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The Hon. Tony Abbott, MP

Prime Minister

Parliament House



Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch on the occasion of your first visit as Prime Minister to China in early April. Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights in about 90 countries around the world. Our office in Sydney, established last year, works to support the Australian government to promote human rights consistently in its domestic and foreign policy, as informed by our research.

We urge that you make the protection and promotion of human rights in China a central purpose of your visit.  The Chinese leadership has long used first visits by other leaders as litmus tests of their commitments to human rights, such that it will be important for you to publicly and privately stake out a strong pro-human rights position.  Chinese leaders do not welcome—but do respect—frank statements of positions.  To do so now will be to make your human rights-related diplomacy more effective in coming years; it will also strengthen your position more broadly with Chinese authorities. 

While Australia has recently raised some of the gravest human rights abuses in China through the Universal Periodic Review process at the Human Rights Council, including the death penalty, restrictions on ethnic minorities, and the freedom of expression, it has all too often opted to pursue “quiet diplomacy.”  It is Human Rights Watch’s view that such an approach is utterly ineffective with Chinese authorities: it gives them the ability to confine any embarrassing issues behind closed doors, allows them to dismiss as insincere your more robust interventions on these issues, and fails entirely to empower those in China who continue to hope that the world’s democracies will help amplify their concerns.  Speaking public about a particular human rights issue, such as the death penalty, or an individual cases, like 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, will also provide badly-needed political support to Australia’s virtually inconsequential bilateral human rights dialogue.   

We also understand that the stated purpose of this trip is to boost trade and promote business opportunities.  Yet a more stable, predictable trade relationship and human rights are inextricably linked, particularly given their shared foundations: the free flow of information, an independent legal system, and the ability of individuals to share critical ideas without fear of persecution.  Australian consumers remain at risk until the Chinese government loosens its chokehold on the domestic press to report on substandard products; Australian businesspeople have been vulnerable to the opacities of China’s legal system via “state secrets” and other charges.  Moreover, the strength of the bilateral trade relationship, and the magnitude of Chinese investment in Australia, gives your government a stronger position to advocate for change inside China.  Quite simply, China needs Australia as much as Australia needs China; this reality is leverage that can be used to support the kind of change inside China that will benefit both countries.

We therefore urge that you raise three particular issues during your upcoming trip, in part to fulfill a 2012 commitment that, ''As prime minister I would hope for political reform to match China's economic liberalization. We already have a strong relationship with China based on shared interests. Over time, I hope it will be based more on shared values.”

Rule of law: Human Rights Watch and many others have praised the Chinese government for its November 2013 decision to abolish one of several forms of arbitrary detention, the Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) system.  In announcing this change, which had been advocated for decades by activists and legal reformers inside China as well as many in the international community, Chinese authorities explicitly stated that such detention was unconstitutional because it denied access to a court.  Yet the government still tolerates other legal and extralegal forms of detention, including “Custody and Education” centers, primarily for sex workers, and “black jails,” illegal detention centers for those who petition the central government for justice over local abuses, among others.   We urge that you reiterate Australia’s praise for the abolition of RTL, but note that progress is limited as long as these other forms of arbitrary detention continue to be used.

Anti-corruption: The scope and scale of corruption inside China is not fully known, but it has become an issue of enormous public concern.  State authorities have responded to some of these concerns via politicized trials of high-ranking party officials, such as Bo Xilai.  Yet activists campaigning peacefully against corruption and for public asset disclosure have been harassed and prosecuted in recent months.  In January 2014, authorities sentenced Xu Zhiyong, who is considered an intellectual leader of the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of civil rights activists whose efforts include a nationwide campaign that calls on public officials to disclose their assets, to four years in prison.  Xu was tortured during a previous prison term, and remains at grave risk of similar treatment during this incarceration.  We ask that you urge the charges against him be dropped and that he be given immediate access to adequate medical treatment.

Freedom of expression:  The rapid expansion of the Internet in China has created unprecedented opportunities for people to communicate, share information, and try to hold the government and officials accountable.  Yet the government moved aggressively in 2013 to further restrict on-line communication by placing new limitations on micro-blogging, shutting down influential on-line commentators under the guise of minimizing “illegal rumors,” and issuing a new judicial interpretation applying four existing criminal provisions to Internet expression, providing a more explicit legal basis for charging Internet users.  We ask that you explain the importance to Australia of the freedom of expression and urge that these policies be reversed.

Australia’s approach to China’s human rights should go beyond quiet closed-door diplomacy. Staying quiet would not only do nothing to assist the many courageous Chinese activists pressing for change - many of whom are locked up in China's prisons - but would also undermine Australia's long-term interests.


Elaine Pearson, Australia Director, Human Rights Watch


Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch

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