To coincide with the controversial state visit of Chinese premier Xi Jinping this week, Simon Jenkins’ posed an intriguing question in his Guardian column on calls for the Chinese to be taken to task on their human rights record. Jenkins’ is a question that definitely needs asking: how would the British react if China came to criticise our human rights record?
A state visit by China’s highest ranking official was always going to be controversial. The anti-democratic one-party state is guilty of a heinous catalogue of human rights abuses, from the subjugation of occupied Tibet to strict restrictions of freedom of expression and information (including the infamous Great Firewall of China), not to mention the world’s highest rate of executions. It is unsurprising that there have been calls from many sections of society that these criticisms be levelled against the Chinese government, but David Cameron has responded only in the weakest and most non-committal of terms. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn threatened to embarass the British government and the Queen at an official state banquet by bringing up China’s human rights abuses, he was swiftly given a private audience with Xi Jinping to ensure the human rights subject remained a fringe issue.
Jenkins is wrong that we should not raise human rights issues because it is “impolite” and might jeopardise the Chinese investment we are so desperately chasing. For one thing, if the Chinese want to invest in Britain it will be for financial reasons, and a few uncomfortable statements on capital punishment and anti-democratic oppression will not change that. I am an ethical pragmatist, and understand fully the need to engage and trade with foreign powers over which we may have fundamental ethical disagreements, but this is no reason to categorically ignore concerns we may have. Nobody is expecting China to suddenly transform itself into a multi-party democracy at our very behest, but it is also ridiculous to suggest that the reinforcement of collective global norms of human rights awareness between states has no impact on state behaviour. Raising human rights issues, however briefly, reminds China that the world is watching. China is still under an arms embargo put in place after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, for example, and its efforts to have the embargo lifted has so far been unsuccessful. The Chinese know that they must show that Tiananmen Square could never happen again in order to get the embargo removed, and have made statements to this effect. Forget about these principles entirely, and China will forget about them to.
Jenkins also states categorically that the British are merely pretending to care about human rights in China, but this fundamentally misses the point of a crucial difference between China and the UK; if the British demand their government complain about human rights, then they must, because we live in a democracy. The Chinese have no such right. What Jenkins really means is that “the British government could pretend to care about China’s human rights”, and this is possibly true. But the British government work for us, so if they don’t sufficiently demonstrate they care, we have every right to get rid of them. It is our choice that David Cameron is the one meeting Xi Jinping, and if he fails to meet our standards we can have him replaced. Jenkins’ description of such groups as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Labour Party as “a few lobbyists” who just want to “feel good” is insulting and absurd; these people have the power to speak, and whether it “feels good” or not, they provide a voice to the dead, dispossessed and oppressed who have no such opportunity. There are lives at stake here.
But Jenkins does make the point that the British reaction to criticism of our human rights record by China would be met with howls of derision and national affront. Chinese criticism of British human rights would certainly go ignored. Raquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur on housing, learned this the hard way when she rightly criticised the UK government’s punitive bedroom tax. Reaction from Britain’s holier-than-thou Conservative government and tabloid press was swift and brutal; Rolnik was described as a ‘loopy Brazilian leftie’, “a Brazil nut”, an “idiot”, and, most bafflingly of all, “a dabbler in witchcraft who offered an animal sacrifice to Marx”. How dare Rolnik criticise the UK on human rights, they screamed, when she hails from – pause for effect – Brazil, a country with 30 million homeless, as if her nationality was in any way relevant. How dare the UN stick its nose into precious Britain’s affairs, when “the UN… usually provides help in war zones, famines and natural disasters”. The message is clear: the UN should be helping the downtrodden and impoverished, not us lofty Brits. The UK work and pensions minister claimed her actions “undermined the impartiality of the UN”. Another demanded an investigation from the UN into Ms Rolnik’s conduct. Britain, it appears, should be above human rights criticism.
Britain has every right to criticise the human rights of other nations, but we must be open to criticism in return. If the Conservative government is so desperate to woo Chinese investors, perhaps the Chinese telling us to clean up our human rights act might be what finally whipped the Conservative Party into action. That Chinese money might be very persuasive in convincing the Tories to keep the Human Rights Act, should China so desire. If Xi Jinping wants to complain about the list of human rights concerns Jenkins raises in his articles – from mass surveillance to low wages to legal aid cuts to foreign wars of dubious ethical legitimacy – then let him. And the British people need to hear it too. We need to be made aware that Britain is not above criticism, that human rights issues are those that affect us too, and that we cannot simply behave as if we have the right to police the world on human rights while ignoring domestic human rights concerns.
Jenkins is right; the stuck-up British would be outraged if the Chinese criticised our human rights positions. But this is no reason to abandon our commitment to pressing human rights abusers abroad. It is a call to action, that there is so much more work to be done at home.