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President Jacob Zuma returned from China recently with a raft of new agreements on trade, investment in the nuclear energy and health sectors, and cooperation on marine transport projects, among other things.

But one critical issue appears to have fallen off Zuma’s agenda: China’s worsening human rights record. Perhaps he opted to raise the topic behind closed doors, but, as is often the case with "private diplomacy", we will never know if that is true. Reaffirming "the warm and wonderful relations" between the two countries instead, he appears more likely to have ducked the subject entirely. And while he would not be the first foreign leader to have done so, the failure has particular resonance for SA given its own legacy and its growing economic relationship with China.

In September, SA’s leaders were embarrassed when it was revealed that officials had told the Dalai Lama that, for the third time, he would not be granted a visa. The Dalai Lama, whom Beijing describes as a "terrorist", had wanted to join his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates for a conference.

SA’s timidity on issues it perceives to be sensitive to Beijing is not limited to individuals or issues at home. It has also been disappointing in assessing China’s record at the United Nations Human Rights Council. SA’s election to that body had been seen as a victory for movements against oppression and injustice. But when it has come to demonstrations of solidarity with those inside China fighting for the same in the global venue devoted to that purpose, SA has sold out those activists.

It has made only treacly interventions over China, and earlier this year, when activists attempted to remember a Chinese human rights defender who had died trying to participate in China’s review before that global body, SA disturbingly took Beijing’s side to quash the effort.

Pretoria has voiced no concern over issues that ought to resonate deeply because of its recent history: the shrinking political space and instances of excessive use of force by police against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the alarming number of activists and community organisers detained and prosecuted in the past year on vague charges of "disturbing public order" or "picking quarrels", and the gross abuses against ethnic minority communities across the country but particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Perhaps SA has observed other governments’ efforts to speak up about human rights violations in China and simply decided it’s too difficult; perhaps it has wholly bought into the Chinese government’s view, as noted by President Xi Jinping at a press conference with US President Barack Obama last month, that China has made tremendous progress on human rights, a "fact", it claims, "recognised by all the people in the world". SA seems eager not to be bothered with this issue, presumably to ensure the economic relationship continues to deepen.

But even if all SA cares about is the trade relationship, it cannot avoid human rights issues in China. China’s deeply politicised judicial system is rarely capable of producing impartial decisions based on the rule of law, whether they are about trade or freedom of expression.

Pervasive restrictions on the media in China mean tainted products enter the domestic and international market; journalists are not allowed to write freely on product safety or public health problems that know no borders.

International chambers of commerce have in recent months published unprecedented reports documenting the harassment by local authorities of their members in China, and the fact that they are disproportionately scrutinised relative to Chinese companies. International business people have been caught in legal disputes — some on charges they have violated China’s state secrets laws. Prosecutions on those charges gut the few existing protections for the defence.

The Chinese government’s willingness and ability to uphold its many human rights commitments and to be a good trade partner are not two different goals that pull in different directions. SA should want better human rights protection in China because it knows all too well what it is like to live without them. But even if all SA wants is a source of investment and a market for its goods, it has a great deal of work to do in supporting activists in China who pay a terrible price for freedom of expression, an independent judicial system and the right to share their views peacefully without fear of reprisal.

Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch.


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