China tried to save face last week, by lashing out at those critical of its human rights record during a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. Beijing singled out the United States for its hypocritical criticism, with Chinese diplomat Fu Cong arguing before the Council, “The U.S. is notorious for prison abuse at Guantanamo prison, its gun violence is rampant, racism is its deep-rooted malaise.”
Fu added, “The United States conducts large-scale extraterritorial eavesdropping, uses drones to attack other countries’ innocent civilians, its troops on foreign soil commit rape and murder of local people. It conducts kidnapping overseas and uses black prisons.” Given time constraints, Fu was only able to single out one other country, long-time foe Japan, for continuing to deny responsibility for its conscription of 100,000 Asian “comfort women” during WWII.
Fu, an adviser to the UN Director-General, was attempting to deflect criticism of Beijing’s human rights record following a joint statement issued at the Council by Australia, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States. The joint statement, read by U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper, criticized China’s recent crackdown on human rights and the detention of Chinese lawyers and activists. “We are concerned about China’s deteriorating human rights record, notably the arrests and ongoing detention of rights activists, civil society leaders and lawyers,” Harper told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, adding that those detained “have not been granted access to legal council or allowed visits by family members.”
The statement argued not only that “These extra-territorial actions are unacceptable, out of step with the expectations of the international community, and a challenge to the rule-based international order, ” but also violate Chinese law, “These actions are in contravention of China’s own laws and international commitments.” Since July, around 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists have been detained by police, although many have been released, some after confessions (prior to any indictment) aired on national television.
The issue of Beijing’s detainment of Chinese lawyers and activists was also raised in mid-February, when UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave his annual speech to the UN Human Rights Council, citing a “very worrying pattern” of detentions. Zeid accused Beijing of locking up government critics without charging them with a crime, and further demanded those detained be released “immediately and without conditions.” Fu was quick to respond, saying Zeid should “refrain from making subjective comments not backed up by real facts,” yet refrained from expounding on the “real facts.”
While this is certainly not the first time that the record of human rights in China has been criticized (typically an annual event), this time around is important for several reasons. For one, it is the first time a joint statement has been made concerning China, according to Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. She expanded upon the unified action among large powers, saying “The statement shows that while President Xi may think he can eradicate dissent at home, the world stands with embattled human rights defenders across China.”
Second, the quick and angry response of Beijing reveals that the Chinese leadership does care about how their budding great power is viewed internationally. Were they not concerned, a retort would not have been necessary. Third, the pointed calls for action among the large powers, urging China “to release all rights activists, civil society leaders and lawyers detained for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression or for lawfully practicing their profession,” has been broadcast throughout the international media and put Beijing in a quandary.
Do they ignore the request and hope the issue fades away? Do they release some of the detainees and then round up more as replacements? Do they release all of the detainees, allow “one hundred flowers to bloom” and then crackdown again? Or do they fully comply with the demands and lose face among their nationalistic citizenry and other regional neighbors?
My guess is that Beijing will continue to pursue dissidents and activists—within China and around the world. Beijing will then use its own media to portray them as disloyal, much like the five booksellers from Hong Kong’s Mighty Current publishing house who were forced to confess on mainland television their crimes of smuggling illicit books. Their true crime may have been publishing books on China’s elite, using a mix of rumor, speculation and outright fiction. One book, The General Secretary’s Eight Love Stories, claims that President Xi Jinping has had a number of affairs, including one with a television presenter. Another says that Mr. Xi’s wife, angered by the affair, seized power from her husband.
However Beijing chooses to deflect or deal with the latest criticism on its human rights record (and I have to believe there are better ways of stopping a book from being published), it may not be enough. Criticism is already spreading on the mainland, as the editor of the state-owned and usually nationalistic tabloid The Global Times recently penned an op-ed arguing “China should open up more channels for criticism and suggestions and encourage constructive criticism,” while adding, “There also should be a certain amount of tolerance for unconstructive criticism.”
Chris Buckley of The New York Times also reported on an online letter written by an administrative employee (and former editor) of the state-owned Xinhua press arguing the new censorship control “has triggered tremendous fear and outrage among the public, [who have began to] worry about another Cultural Revolution.” For many both inside and outside of China, as the international pressure mounts, the comparisons between Xi and Mao are starting to get serious.