As the German Ministry of Justice prepares this week to host another rule of law dialogue with Chinese government officials, German authorities would do well to publicly explain what Berlin can hope to accomplish with this exercise.
Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in the spring of 2013, China’s human rights environment has markedly deteriorated. Hundreds of human rights defenders have been detained and prosecuted on baseless charges, including the outspoken human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and the well-known septuagenarian journalist Gao Yu. In March 2015, Beijing authorities detained five feminists for their planned efforts to raise public awareness about sexual harassment. More widely, the government has enabled rather than reined in its abusive state security apparatus, and aggravated rather than mitigated tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Legal reform has not fared much better. The government is now pursuing draft laws on counterterrorism and national security that employ alarmingly vague provisions and have virtually no way to challenge charges. A new draft law regulating foreign funding for civil society groups will dramatically restrict domestic and international groups’ ability to operate in China.
The government has made some modest progress – such as attempting to minimize the use of torture by adopting an “exclusionary rule,” which means confessions obtained through ill-treatment cannot be used in court. But time and again such evidence is not ruled out, and the abusive conduct goes unpunished, demonstrating that the judicial system is not an independent arbiter of laws. Individuals ranging from former senior Communist Party officials to petty criminals languish in detention for months at a time, denied their right to a fair trial.
Germany has long been a leading European voice in speaking out against these abuses, supporting civil society, and trying to persuade officials to adopt more rights-respecting policies through the kinds of dialogues being held this week. But Beijing’s goal in these dialogues is precisely the opposite: to try to keep all criticism behind closed doors.
What could Germany do to make this week’s effort more meaningful? First, it should publicize details about who attended and what topics were discussed. Second, it should hold a parallel dialogue with representatives of civil society from China, who will likely participate in such a discussion in far better faith.
And it must continue to say – at the highest levels, by diverse officials, and in ways audible to an audience inside China – that human rights remain a core interest of German policy towards China.