China UK visit: talk of trade mustn’t mean silence on human rights

David Cameron meets Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao today as part of Mr Wen’s 3-day visit to the UK. There were always going to be two issues to discuss and they’ve both been mentioned in media reporting so far: trade and human rights. Some are already saying that trade has won out - trade deals worth £1.4 billion were announced today after all – but the UK Prime Minister is insisting otherwise, saying that human rights are “not off-limits” during their talks.The key questions that everyone’s asking haven’t really changed since the Beijing Olympics: should the UK be meeting/engaging/doing business with China when their human rights record is so bad? Or conversely, should the UK be raising human rights issues if that might jeopardise a massive trade deal?That the Chinese authorities pay little heed to the human rights of their citizens is in little doubt, even if the recent conditional release of two of the country’s best-known dissidents, artist Ai Weiwei and activist Hu Jia, has helped silence some protests. At least 130 activists, lawyers, bloggers and low level ‘netizens’ have been detained, forcibly disappeared, harassed and imprisoned within their homes since February.The sweeping action against dissenters has been prompted by government fears of a “Jasmine Revolution” inspired by the Middle East and North Africa. Ai Weiwei says he is not allowed to give interviews to media, or use Twitter or other social media. There also appear to be restrictions on where he can go. And the BBC’s Damian Grammaticus gives a telling description of the post-release conditions placed upon Hu Jia:“Around his compound there is a huge police deployment, uniformed officers at every gate, plainclothes security filming people. Unmarked cars followed us, then security men told us to leave.Hu Jia's sentence included, in China's legal jargon, being 'deprived of his political rights' for 12 months after release. That means he can't talk to the media, publish anything, attend any public rallies or set up or join any form of organisation. He may also find his ability to work, to move freely and to live a normal life are restricted.”

As for the rights and wrongs of engagement, it’s far from simple. I don’t buy for a second the argument that economic engagement with China, in and of itself, will lead to positive developments in terms of human rights. Why should it unless it’s accompanied by tough talk about political freedoms? But raising human rights issues at these meetings, and protesting when the Chinese Premier visits, is a different matter. Gone are the days when China was isolated and appeared not to care what other nations thought of it. It’s hard to imagine that the release of Ai Weiwei, shortly before a visit to the UK and Germany where he has such vocal support, was a coincidence. It shows that protests – from activists, diplomats and politicians – can make a difference.At the same time we shouldn’t be hoodwinked by Ai Weiwei’s release into thinking that it’s “job done”. Thousands of people remain unfairly imprisoned in China. Those who’ve been released are muzzled to stop them speaking out. Lawyers who take up human rights cases are harassed and intimidated, even jailed. And this crackdown has intensified since the ‘Arab Spring’. It’s essential that world leaders like David Cameron keeps asking difficult questions of Wen Jiabao: talk of trade mustn’t mean silence on human rights. Activist Mao Hengfeng, for example, was detained again in February as part of the crackdown by the Chinese authorities. She’s our featured case in the Observer this week, part of the work we’re doing with the paper to mark Amnesty’s 50th birthday. Find out more, and take action to help free her, via our Amnesty/Observer appeal.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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