Dec 14, 2011

DROI Hearing on Human Rights in China

Panellists at the hearing on 5 December 2011 discussed the role of the EU in confronting China on its human rights record, what has been achieved since the last round of EU-China dialogue, and what needs to be done to pressure Beijing to reform.


Barbara Lochbihler MEP, chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights opened the session by reporting that since the last meetings in December 2010 and July 2011 the human rights situation has deteriorated due to the persecution of human rights lawyers, ethnic and religious persecution, as well as the growing pressure on neighbouring countries to return asylum seekers. The instances of self-immolations, the arrests of Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng, and artist Ai Wei Wei, and the proposed revision of the penal code in October 2011, which could essentially legalize enforced disappearances, were all cited as issues that have marked this deterioration.

Dr. Sharon Hom, director of Human Rights in China, emphasized the importance of the international growth of a virtual civil society in effecting change. Though the Chinese government has attempted to revise its state secrets law to gain a tighter grip on the flow of information on the internet, it still cannot control the flow of videos, pictures, and even political cartoons. She stated “The great Chinese firewall is no longer insurmountable.” As NGOs and guests deemed as ‘anti-China’ continue to be denied visas, technology can become an important tool to ensure that the agenda and list of speakers will not continue to be approved behind closed doors, blocking change. She cited as an example of how technology can increase public participation, her own organization’s success despite visa restrictions in addressing the European delegation before the last EU-China dialogue via Skype.  

At the start of his speech Mr. Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that China has taken some positive steps towards greater rights for their citizens in the past twenty years. However, since the Beijing Olympics he noted that security forces have been given more power to suppress disturbances and continue to maintain a wider range of control which goes largely uncontested by the international community. He accredited this to the spreading of the idea of Chinese exceptionalism enforced by the international community’s lack of a strong stance on China.

Mr. Mehmet Tohti of the World Uyghur Congress presented the case of rising aggression against the Uyghur community. He highlighted the use of arbitrary arrests, the marginalization of the community through Han Chinese settlement programs, suppression of Uyghur culture and religion, and the negative effects that desertification and nuclear testing have had on the community. One recent event he mentioned was the case of twenty Uyghur asylum seekers who were returned to China from Cambodia. He explained that Uyghur refugees have become like commodities to neighbouring countries wishing to increase trade relations with China. He remarked, “China is now a leader in exporting authoritarianism to other countries and threatening stability.”

Despite the desperate need for the international community to bring up these issues with Beijing, Dr. Ray Murphy of the Irish Centre for Human Rights expressed a tendency for Chinese policy makers to decide the focus of dialogues. During the negotiations for a series of EU-China Legal Seminars his organization noted that the success of a seminar would depend on the approval of the topic and subtopics by the Chinese organizers, making discussion of sensitive human rights issues very broad or non-existent. However, as Mr. Adams previously stated, “Chinese exceptionalism should not be accepted in the case of human rights.” His recommendation to the EU was not to be intimidated by China and to take a strong and consistent stance on issues if they want to effect change. In light of the regression of the human rights situation in China, Ms. Lochbihler announced that the Subcommittee on Human Rights will be planning a visit to China and Tibet in the coming months. It is hoped that these recommendations will be taken up by the Subcommittee.