China – it’s not Black and White

China is never far from the headlines. In the last week the Daily Mail ran a banner feature on Chinese citizens being banned from using Pizza Hut salad bars due to their fondness for building giant ‘salad towers’ of food.

Apple’s legendary mistreatment by plausible deniability of factory workers paid a pittance to assemble iPads is now reported to be under investigation by the American company, and Hollywood studios are claiming China has not paid their share of box office takings – could the banning of Despicable Me 2 be related?

However, in Scotland, barely a story about China is printed without mention of The Pandas (Sweetie and Sunshine to their friends) who are fast becoming more popular than Edinburgh Castle as a tourist attraction – I dread to think what will happen if they manage to breed.

In fact, ahead of his recent trade mission to Mainland China Scotland’s Minister for External Affairs, Humza Yousaf, tweeted “On route to China to strengthen our two nations' co-operation - Something tells me I'll be asked about Pandas!”

Sadly, we didn’t receive any updates while the Minister (and prolific tweeter) was in China as Twitter is just one of the sites banned in the Mainland as freedom of expression is not a concept endorsed by the Chinese government.

In advance of this visit, I had meetings with Scottish Government officials to discuss the human rights landscape in China. We are regularly invited to do this in advance of international missions. What was interesting about this meeting was that we didn’t only talk about the issues but also about how to raise them in an effective way, turning knowledge into opportunity for influence on human rights.

Post 1989 and Tiananmen Square the world’s engagement with China began to include human rights as an essential part of the discourse. In 1995 the EU - China Dialogue began, with twice-yearly meetings to focus on human rights.

There is an emphasis on ‘quiet diplomacy’ in this dialogue and the use of trade links to establish relationships and co-operation on human rights issues. It is certainly clear that China’s place in the world as an economic super power has advanced, whether quiet diplomacy on human rights has been effective remains contended.

Critics can look to the implementation of the death penalty – its use has decreased globally while China executes more of its own people than all of the other countries in the world put together.

However, there may be hope for human rights. Suprisingly, the Head of the Party’s National Central Political and Legal Committee Meng Jianzhu is quoted as saying that China will stop using Re-Education Through Labour Camps by the end of 2013, a huge step forward for human rights if achieved. The fact that this is being reported in China gives some hope that change may come about and the Scottish Government can lend its encouragement in its international missions.

Last December, the Scottish Government’s China Plan was updated. The introduction references four Guiding Principles for engagement with China. The second of these is ‘Respect for Human Rights and the Rule of Law’. Not just because of commitments to uphold international standards but also as entrepreneurs keen to take advantage of the growing China market know, predictability and social stability are essential contributors to sustained economic growth.

While a soft and cuddly side of China continues to draw the crowds to Edinburgh Zoo, we see more shades of grey in actions taken to support the progressive realisation of human rights in China.

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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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