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UK’s May Needs to Get Tough with China on Rights

Brexit Means Trade, Not Growing Repression, Will Likely Dominate Beijing Visit

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) greets China's Vice Premier, Ma Kai, as he arrives in 10 Downing Street, in London November 9, 2016 in London. © 2016 Reuters

In a recent foreign policy speech, Prime Minister Theresa May said that Britain is defined by the, “fundamental values of fairness, justice, and human rights,” and vowed to use Britain’s “influence in the world for good.” But, with her political future uncertain and questions increasingly raised about Britain’s international influence as it heads towards Brexit, May’s trip to China this week will put her claims to the test.

Since President Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency in 2013, there has been an alarming deterioration in human rights conditions across the country, with hundreds of human rights defenders, lawyers, and activists arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned. Many have been tortured. The charges against those arrested are invariably preposterous – for example, when they are accused of “inciting subversion” for simply advocating political reform.

The Chinese government has intensified its assault on free expression. China has moved beyond mere internet censorship via the so-called Great Firewall to build a national surveillance system that would make George Orwell proud – taking DNA from whole populations in ethnic minority regions and building “big data” platforms for police. The government severely restricts religious freedom, has stepped up repression against the Uyghurs and Tibetans, and is interfering politically in Hong Kong, despite commitments by China to respect its autonomy.

Yet Britain’s response to China’s growing repression has been weak and pusillanimous. Britain has been significantly less outspoken about rights violations than Germany, for example. Although British ministers have criticized some abuses, trade and investment opportunities have provided a handy excuse to downplay the crackdown, and Britain’s departure from the European Union is only likely to reinforce that focus.

Of course, May should discuss trade, investment, climate change, North Korea and a range of other geopolitical issues with President Xi. But if she genuinely wants Britain to use its global influence “for good,” she should not remain silent when rights are being trampled underfoot by the Chinese government.

Public criticism on human rights is sometimes dismissed as megaphone diplomacy, but clear public statements of concern draw wider attention to victims of government repression, and often help protect them from the very worst treatment by the authorities. That is what China’s indefatigable human rights activists consistently tell us – and it is what they would tell Prime Minister May should she demonstrate the courage to meet them.

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