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What Australia Needs to Ask When China Visits

Australia’s Foreign Minister Should Use Premier Li’s Visit to Address Human Rights

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will land in Australia for an official visit later this week. On the eve of his visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivered an unusually sharp warning to China on its need to move towards democracy. “While non-democracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system…[h]istory shows that the embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability,” Bishop said during a speech in Singapore on March 13.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (2nd L) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (2nd R) hold a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, February 17, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Bishop’s message to Beijing is certainly refreshing – but will she and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull follow it up publicly and directly with Li?  

Chinese authorities are cracking down harshly on civil society groups and democracy activists, with many now languishing in prison for peaceful dissent, like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti. Will Bishop or Turnbull publicly call on Li to release them, and to allow Chinese citizens to exercise their right to free expression and association?

Li’s visit is said to be about “mutual commitment” to encourage trade and investment. But trade and investment flourish with transparency, the free flow of information, and an uncensored internet, so companies can make informed decisions. Will Bishop urge Li to roll back increasingly severe restrictions on the internet and the media?

Finalizing details of an extradition treaty is also on the agenda. But consider China’s deeply politicized legal system, where basic fair trial rights are chronically denied and defendants often face ill-treatment and torture. Will Bishop use negotiations to set clear benchmarks for legal reform – freeing human rights lawyers, repealing abusive laws, abolishing the unlawful “shuanggui” detention system, taking steps to end torture – for China to meet before going down that road?

Far too few leaders of democracies bother to call out China’s autocratic rule, especially about the rights to political participation, so Bishop’s comments are indeed welcome. But they’ll be even more welcome when she and other Australian officials use their leverage to press for actual and meaningful change in China. 

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