Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

ECONOMY-CHINA: Human Rights Critics Silenced by Meltdown

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Mar 6 2009 (IPS) - If the global economic downturn is a crisis with a silver lining for cash-rich Chinese companies intent on bargain deals, it is equally so the image-conscious government whose human right critics have been silenced by the need to cooperate with Beijing on overcoming the recession.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent remarks en route to China that contentious issues such as human rights “can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises” have been interpreted here as a signal that China is gaining an upper hand in a long and raucous debate about what constitutes human rights for the world’s most populous country.

“The United States has always been at the core of China’s human rights critics but this time around (Clinton’s) tact in handling the rights issue serves as a wind vane for the prevailing global opinion,” said an editorial in the weekly newspaper Southern Weekend last week.

China’s position that human rights means the rights for development and survival of its people as opposed to the western countries’ insistence on “supremacy of human rights above all” is gaining wider acceptance around the world, the paper claimed.

“Because of various global changes, western powers’ control over the human rights debate is diminishing and developing countries are finding themselves in a more beneficial position,” the opinion piece concluded.

Indeed, as western powers struggle with the huge scale of bailout needed to rescue their banks and revive their sliding economies, they have increasingly turned to China, signaling their willingness to downplay human rights concerns. As a result, recent months of economic downturn have marked several victories for China in burnishing its human rights record.

After almost a century of recognising Tibet as an autonomous entity, in October Britain declared that it had changed its position and decided to recognise it as part of the People’s Republic of China.

China claims sovereignty over the Himalayan land going back over 600 years but it has been locked in a long-running dispute with the Tibetan exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, who has called on Beijing to grant Tibet the “genuine autonomy” it promised when it took control of the land in 1951.

Over the past 30 years since it emerged from its communist isolation, allegations about human rights abuses in Tibet have been among the most damaging to China’s international reputation.

Back in October already, Chinese commentaries remarked on the financial crisis as being the chief reason for Britain ceding its long-term regard of China as Tibet’s “suzerain” and recognizing it as its “sovereign”.

Continuing to aid the Dalai Lama and his “independence fight” pales in significance to the “urgency and the importance” of pulling China onto Europe’s rescue boat as quickly as possible, said the International Herald Leader then.

Earlier this year, China counted another victory in passing successfully its first “universal periodic review” (UPR) – a United Nations scrutiny of its human rights record – undertaken by the newly-established Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Beijing dispatched a 15-person delegation to the (UNHRC) in Geneva, which rejected allegations of suppressing dissent, restricting free speech and repressing minority people in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Declaring that China was “fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights,” Chinese envoy Li Baodong said those making the allegations were “politicising” human rights issues.

China’s spirited defence of its human rights record at the U.N. review won backing from several countries including Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Burma, Egypt and Zimbabwe.

Flush with cash and retaining a relatively stable banking sector – almost uniquely among emerging economies – China then embarked on a buying and lending spree termed by some observers here as “crisis diplomacy”. In the first two months of the year Chinese senior leaders toured countries in Latin America, Europe and Africa, pledging cooperation, loans and investment.

“The current crisis is seen by Chinese leaders as an opportunity to reach out and work more pro-actively for the protection of our national interests,” says Zhang Xiaoming of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in regard to China’s crisis diplomacy.

Using its two trillion US dollars of foreign exchange reserves, China has become the biggest creditor to the U.S. Amid the deepening economic crisis, Beijing’s huge holdings of U.S. treasuries mean that the two countries’ interdependence is superseding human rights concerns for the U.S. administration.

During her Beijing visit Clinton urged China to continue buying U.S. debt, arguing it would jumpstart the U.S. economy and help revive flagging demand for Chinese exports. She also suggested that on human rights issues it “might be better for the U.S. and China to agree to disagree.”

Her decision to avoid giving human rights issue unpleasant public prominence in China has been criticised by rights groups as a step undermining the right reforms in the country.

“Secretary Clinton’s remarks point to a diplomatic strategy that has worked well for the Chinese government – segregating human rights issues into a dead-end ‘dialogue of the deaf,’” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International said Clinton’s pragmatism left it “shocked and extremely disappointed”.

But Chinese observers point out that in the current economic climate it is only rights activists and other non-governmental organisations that continue to scrutinise China’s human rights record.

“Human rights is off the radar for many foreign governments,” says Luo Yanhua, international studies researcher at Beijing University.

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags