating criminal suspects because of quota-driven political crackdowns such as the "Strike Hard" campaigns or the roundup of Falun Gong supporters. Ms Woodman points out that laws introduced nearly a decade ago giving individuals the right to take officials to court, if they have abused their powers, are not a success. "The number of cases lodged has been falling."
In some respects, the state seems better positioned to limit individual freedoms than it was a decade ago, when it was caught unprepared by the explosion of fax machines, telephones and computers. Some former Chinese dissidents such as Ren Wanding complain that the state is now using new technology to improve its surveillance and intimidation.
It is increasingly adept at monitoring the e-mail and mobile-phone communications of individuals and moves swiftly to block Web sites and identify and punish those it fears are fomenting unrest.
Jasper Becker (
) is the Post's Beijing bureau chief.