BENEDICT ROGERS, The Wall street Journal |July 4, 2016
Britain could learn a lot from the way Germany broaches the subject of human rights with Beijing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out again in May on China’s deteriorating human-rights situation. She was on her ninth visit to China, and as she has done on most of her visits, she met openly with dissidents and spoken directly about freedom and the rule of law.
Mrs. Merkel’s approach shows that it is possible to forge a constructive trading relationship with the world’s second-largest economy without sacrificing concern for human rights. That’s a stark contrast to the approach the U.K. has taken in recent years.
Britain’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission last week published a report pointing to a dramatic deterioration in China’s human rights over the past three years. “The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016” draws on evidence from Chinese dissidents, international human-rights organizations and China scholars. Without exception, all evidence suggests that this is, in the words of dissident Yang Jianli, “the darkest moment for Chinese human rights in years.”
Yet unlike Germany, Britain has chosen this moment to build what it calls a “golden era” in Sino-British relations. George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, said he wanted Britain to become China’s “best partner.” Xi Jinping ’s state visit in October saw the red carpet rolled out, with no public mention of human rights.
Meanwhile, in China more than 300 human-rights lawyers have been rounded up since July last year. Across the country, there’s been a severe crackdown on freedom of expression. Numerous dissidents have been arrested. Reports of forced organ harvesting are widespread.
In Zhejiang, freedom of religion is suffering, with more than 1,500 Christian crosses having been destroyed since early 2014. Abuses continue in Tibet and Xinjiang. And in Hong Kong, basic freedoms continue to erode, with the latest, most sensational case being the brazen abduction and forced confession of five booksellers.
The new report, endorsed by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, and Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, calls for a comprehensive and radical review of Britain’s China policy.
Many experts say that China respects those who stand up for their values more than those who kowtow. As James Macgregor, a Shanghai-based American businessman, told the BBC in October, “If you act like a panting puppy, the object of your attention is going to think they’ve got you on a leash. China does not respect people who suck up to them.”
Mr. Patten told a U.S. Congressional hearing two years ago that “there is a very quaint notion that you can never disagree with China,” otherwise “you risk not being able to sell things to China, you risk doing damage to your economy.” Such a belief, he argued, is wrong. “It is ridiculous to suggest that any attempt to stand up for our values or for what we believe in means risking economic damage in our relationship with China.”
Earlier this year Germany’s President Joachim Gauck gave a speech in Shanghai in which he went as far as to condemn dictatorships and argued that “vibrant and active civil society always means an innovative and flexible society.” Mrs. Merkel spoke of the importance of “free dialogue” to enable citizens to “believe in the power of the law, not the law of the powerful.” She told China, “You need an open, pluralistic and free society in order to shape the future successfully.” This from China’s largest European trading partner, whose trade with China rose 6% to $183 billion in 2015. China is Germany’s second-largest trade partner outside the European Union.
As opposition leader in 2007, David Cameron spoke out along similar lines on a visit to China, and again as prime minister three years later. In 2008, as opposition leader, he met the Dalai Lama, and again in 2012 as prime minister, and refused China’s demands for an apology for doing so.
Somehow, in the past three years, Mr. Cameron reversed this bold stand completely. Britain’s timidity, not only on the human-rights crisis in China but also on the grave threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms, is alarming. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Britain has a responsibility to monitor and speak up for the principle of “one country, two systems.” Instead, as Mr. Patten told Parliament, Britain has “kept shtoom . . . in the bizarre anticipation that that would be the best way of developing our relationship with China.” It isn’t. It simply “encourages China to behave badly.”
As Mr. Cameron enters his final months in office, he should conduct a thorough, radical review of the U.K.’s China policy. He should speak out on Hong Kong and stand up for human rights. Return to the approach he took before 2012, and follow Mrs. Merkel’s example. It is surely in Britain’s interests as a trading partner and investor to see the rule of law strengthened. The crackdown on hundreds of lawyers should alarm us. And it cannot be right to talk of a “golden era” when everyone else talks of China’s “darkest moment.”
Mr. Rogers is the deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in the U.K.