French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will arrive in China tomorrow for what will be his last official visit in this country. But he can make it much more than that: it’s an opportunity to publicly express his concern about the serious attack on human rights in China, and make it clear that France stands in solidarity with China’s courageous activists, whose space is constantly being narrowed by government repression.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing, China.

© 2013 Reuters

Under the presidency of Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2013, the Chinese government has drastically restricted basic rights. Persecution of political activists and human rights defenders has seen hundreds of lawyers and activists jailed, with many receiving long prison terms. Among them is Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been in prison for more than eight years.

Barring rare symbolic actions, including the recent presentation of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law to Wang Qiaoling, wife of detained human rights lawyer Li Heping, France has been nearly silent on the Chinese government’s crackdown. France’s reticence, spurred in large part by commercial interests, stands in stark contrast to Ayrault’s recent speech on the importance of human rights in French diplomacy. “Fundamental rights and their universality are at the very heart of our identity, and therefore of our policies,” he said. “France’s determination to defend them everywhere… does not go against our interests.… [I]t contributes, in fact, to the promotion of our interests. Because these values are not unrealistic fantasies. They are principles of action.”

A strong declaration, certainly, but a meaningless one if not translated into action. In Beijing, Ayrault should publicly call on the Chinese authorities to stop curtailing free expression rights of activists, release all political prisoners, and end the use of the death penalty. This would show that France’s diplomatic and economic relations cannot come at the expense of its stated principles and that, on the contrary, these principles are a vital component of France’s relations with China.