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Europe is lagging behind the U.S. in condemning China's Human Rights practices

(UN Vote on March 19th)





March 14, 2001

LONDON - Nothing could have been more revealing of the ambiguities at the heart of western policy towards China than when, in March 1997, the annual vote came up at the UN Human Rights Commission to condemn China's record on the treatment of its dissidents and minorities.

Denmark, with strong support from the Netherlands, had tabled a critical motion. The Chinese lobbyists went into overdrive. Denmark was told by Beijing that its criticism would be a "rock that smashed down on the Danish government's head". Several Danish contracts were cancelled and, as Chris Patten, now the European Union commissioner responsible for foreign affairs, wrote in his book, "East and West", "And what did anyone do? Nothing. What in particular did members of the EU do? They looked the other way".

In 1998 Europe went one step further or, as Human Rights Watch described it, "a major step backwards". Rewarding China for its bad behaviour the previous year, the European foreign ministers threw in the towel. The president of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council, the British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, cited the token release of Wei Jingsheng, China's most well known political prisoner, as an example of the results of the dialogue, a proposition roundly denounced by Wei himself. In conversation with me, Wei observed, "When Beijing's relations with the West improve, conditions got worse for the dissidents inside China's jails". It was with an almost audible sigh of relief that Washington joined Europe in dropping its sponsorship of the resolution. A senior Clinton Administration figure was quoted in the New York Times as saying: "It is being done as a calculation. It is being done because we believe it is the way to make progress in the future." As Wei shrewdly added, "The Chinese government's concept of human rights has not moved towards the universal standard of human rights. On the contrary, the human rights values of Western politicians have moved closer to those of communist ChinaS."

It is quite pathetic, it is laughable, but above all distasteful that Western countries regularly betray each other and, in so doing, the human rights activists inside China, in an effort to better position themselves in this quite modest market place. If Western governments could stand shoulder to shoulder and say to Beijing and mean it: "Stop using economic and trade threats. You are in no position to do so. It is unacceptable behaviour," Beijing would get the message. Sometimes, as Patten once said (before he took his present post) one has to pinch oneself to remember who needs whom most. To begin with, we should never forget that China represents only 1.7% of all Western exports added together.

Only quite recently have cracks appeared in the unseemly union between the old time leftist/liberals fantasists who have supported "revolutionary" China through thick and thin and the rightist, realpolitik, habitués of the White House and European capitals who first came to Beijing to balance Moscow and who stayed on, enthralled by its vast "potential" market.

Just over a year ago the mood began to change. In February last year the U.S. State Department in its annual report noted that China's human rights record had worsened over the past year. For the first time, the State Department's reporting was as vigorous as that of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Two months later the U.S. (but not the EU) cast its vote against China at the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission. At last the human rights lobby had broken through the left-right consensus that had protected China for so long. At the same time President Bill Clinton balanced this by finally deciding that the time had come to support China's entry into the World Trade Organisation and by successfully persuading Congress to give China permanent most-favoured-nation trade status. This is the right mix: the continuous drumming and tattoo of human rights lobbying, at the same time as trading, commercial and educational links are being strengthened. Over time it might work, if anything will, to loosen up the dictatorship and widen the political space for dissidents.

Perhaps rather surprisingly, given previous Republican administrations' lack of concern about Chinese internal behaviour, the White House has indicated it is going to follow Clinton's lead and cast its ballot to censure China on March 19th when the vote comes up at this year's UN meeting. But it appears the European Union, still more anxious about gaining commercial favours from Beijing (not least for the Airbus super-jumbo plane) than giving support to important principles (despite Mr Patten's own, now internal, lobbying efforts) will not follow suit.

On such an important issue of the day does Europe want to be seen as lagging behind the U.S.? For the moment the answer is a very disappointing and quite counterproductive "yes".


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:



Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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