[Human Rights Watch]
If Australia wants a healthy trade relationship it needs to go beyond ‘quiet diplomacy’.
When Julie Bishop visits China for the first time as Australia’s Foreign Minister, will she press Chinese leaders on human rights? Or will Bishop’s interest in concluding a free trade agreement lead her to stay silent on serious human rights abuses in favour of ”quiet diplomacy”?
During a visit to China before he was prime minister, Tony Abbott said: ”As prime minister I would hope for political reform to match China’s economic liberalisation.”
Such reforms have not happened. Indeed, the lack of political reforms at the important Chinese Communist Party third plenum in November disappointed many Chinese people, who had hoped President Xi Jinping would signal a new approach.
Instead, he made it clear his administration is bent on maintaining the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
If Bishop stays silent, she would not only be selling out the many courageous Chinese activists pressing for change – many of whom are locked up in China’s prisons – but she would also be harming Australia’s long-term interests. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. How the Chinese leadership responds to widespread discontent that stems from endemic corruption, pollution, forced evictions, crackdowns on free speech, limits on labour rights, arbitrary detention and repression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang will have important implications in Australia for decades.
Trade is built on the foundation of the rule of law, an independent judiciary to resolve commercial disputes and a free press and unfettered flow of information to inform trade partners.
Without these, the market seems rigged, raising risks and costs and ultimately damaging economic benefit.
In the worst cases, people in disputes with powerful people can end up in jail.
Indeed, a number of Australians engaged in business are currently detained in China, including Du Zuying in biotechnology, Matthew Ng in tourism and Charlotte Chou in education.
Without due process of law and independent courts, what protects Australian businessmen and women from ending up in a jail cell when local officials start hankering after their businesses?
Under the previous government, Australian diplomacy failed to acknowledge the scale and scope of human rights abuses in China, whether by playing down the issue in key documents such as the 2013 China Country Strategy or by holding closed-door bilateral ”human rights dialogues” with China that lacked benchmarks and transparency.
Bishop has a chance to reverse this failing strategy. But she should not fall into the trap for those with little experience in dealing with China by accepting the advice that ”only quiet diplomacy works”, or that speaking out in public will make China’s leaders ”lose face”.
China’s leaders expect criticism from leaders of democracies; indeed, they have long ago priced it into the cost of relations. When governments play the game of not speaking out, the Chinese see them as weak and vulnerable – not just on rights but on trade and other matters.
And Bishop shouldn’t believe those who say taking on rights harms trade. David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in May 2012 but Britain’s exports to China rose by a reported 15.5 per cent in 2012, even as China protested by cancelling high-level meetings with Britain.
Trade rose by 19 per cent between China and Norway between 2011 and 2012, despite Beijing’s ire when the Nobel peace prize was awarded to China’s imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Some argue that China does not respond to international pressure on human rights. The recent decision to abolish the re-education through labour system, which allows individuals to be detained for years without trial, came only after years of sustained domestic and international pressure. Some detained activists have been released quickly while others have been spared mistreatment in jail due to the high level of international pressure brought on their cases.
Indeed, decades of international pressure have made a big difference. Just ask those on the front lines, the many brave Chinese activists who consistently tell Human Rights Watch they cannot do their work without international support and pressure on the government.
At the top of Bishop’s list should be advocacy for the Chinese people who take risks to gain the same basic freedoms enjoyed by Australians. Many pay a high price, such as Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia. Reports emerged this week that Liu Xia, who the authorities have confined to strict house arrest as punishment for standing by her husband, is now suffering from severe depression.
Bishop’s visit comes after Chinese officials berated her for comments she made regarding an air defence zone in the East China Sea. Some will say the time is not ripe for sensitive ”hot button” topics such as human rights.
But as Abbott’s recent experience with Indonesia over the spying allegations shows, a ”softly, softly” approach on human rights is not a recipe for a harmonious relationship.
If Australia wants to have a meaningful relationship with China, it needs to stand its ground on human rights and other key bilateral issues.
Pushing for improvements on human rights will benefit both Australia’s values and its business interests.
Maya Wang is a researcher with the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.