Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament 1999 - 2019

EU Perspectives on Human Rights in China

US Embassy, Brussels - November 30th 2004

China as the world’s most populated country with 1.3 billion people shares with the world’s next largest country, India, a common challenge which they pose to the EU in terms of economic competition but at the same time both offering a huge opportunity for exports into such massive and rapidly growing markets. China is now the EU’s second largest trading partner after the USA. However the parallels with India then diverge as not only is China focusing strongly on its industrial and manufacturing sectors, unlike India which has specialised in service sector development, but also China with its corresponding more rapid rise in national income has barely reformed at all in terms of human rights or democracy, unlike multicultural, secular, democratic India. The latter is due to overtake China in population in the next twenty years and demonstrates that vast size per se does not preclude a functioning democracy.

Recently, and not surprisingly perhaps, China along with Russia was alone in the world in rushing to the premature recognition of Mr Yanukovich as President of Ukraine. Clearly free, fair and transparent elections are not considered by China as an essential part of the consent required for governing a modern country. Perhaps also China had a sense of déjà vu in seeing the thousands gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square being reminiscent of their own Tiananmen Square protests 15 years ago, which they brutally put down.

The British Foreign office’s annual report for 2004, the most comprehensive of its kind in the EU, gives a mixed verdict in terms of China’s improvement in human rights with outright condemnation of China’s extensive use of the death penalty, (even for what we in the west would never regard as capital crimes such as corruption, pimping, drug offences and tax fraud), it’s systematic use of torture of dissidents, and restrictions on freedom of speech and expression (for instance China recently arrested a Chinese researcher for the New York Times and notoriously censors internet sites including access to NGO’s like Amnesty International). China is criticised strongly for its lack of freedom of association and religion, in particular targeting Falun Gong practitioners but also Muslim, Buddhist and unregistered Christian groups. Most recently China has encountered serious ethnic and religious minority problems including violent outbreaks in its Muslim communities. Last month this centred on the Huis, but there is also the longer running differences with the Uighur community in Xinjiang, who have, like their Turkic kinsmen elsewhere in central Asia such as Uzbekistan, developed dangerous links with Al Quaeda through the banned resistance group, the so called Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement. In fairness Chinese nationals have indeed been targets of Islamic terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. China routinely forbids all religious education in schools to minors.

Much longer standing and better known in the west is the repression in Tibet, where following invasion 45 years ago some 20% of its population (1.2 million) was killed which was followed by a campaign of political re-education of Tibetans remaining in the territory and a massive movement of Han Chinese into Tibet. The European Parliament recently debated in advance of the 7th EU-China summit meeting this 8th December the case of a Tibetan Buddhist monk Tenzen Deleg Rinpoche who faces imminent execution on charges of advocating Tibetan independence and planting explosives in Sichuan Province. After alleged torture lasting several months he “confessed” to his crimes but in court shouted-out his innocence and his suspension of execution expires the 2nd of December. In contrast China recently released Tibet’s longest serving prisoners of conscience, Ngawang Sangdrol and Jigme Sangpo.

Amnesty International has repeatedly condemned China for human rights abuses claiming some 300 00 political prisoners in detention, with torture and executions commonplace and these topics have repeatedly been raised at EU-China summits since 1995 based on EU heads of delegations in Beijing’s detailed reports to the Council of Ministers. For instance at the October 2003 summit the issue of China and accession to the International Criminal Court was raised as so far China has refused to sign the Rome Statute. At the November 2003 six monthly EU-China human rights dialogue meeting (started in 1997) the issue of discrimination against persons suffering from HIV/AIDS was raised.

Recently much of the debate has focused on the June 1989 EU Arms Export Embargo imposed on China following the Tiananmen Square brutal killing of innocent protesters and the ongoing imprisonment of many who were never subjected to a fair trial. To this day mothers of those killed or activists demanding a re-evaluation of the 1989 demonstrations face imprisonment. Simultaneously in 1989 the USA also imposed an arms export ban and remains committed to maintaining it on the grounds of continuing human rights violations as well as the very real concern these arms could be used against its democratic ally, Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a renegade province but the USA28/11/200428/11/2004 rightly believes more arms to China will further threaten cross-strait stability, where already there are 600 Chinese missiles pointed at the island. China in turn feels threatened by President Chen’s increasing independence leanings.

Furthermore no existing mechanism prevents the use, were such EU arms to become available, either for internal repression or for re-export to other brutal regimes friendly with China such as North Korea. China has a poor record historically in its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction having helped Pakistan build its atom bomb in the past and China’s current role in missile and rocket propulsion material sales to countries like Iran remains unclear. Although under the “Six-Party talks” China is committed to stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme but China has an appalling record of returning refugees to North Korea, against its commitments under the UN Geneva Refugee Convention, where they face imprisonment and execution. Some states in the EU, with a strong lead taken by France and Germany, with Britain and Italy not far behind but strongly opposed by Holland, Scandinavian and former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe familiar with Communist repression, claim this unduly critical thinking is outdated. They claim it does not reflect the real human rights improvements in China, such as withdrawal of the controversial repressive laws proposed under Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law.

France in particular claims this ban labels China unfairly as a pariah, and penalizes European jobs compared to Russia, which enjoys a lively arms trade with its neighbour. France believes lifting the embargo would be symbolic and recognise China’s essential role in fighting international Islamist terrorism (Libya had such EU restrictions lifted last October ostensibly for joining the fight against terrorism and abandoning its WMD programme). China apologists claim that the ongoing 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports would suffice to limit arms sales- conveniently forgetting the Code of Conduct is a voluntary one and not enforceable. Neither is there yet any other binding international code of conduct on arms exports. It is also noteworthy that exporting arms to China by EU member states would have serious repercussions on EU-US relations as the US “National Defense Authorisation Act” precludes future business relations with anyone trading arms with China. The US is also legally obliged to ensure Taiwan can defend itself adequately under the Taiwan Relations Act.

The European Parliament strongly voted cross party and nationality on 17th November this year against lifting the ban, until the EU Code of Conduct becomes binding and as an ongoing measure required to politically protest at the continuing Chinese human rights violations. It is also worth pointing out that non-arms EU-China trade is flourishing, following WTO accession in 2001, and unaffected by the ban, and that lifting the ban could spark off an arms race between China and Taiwan who would then both have less funds to invest in the Asia-Pacific region or import EU goods, which overall would neither help the EU nor the rest of the global economy.

China, under its new President Hu and Premier Wen still remains poorly compliant with the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which it is dragging its feet over ratifying, having agreed in principle to observe its contents. For instance China detains people purely for expressing personal opinions, illustrated by it recently torturing Mao Hengfeng in custody at a “re-education through labour camp” (which allows detention for up to three years without charge or trial), for protesting at China’s family planning policies, having been herself subject to a forced abortion. China has the unenviable record of having the youngest political prisoner in the world, when the Panchen Lama was arrested aged 6. China recently refused a visit by a UN Torture researcher citing scheduling problems.

Mindful of these abuses the USA, and still critical of China’s failure to comply with promises made in 2002, only recently agreed to restart the bilateral human rights dialogue. As recently as last March 2004, the USA, threatened a UN resolution criticising China’s human rights’ situation but it failed to get a majority on the 53 nations UN Human Rights Commission, vulnerable to anti-American political pressures.

There can be no doubt the EU’s Arms Embargo should clearly stay and one can only wonder at the EU’s wisdom of allowing Chinese participation in the Galileo GPS system with military dual use and what long term danger that might pose to civilised peaceful Taiwan.
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