Until recently, discussions on the human rights policies of the Chinese government focused solely on how domestic policies affected the country’s own citizens. But as China’s world influence grows, such discussions are no longer so simple. Today, there is much more focus on China as a global force, from its relations with regimes that perpetuate human rights abuses to Beijing’s highly anticipated hosting of the 2008 Olympics, the most international of events. Indeed, the activities and image of China beyond its borders are shifting conversations of “human rights in China”—concentrated on its internal situation—to “human rights and China,” with greater emphasis than ever before placed on the country’s influence around the world.

One major effect of fixating on the “global China” is that attention to China’s human rights situation at home diminishes. This may be contributing to the stagnation of some bilateral human rights dialogues with Beijing and, in several cases, rejection of the dialogues altogether. In October, citing anger over a visit by the Dalai Lama to Berlin, Beijing cancelled its human rights dialogue with Germany that was scheduled for December. At present, only four bilateral dialogues are functioning—those with the European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Australia. A potential result of a breakdown in the dialogues is that China can go unaccountable for some of its human rights problems that have regularly come up in bilateral talks.

Foreign diversions from the dialogue

Increasingly, attention on China’s own human rights issues is being diverted abroad to places where China’s impact is being felt the most, particularly in countries where it does business. China is now involved in overseas activities that bear profound human rights implications, and a sampling of China’s dealings with some of its allies suggests that its “international” human rights profile is bleak.

China’s aggressive strategy to acquire oil and gas resources, for instance, has entailed supporting regimes infamous for human rights abuses. Chinese interests—both government and private—invested billions of dollars in oil and gas in Sudan even as the genocide in Darfur raged on. Iran and Burma, no strangers to criticism for human rights violations in their countries, also have signed huge contracts to sell natural gas to China.

China spoke alone among world powers when it endorsed the tainted 2005 re-election of its friend Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has long been reliant on Chinese aid, including provisions of military equipment, vast infrastructure, and consumer goods, while citizens of his country face political and media repression and food shortages. It is not a coincidence that many recipients of Chinese investment and other assistance have stood with Beijing when it has confronted UN resolutions on its human rights record: Such stances promote the idea of “non-interference in internal affairs” that can protect human rights abusers, including China, from international scrutiny and potential repercussions for their domestic rights problems.

Dialogue no longer “Made in China”

A shift away from familiar human rights terrain in China has led to neglect in several areas of the rights discussions, including topics at the core of dialogues China has held with foreign bodies. Less engagement on China’s domestic rights conditions has consequences that can be felt by Chinese throughout the country, from its political prisoners to millions of common workers fueling the country’s booming economy.

One aspect of the human rights dialogue that has suffered is the submission of individual prisoner lists to Chinese government ministries, which are increasingly resistant to accepting and responding to names of individuals jailed in Chinese prisons. Since the early 1990s, prisoner lists have been used in formal dialogues by Dui Hua and other NGOs and governments. The lists reflect a “domestication” of the dialogue that has kept the spotlight on China’s own people and criminal justice system. Reluctance—and sometimes refusal—by China’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deal with prisoner lists has greatly diminished the effectiveness of perhaps the most focused tool used to engage Beijing on internal rights issues. The low level of exchange on prisoners further exemplifies how the dialogue is being maneuvered away from China’s domestic issues.

The rejection of prisoner lists makes it difficult to advocate for long-serving (and often low-profile) prisoners who some may consider “anonymous” figures from “historical” human rights struggles. Besides the passing of time, China’s meteoric rise has partly obscured human rights violations linked to the pro-democracy movement of 1989 that accelerated the field of human rights advocacy for Chinese dissidents. Even those put in prison after the more recent crackdown on the China Democracy Party in the late 1990s are given short shrift in talk on China’s human rights. There is little doubt Beijing benefits from the lack of focus on these domestic incidents and the individuals jailed for their involvement in them. (Dui Hua maintains a keen interest in such prisoners, both sharing information on known cases, no matter how obscure, and searching for new ones. In this issue of Dialogue, the New Research & Prisoner Information section includes updates on three prisoners from 1989.)

Human rights concerns in China beyond the treatment of prisoners are being short-changed as well. Although promoting labor rights for Chinese people was once central to talk on rights, it is becoming less convenient to mention the problem of weak worker protections in the world’s largest manufacturing country, including flagrant labor violations common in China’s factories. Many observers also appear to shrug off the thousands of deaths that occur in China’s coal mines every year. Even the revelation this past summer of a horrific, if isolated, incident—Chinese enslaved in a Dickensian brick factory—was met with shock that seemed to pass quickly.

Slow to meet global commitments

As a means to confront human rights abuses in other nations, China looked primed to lessen its support for renegade regimes in the spring of 2006. At that time, a senior Chinese diplomat told Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm that Beijing would address human rights issues in third countries by using its bilateral dialogues with foreign governments—originally created, ironically, to deal with China’s own rights problems—to coordinate policy on major world crises. Certainly, Beijing was motivated to burnish its image for the Olympics and use its “soft power” in ways more acceptable to the global community and in line with its influential seat on the UN Security Council.

The diplomat told Kamm that helping stop the genocide in Darfur would be “the first example” of the new policy. But intense international pressure was necessary for the Chinese government to move away from its economic support of Sudan and its president, Omar al-Bashir. Only this summer did Beijing begin to cooperate with UN-led initiatives aimed to relieve the genocide. As part of this process, China’s appointment of a special envoy and deployment of military engineers were positive moves that may belatedly improve its human rights image after years of investment in Sudan’s leadership.

After a good deal of foreign persuasion, China has taken more steps recently to tone down support for other regimes perpetuating human rights abuses. In the case of Zimbabwe, China finally gave in to widespread criticism—and the grim realities in that African country—by backing away from new investments there and instead offering Mugabe only humanitarian aid. And during September’s violent crackdown on monk-led protests in Burma, China did not take an especially critical stance against the Burmese military junta but agreed to a statement of concern by the UN Security Council. Beijing also urged the junta to adopt diplomatic means to resolve the unrest, and has been credited with getting the military leaders to consent to receive the UN’s Special Envoy on Myanmar.

Beijing does deserve kudos for helping bring about North Korea’s agreement to stop its nuclear reactor activities. But China has done little to address a human rights crisis along the countries’ shared border, where China enforces a repatriation policy for North Korean refugees that defies the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which China ratified in 1982. Conservative estimates put the number of North Koreans who have fled to China to escape abuses and repression in the tens of thousands. Whenever possible, China forcibly repatriates these asylum-seekers to North Korea, where they face prison sentences, torture, and perhaps execution. The fate of some North Korean women who are not caught and sent back can be dismal; many are trafficked and sold as wives inside China and then may be vulnerable to abuse from their Chinese buyers.

Domestically, Beijing appears more resistant than ever to implementing internationally-recognized human rights for its own people, with many pledges going unfulfilled. China signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1998 but has yet to ratify it. Among its provisions, the ICCPR bars arbitrary detention, a common practice in China with great significance for any dialogue on criminal justice. Also, after years of wrangling, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is still awaiting permission to visit Chinese prisons—a pledge made by Beijing in 1993. China has ratified other international rights agreements, such as the UN Convention Against Torture, but often fails to enforce them in practice.

Limited implementation of international human rights agreements has resulted in both losses and gains for China on the human rights ledger. Despite China’s resistance to making good on commitments at home—and its slow response to deter other countries from abusing their people—it remains to be seen how these degrees of non-compliance will dent China’s human rights image in the longer term.

Can we go home again?

For policy bodies that wish to promote human rights inside China, the implications of a local-to-global shift in rights discussions are considerable—and they are not lost on Beijing. International opinion runs strongly against the policies of Bashir, Mugabe, the Burmese junta, and North Korea’s Kim Jung Il. Any assistance China can provide in mitigating injustices in these leaders’ countries (and other places) will benefit both Beijing and western diplomats, who have long implored China to make better use of its burgeoning soft power.

By exercising better judgment, China has seen that backing off of reckless international allegiances and policies is a good way to exhibit that power while at the same time supporting human rights issues of interest to western countries. One major concern, then, is that China may leverage any human rights progress where it has influence abroad as demonstration of an overall commitment to improving human rights—but without discussing and resolving its own domestic rights problems.

China’s activities overseas will continue to expand, adding more accomplishments and relationships to its portfolio as a global power. Given this inevitability, bodies that conduct human rights talks with Beijing may have to reassess how a dialogue can return to “local Chinese” issues that directly affect citizens of the country. Perhaps this will happen long after the pageantry of the Games has subsided and events continue to unfold in other human rights hotspots. If so, those who engage Beijing can try to shift the dialogue closer to where it started while staying mindful of China’s “global footprint,” which has become both a point of distraction and engagement on human rights.