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16th Nov 2019

Activists question value of EU-China rights talks

  • Shanghai: Chinese people have more money but fewer civil liberties (Photo: olekvi)

EU diplomats are in Beijing on Wednesday (15 June) asking sensitive questions about Tibet and disappeared persons. But critics say that after 16 years of low-profile human rights talks, China is more repressive than when the process began.

British official James Moran, the EU foreign service's top man on Asia, in this year's round of discussions plans to ask his Chinese counterpart Chen Xu, a director general in the Chinese foreign ministry, about the persecution of ethnic Mongolians, Tibetans and Uyghurs, as well as Christians and members of the Falun Gong sect.

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Moran is also to put forward a list of "all recent cases" of disappeared persons. Apart from individual activists who have vanished in China's "black jails", 300 Buddhist monks were taken away wholesale from the Kirti monastery in Tibet on 21 April.

Chinese diplomats do not easily take criticism, even in private. Unlike the "cordial" atmosphere ascribed to EU-Russia human rights talks, the EU-China meetings can get quite shirty.

Diplomats reportedly yell at each other and slam the table. At one event in Berlin, the Chinese walked out. According to an EU diplomat, in Madrid last year: "The Chinese said the EU should not continue in meeting human-rights defenders. We should accept Chinese laws and not put the verdict of Chinese courts into question."

EU foreign relations spokesman Michael Mann said the talks get results despite the problems: "Normally, it achieves better treatment in prison, access to doctors and medication, non-use of torture. Twice the individual was released well before the end of his term in prison. We also receive useful information about [detainees'] whereabouts [and] offences that they were charged with." He declined to name the two people released early.

But for its part, Human Rights Watch is sceptical.

"It looks great on paper. But there is no transparency. There are no benchmarks and no opportunities for public input or oversight," the NGO's rapporteur on China, Phelim Kine, told EUobserver. "The talks are used as a public relations exercise that allow the EU to isolate human rights issues from other top-level negotiations."

A diplomat from one large EU country backed him up. "When [EU foreign relations chief] Ashton or [EU Council President] Van Rompuy go out there, how much are they really willing to tackle these difficult issues? When Van Rompuy goes out there and doesn't engage on human rights, he undermines what we are trying to do in the consultations," the contact said.

Whatever takes place in the behind-closed-doors EU-China meetings, Kine said that in the past three or so years, China has seen a "steady decline" in terms of repression.

The new crackdown began with unrest in Tibet in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and intensified after the Arab Spring. Human Rights Watch says the period has seen hardliners, such as Zhou Yongkang, the chief of the secret police, the SSB, expand their influence and adopt methods used by Latin American dictators in the 1970s and 1980s, who also disappeared people who tried to play a role in public life.

Arab what?

Wang Xining, a diplomat at the Chinese mission to the EU in Brussels, told this website that he finds it "funny" when people talk about fears of an Arab Spring in China. He said the country's economic transformation has given people better living conditions, more access to travel and more free speech than in Arab states.

But facts on the ground tell a different story.

China after the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia fixed Google so that nothing appears when users search the word 'jasmine'. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned. And censors made sure nobody knows that in March a Buddhist monk in Tibet set himself on fire in a repeat of the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian protester who triggered the Arab revolts.

Given the broad decline in civil liberties, Human Rights Watch's Kine said the hush-hush format of the EU-China meetings has manifestly failed: "Nobody is willing to stand up and say: 'Look - the emperor has no clothes!' ... History shows that the Chinese government only responds when there is public pressure, when it is embarrassed on the international stage."

The NGO's outcry is for the time being falling on deaf ears.

"Both sides believe this is how it should be handled, otherwise it would be some kind of public seminar. Sometimes I am frustrated by the human rights people. I know they are acting out of good will. They are very kind and they are trying to prevent abuses. But the suggestions they make are sometimes ridiculous ... I even know European officials who are quite fed up with them," Wang said.

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