Liu Xiaobo

Empty words

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2011, 12:00am


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Not surprisingly, the latest human rights dialogue between China and the US ended without tangible signs of progress, although a human rights lawyer, Teng Biao, who had been held by the government illegally for over two months, was released after the two-day talks. However, within hours, another prominent legal rights activist, Li Fangping, was abducted, apparently by security officials.

This is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. Li was one of those who spoke out strongly against the detention of Teng. The Chinese authorities, having been castigated by the US in the dialogue for the detention of Teng, simply swapped him for Li.

The human rights dialogue should not be reduced to an exchange of 'hostages', with one human rights lawyer being replaced by another. Besides, neither Teng nor Li - nor the dozens of other lawyers, writers, bloggers and activists similarly held - should be detained in contravention of legal procedures.

China calls itself a society of rule by law, if not rule of law, and yet its security apparatus does not even bother to pay lip service to the laws on the books, seemingly able to operate outside the law.

China attempted to deflect American criticism by saying that the Chinese people, not the United States, are the most qualified to speak on China's human rights situation.

This is not in dispute. The problem is that there is no freedom of speech in China, and people like Teng, Li and Liu Xiaobo - the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize - are incarcerated for speaking out on human rights. These are Chinese citizens, trying to exercise the right to free speech ostensibly guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.

When people within China are unceremoniously locked up or, even worse, made to 'disappear' when they speak up for human rights, it is incumbent on voices outside the country to echo what they say, so the Chinese government understands that, while it may be able to muzzle its own citizens through physical and mental torture and other mistreatment, it cannot muzzle the whole world.

The Hu Jintao administration has put forward the slogan 'yiren weiben', or putting people at the centre. This is an excellent concept.

But the government must realise that there is no such thing as people in the abstract. The people are made up of individuals, and a people-oriented government must be one in which each individual's rights and freedoms are respected.

If the government can swoop on an individual - as it did on Friday on Li Fangping - and take him away, without benefit of legal procedures, then it is violating that person's human rights. That is not being people-oriented, which must mean respect for the individual in practice, not just in theory.

Another defence often presented by the Chinese government is that foreigners must respect China's judicial sovereignty. Again, the problem is that Beijing itself does not respect judicial sovereignty, or even judicial processes.

In a country where human rights are respected and rule of law holds sway, a government that wants to take people into custody first brings them before a court and subjects them to legal proceedings. That is not happening in China. What is happening has nothing to do with judicial sovereignty or, indeed, judicial anything. It is simply a sidelining of the judiciary.

For example, Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, was put under house arrest immediately after her husband was awarded the Nobel prize. She has been deprived of her freedom without any legal process, and her friends, as well as journalists and diplomats, have not been allowed to meet her, despite regulations that ostensibly allow foreign reporters to talk to anyone willing to be interviewed. Liu is certainly willing, indeed eager, to be interviewed, but the security authorities are not allowing her to meet the media. The security authorities, it appears, are above China's laws and regulations.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1