China-UK human rights dialogue builds bridges to understanding

Tim Collard says it would be tragic if cancellation of this year's dialogue led to programme's end

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 10:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 8:29am

China cancelled the April 16 session of the bilateral human rights dialogue with Britain, accusing the UK of making irresponsible comments and of interference in its internal affairs.

Let us remember how this dialogue came into being. Towards the end of the 1990s, Britain and its Western allies were seeking ways of normalising relations with China after the sharp downturn following the events of June 1989. This was important, because the united Western front was beginning to crack. Certain European allies - yes, France, I do mean you - were starting to curry favour with China by breaking ranks.

In any case, the West could see that no useful purpose was served by simply denouncing China's human rights practices from a long distance. So an agreement was reached that a regular dialogue on human rights issues should be added to the wider bilateral relationship.

Britain, with other Western countries taking the same approach, knew that it would be pointless to make this confrontational and too focused on high-publicity issues. So the dialogue was structured around the practical aspects of the application of the rule of law - procedure, safeguards, the balance between the requirements of society and the rights of the individual; all clearly related to the Chinese government's declared policy of establishing a firm basis for the rule of law. The dialogue was conducted by experts and specialists, not grandstanding politicians.

It would be tragic if this fruitful and generally friendly dialogue were to be discontinued.

The problem is that the "megaphone diplomacy" aspect of the human rights debate can be downplayed, but never quite goes away. This was always, to a certain extent, accepted by the Chinese side; they knew that Western leaders were expected by their domestic audience to raise certain individual cases, and the West made it implicitly clear that this was something they had to do for home consumption, and that it did not mean that they were really putting pressure on China.

And so, when the US is now accused of "gesticulating" in its criticism of China's treatment of dissidents (referring to the Xu Zhiyong case), it is understandable.

But why is China now objecting to British and US behaviour, which has hitherto been an accepted and well-understood part of the bilateral relationship?

The changed situation is partly due to the strengthening of China's position in the world; it is more realistic than it was 20 years ago for China to demand that the West treat it as an equal and does not patronise or instruct.

But there may be a more sinister factor, in the shape of the "Putin effect". The Russian president, from much less of a position of strength than that now enjoyed by China, is making a point of declaring that he simply does not care what the West thinks. Could China's tacit support for Russia over Ukraine be an indication that China is thinking along the same lines?

I hope not. But we must be aware that this whole issue touches on a point where Western and Chinese attitudes are simply incompatible. Everyone in the West realises that, for the vast majority of Chinese, the human rights situation has improved immeasurably in the last 40 years.

There are only a small number of people who fall foul politically of the government and actually suffer for it; the Chinese phrase is "killing the chicken to frighten the monkey".

Mass crackdowns are very rare; but certain individuals and groups have been identified as dangerous enemies of the state. The most obvious one is the Dalai Lama; then there are various Taiwanese figures, dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, and the Falun Gong, whose only real offence was to have embarrassed the Chinese leadership by holding a large and totally unexpected demonstration outside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in April 1999, and has been mercilessly hounded for it ever since. Any Western expression of sympathy for any of them is regarded as a hostile gesture towards China.

But this approach can never be acceptable to Western sensibilities. No Westerner these days wants to see the violent overthrow of the Chinese government; but our whole cast of mind prevents us from ever seeing the persecution of individuals as simply an "internal affair". It is no good China accusing Western governments of bad faith in this regard; they are backed by the overwhelming majority of their populations.

It is the single greatest issue damaging the reputation of China in Western countries, and thus an obstacle to the mutual understanding that we urgently need as the 21st century proceeds.

We do not wish to lecture or hector China or claim we are right and they are wrong. This is a genuine difference of perception, and dealing with it requires dialogue.

Tim Collard is a former UK diplomat specialising in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing