Paper Tiger, Seething Dragon

Article published on Jan. 5, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 5, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Eight years on, and the European Human Rights Dialogue remains charged with controversy. And it is failing, as instances of human rights abuse in the Xinjiang province show.

China is changing. No other country has been able to match either the rate of economic growth or the pace of change in China in recent years. The most visible manifestation of this growth is the construction fever that has gripped the entire country. Towns are changing overnight and there is often nothing today that harks back to the China of a decade ago. Yet while the regeneration of the towns has become a metaphor for China’s renaissance, it has also come to symbolise rising inequality, social tensions, nepotism, corruption and highhandedness by the state.

In such a climate, the human rights situation has not improved. The Chinese government’s justification for this is that individual interests must be subordinated to those of society. While foreign investors are troubled by the resulting deficiencies in legal certainty, the public are concerned by the abuses of human rights. It was this that led to the European Human Rights Dialogue in 1995.

Its motto is cooperation not confrontation. Public pressure was to be replaced by constructive talks. Representatives from the state and civil society would oversee the development of a position on human rights, joint conferences would facilitate the flow of specialist knowledge and the translation into Chinese of standard legal texts would provide the foundation for the reform of the Chinese judicial system. These intercultural talks aimed to improve the human rights situation, political accountability and the establishment of a legitimate state. Chinese policemen would learn from their European colleagues how to behave in a constitutional state and judges were to be instructed in the basics of the separation of powers.

Economic concerns take priority

In 1995, China announced it was only prepared to enter into dialogue on the condition that Europe agreed not to seek a public condemnation of China at the UN Commission on Human Rights. Since 1997, and in the face of French opposition, a resolution has faced an impasse, due more to economic issues than political ones. At the time, China was involved in negotiations for a major order with the Airbus consortium.

The course of human rights policy continued to be set by economic interests. With every country primarily interested in selling its own technology, no common European position emerged. For as long as the success of state visits to China is measured by the number of contracts signed and a competitive mindset prevails, it will be child’s play for China to play off one European country against another. So it is that, eight years later, questions are being asked about the efficacy of the Human Rights Dialogue.

Today, respect for human rights has indeed grown. In particular, the rights of the individual, such as the right to own property or freedom of movement, are guaranteed. Yet civil rights, such as the freedoms of assembly and of association, free speech or a free press, are still restricted. Beijing is gambling that for as long as the economy continues to grow and individuals are granted greater rights, it will be in a position to quell political opposition. But only a minority stand to profit from the current boom, while other sections of the population are being marginalised.

Shambles in Xinjiang

The Xinjiang example speaks volumes. Until it was annexed by China in 1949, Sinkiang was mainly home to Muslim Uygurs. Now, as a result of a concerted immigration policy, the balance has tipped in favour of the Han Chinese.

The impressive skyline of the provincial capital Urumchi is proof that progress has also arrived in Xinjiang. But it is in Kashgar, the cultural centre for the Uygurs, that its underbelly is exposed. Anonymous new buildings are encroaching on the clay buildings in the old town, whose owners are being dispossessed, driven out and cheated out of their already insufficient compensation. To protest is to be arrested; to complain to be hauled before the courts. Modern China no longer has room for the Uygurs. Only those that surrender their religion, their language and their culture, that conform unequivocally, will find the doors to university, the economy and politics open to them.

Every individual that protests against this policy is labelled a separatist and in the language of Chinese propaganda, separatist equals terrorist. Numerous uprisings, brutally quelled, were justified as part of the ‘war on terror’. The strategy is on the increase; in Europe, too, Uygurian separatism is rarely distinguished from Islamic fundamentalism.

In the case of Xinjiang, the European Human Rights Dialogue has failed. Refusing to criticize Beijing publicly for its human rights’ abuses in Xinjiang is a manifestation not of a determined effort, but rather of Europe’s ambivalence. That the Uygurs have been forgotten by the international community only encourages their radicalisation and contributes to a further escalation of the situation.

Europe must no longer turn a blind eye to Chinese contravention of human rights. It is short-sighted of individual states to subordinate human rights to economic interests as and when it suits their cause. For without a free press, free trade unions and a free civil society, it is impossible to build up an efficient economy and a just society. To ensure that the Dialogue of Human Rights is not forever condemned to be a paper tiger, it is imperative that Europe exploit the entire arsenal of international law to increase public pressure on Beijing.