Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China in a mood to punish Britain

January 12, 2010

In cancelling human rights talks, a confident Beijing is showing it won't
stand for being rebuked over cases such as Akmal Shaikh

www.guardian.co.uk, Monday 11 January 2010 20.00

Beijing's abrupt cancellation of the latest session of the UK-China human
rights dialogue, due to take place today, offers an uncomfortable insight
into Britain's increasingly strained relations with the 21st century's
rising global superpower. Whether the issue is personal freedom, climate
change, or nuclear proliferation, the Brown government is struggling with a
new China syndrome that can be summed up this way: "we" don't like their
attitude but "they" couldn't give two figs.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the human rights meeting, of which there are
two each year under a scheme dating back to the Hong Kong handover in 1997,
had been postponed rather than cancelled, although he admitted no new date
has been set. But official irritation at the apparent snub is palpable.
China's decision was described as "extremely unfortunate", which is
diplomat-speak for bloody rude.

Beijing gave no reason for its move. While British officials indicated it
may have been for "technical reasons", a more plausible explanation is that
Beijing's Communist party rulers decided to punish Britain for its outspoken
criticism of last month's execution of Akmal Shaikh, a British citizen, for
alleged drug offences.

China's refusal to entertain numerous clemency pleas from Shaikh's family
and the government was a political as much as a judicial decision. Gordon
Brown declared himself "appalled". China reacted sharply, expressing "strong
dissatisfaction" at his comments. But Ivan Lewis, a Foreign Office minister,
went even further in a BBC interview.

Lewis said the execution was a "deeply depressing day for anyone with a
modicum of compassion or commitment to justice in Britain and throughout the
world ... As that country [China] plays a greater role in the world they
have to understand their responsibility to adhere to the most basic
standards of human rights. China will only be fully respected when and if
they make the choice to join the human rights mainstream."

China seems to be exacting cold revenge for these hot words. Shaikh's
execution, and the suspension of the human rights dialogue, constitute a
direct kick in the teeth for Britain's policy of "comprehensive" engagement
with China on human rights and specifically, for its long-standing funding
of projects in what it calls "three priority areas: abolishing the death
penalty, reforming the criminal justice system, and promoting freedom of
expression".

Worse still, from London's point of view, a series of other recent Chinese
actions suggest an ever more confident Beijing is waxing indifferent to
Britain's strategic aim of "increasing understanding of human rights issues
on both sides", whatever it may have promised before the 2008 Olympics.

China's continuing persecution of signatories of the pro-democracy Charter
'08, which calls for greater respect for personal and civic freedoms,
reached a new low last month when the charter's author, Liu Xiaobo, was
jailed for 11 years for allegedly "inciting subversion of state power". The
sentence produced a torrent of protest, including an open letter to
President Hu Jintao from the ex-dissident and former Czech president Vaclav
Havel and other signatories of former Czechoslovakia's Charter '77.

According to the Free Tibet campaign, meanwhile, arrests, harassment and
torture of indigenous Tibetans opposed to direct rule by Beijing have
intensified since the 2008 protests in Lhasa. In a new campaign launched
today, actors Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman have made recordings of the
testimonies of torture victims.

One torture victim, Pema, whose story is told by David Threlfall, tells how
he was seized by police in his home on 17 March 2008 and beaten and abused
with an electric baton. Pema goes on to relate how he and more than one
hundred other Tibetans were held in confined conditions and how he was
stabbed with stabbed and burned with cigarettes during interrogations.

In a statement in October 2008, foreign secretary David Miliband said
Britain was "deeply concerned" about the human rights situation in Tibet.
"No government which is committed to promoting international respect for
human rights can remain silent on the issue of Tibet."

Asked today what was being done now, a Foreign Office spokesman said Britain
"repeatedly" raised Tibet in meetings with Chinese officials, notably during
a ministerial visit to Lhasa and Beijing last September, and was urging
China to resume a dialogue with representatives of the Dalai Lama. The
spokesman said the case of Liu Xiaobo's jailing had also been raised
bilaterally and though an EU statement on 28 December that expressed "deep
concern" about his treatment.

Human rights aside, rising Sino-British tensions are also being fed by
issues such as Beijing's reluctance to support new sanctions on Iran's
nuclear programme; and by the public spat in Copenhagen last month when
Brown and other ministers publicly blamed China for blocking Britain's
climate change agenda. But according to China expert and author Jonathan
Fenby, Britain is on a losing wicket in its battles with Beijing.

"China has asserted it determination to protect its own sovereignty whatever
the issue, and is intent on doing things its way," Fenby wrote on Cif last
month. "Given its economic progress ... the leadership and the population
feel pretty good about themselves. They are in no mood to take lessons,
moral or otherwise, from the west."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank