Human Rights Watch
World Report 2007
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Audio Commentary

Press Conference

Photography - Year in Review

News Release





As US credibility on human rights diminished, China has often made matters worse. Its burgeoning economy and thirst for natural resources have led it to play a more assertive international role, but it has studiously avoided using that influence to promote human rights. Instead, it insists on dealing with other governments, in the words of President Hu Jintao, “without any political strings.” Indeed, China’s position on human rights ranges from indifference to hostility.

Concerns about hypocrisy and blowback might lie behind China’s reluctance to defend rights that it routinely violates at home—such as those that sustain an independent civil society and the rule of law. Yet there are areas where such fears are less acute and should not constrain China. At least since the repression of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement, China has eschewed mass murder, let alone mass ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. China thus could credibly defend people facing such severe oppression, such as the people of Darfur or ethnic minorities in Burma. Yet it has done too little too late. Part of the explanation is its expressed ideological discomfort with what it calls “interference in the internal affairs” of other countries. Part is prioritization of its own quest for natural resource over the survival of people whose land yields those resources. Whatever the balance of considerations, China has done far less than it should.

There are signs that on certain matters, not always involving human rights, China’s reluctance to meddle in others’ affairs might be easing somewhat. In September, China seemed temporarily to suspend oil deliveries to North Korea because of Pyongyang’s testing of a long-range missile. In October, after North Korea’s first nuclear test, China reportedly threatened additional fuel suspensions until Pyongyang returned to the negotiating table. In November China’s permanent representative to the UN, Wang Guangya, applied some, though insufficient, pressure on Sudan to agree to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. China is also increasing the number of troops it offers to UN peacekeeping efforts.

Yet even though a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the deployment of a protection force in Darfur was premised on Khartoum’s consent, China could bring itself only to abstain on the resolution, not support it. It is bad enough that China joined with other council members to reduce the international “responsibility to protect”—a doctrine aimed at preventing mass atrocities—to asking the murderers’ permission to protect their victims. But China has made matters worse by refusing to use, or blocking, key sources of leverage to secure that consent.

Because China purchases a reported two-thirds of Sudan’s oil exports and is the largest investor in its oil industry, Sudan’s economy is booming, emboldening Khartoum to pursue its slaughter in Darfur and leaving it flush with funds to purchase arms (sometimes Chinese) for the fighting. Cutting off that revenue would make Khartoum far more susceptible to pressure to stop the killing in Darfur and allow the deployment of a protection force. Yet while China has now shown itself willing to invoke oil sanctions with respect to North Korea, it is not known to have done anything of the kind for Darfur. Indeed, it has allowed the UN Security Council only to ban travel and freeze assets for four individuals—two rebel commanders, a Janjaweed militia leader, and a former army officer—none of them a senior government official. If China wants to avoid the impression that it is more interested in continuing the flow of oil to its growing economy (some 4 to 7 percent of which comes from Sudan) than in staunching the flow of blood in Darfur, it should step up its public efforts to press Khartoum to cooperate.

The problem extends beyond Darfur:

  • China remains a source of investment and military supplies for Zimbabwe despite President Mugabe’s war on his people—the mass eviction of some 700,000 urban poor perceived as potential supporters of the political opposition, the bulldozing of their homes, the routine arbitrary detention and torture of opposition supporters, and the destruction of the country’s economy. By disrupting their access to treatment, the evictions have had a particularly devastating impact on tens of thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS.
  • By making some US$5 billion in no-strings-attached loans to Angola, China effectively undermined efforts by the International Monetary Fund to promote greater budgetary transparency to stop the government’s looting of the national treasury—some $4 billion from 1997 to 2002, the equivalent of Angola’s entire budget for social programs during that period.
  • After Uzbekistan’s government forces massacred hundreds of demonstrators in Andijan in May 2005, China greeted the country’s president, Islam Karimov, with a 21-gun salute and announced a US$600 million oil deal. In 2006 China participated in joint military exercises with Uzbekistan and signed a two-year cooperation protocol.
  • China is more concerned about stemming the flow of refugees from North Korea than stopping the grave threats to their lives caused by the ruthless and economically incompetent government of Kim Jong Il. Despite North Korea’s pervasive repression, China pretends that those fleeing North Korea are all economic migrants and refuses even to cooperate with the UN special rapporteur investigating human rights conditions in North Korea or to allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees access to refugees congregating near the North Korean border. There is no evidence that China has exerted pressure on Pyongyang for its repression comparable to the pressure apparently exerted with respect to its nuclear and long-range missile tests. China does look the other way as some refugees flee through it to third countries, but it could do much more.
  • China is the most generous supporter of the Burmese military government, showing more interest in securing access to a deep water port and Burmese natural resources than in supporting the rights of the long-suffering Burmese people. In many parts of southeast Asia, China is showering aid on rights-abusing governments.

China is not the first government to place its own economic and political interests above those of the world’s poor and unfortunate. Imperial powers have long done the same and worse. But the Chinese Communist Party is, at least in theory, built on an ideology of looking out for everyone’s basic needs. Beijing cultivates a profile of friend to the developing world. It prides itself on creating jobs and relieving poverty. Increasingly it is contributing foreign assistance. But some of its behavior runs counter to those principles.

The repressive governments it supports are crushing and impoverishing their people. Newly rich oil magnates in Khartoum may toast the Chinese from their posh cafes along the banks of the Nile, but the uprooted and destitute people of Darfur do not. Robert Mugabe may thank the Chinese government for his ability to cling to power, but the hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans rendered homeless by his Operation Clean the Filth do not. The Burmese military, with Chinese help, is building a splendid new capital and enjoys access to a vast array of weapons, but the Burmese people live in squalor and fear. If China is to gain the international respect it craves, it must shun—not subsidize—these governments.

It is hard to believe that the Chinese government wants to be known as the supporter of tyrants, the exploiter of the impoverished. We would hope a government that eagerly sought the symbol of international fair play and cooperation—the Olympic Games—would not dispense with international solidarity when it comes to the victims of its tyrannical partners. But change will come only if China is called to task for its ugly actions. For decades, the Chinese government was so repressive, its global role so limited, that few looked for anything from Beijing but hostility toward human rights. China did not disappoint. Today, we can hardly expect better if no government is willing even to ask.

When pointedly confronted on human rights, the Chinese government has made some concessions. At his meeting with President Bush in April, President Hu said that, “on the basis of mutual respect and equality,” the Chinese government would be “ready…to promote the world’s cause of human rights.” By abstaining on Darfur, China allowed passage of UN Security Council resolutions authorizing the deployment of a UN protection force in Darfur and the investigation of atrocities by the International Criminal Court. It also, as noted, has applied some limited pressure on Khartoum.

Yet governments that are the traditional proponents of human rights are so busy cutting their own trade deals with China that they rarely voice concern about Beijing’s inhumane behavior at home or abroad. If they were true to their principles, they would condemn China’s rising role in global repression. Only by ensuring that China pays with its reputation for its misconduct is there any chance of encouraging better behavior.