Means of Engagement

Twenty years have passed since China initiated a policy of bilateral human rights dialogues. By the late 1990s, China was holding annual dialogues with Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States, and biannual dialogues with the European Union and the United Kingdom. Such dialogues enabled foreign governments to submit lists of cases of concern directly to high-ranking officials and conduct site visits to “sensitive” areas like the ethnic regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, and the “house churches” of Zhejiang Province.

Several dialogues, notably those with the United States and European Union, have been supplemented by legal seminars open to non-governmental organizations. As with the dialogues themselves, the legal seminars are held alternately in Beijing and in the capitals of foreign hosts.

China has also held bilateral consultations and exchanges on human rights with a number of countries, such as Sweden, over the last decade. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) considers these consultations ad hoc opportunities to discuss international issues like the conflict in Darfur or the humanitarian crisis in North Korea.

Within the UN Human Rights Council, China has maximized its presence by cooperating with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and subordinate Special Procedures. It has ratified a number of human rights treaties, like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in March 2001; signed others, like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October 1998; and holds one of the best records of responding to complaints and urgent appeals by Special Procedures. China has hosted visits by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the special rapporteur on torture, and most recently in late 2010, the special rapporteur on the right to food.

Managing China’s human rights diplomacy is the MFA’s Department of International Organizations and Conferences and its subordinate Human Rights Division. International department diplomats rank among China’s most skilled and accomplished officials, spending five to 10 years working on human rights issues either in Beijing or in Geneva and New York. (In comparison, their Western counterparts tend to have one to two years’ experience in human rights.) They know the issues, the history, and the cases and are increasingly knowledgeable about police brutality, state controls over religion, and the treatment of ethnic minorities—most recently the Roma in central Europe and the Sami in Scandinavia—in the countries of their dialogue and consultation partners.

The MFA does not, however, hold a monopoly on human rights programs with foreign bodies. The Ministry of Labor actively participates in discussions on workers’ rights with the International Labor Organization in Geneva. The United Front Department of the Communist Party of China handles talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama; the State Administration of Religious Affairs conducts the on-again, off-again talks with the Vatican on the normalization of relations between China and the Holy See; and the ministries of justice and public security are engaging the International Committee of the Red Cross on issues related to health in detention. The Supreme People’s Court is working closely on reforming China’s juvenile justice system with The Dui Hua Foundation.

Shifting Goals

China’s goals in launching the first dialogues in 1991 were two-fold: 1) to blunt the threat of economic sanctions in the United States, notably the removal of its Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status, and 2) to lessen and eventually remove the chance of censure at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (now the Human Rights Council) in Geneva.

By the late 1990s, these goals had been achieved. MFN was secure and with China’s entry in the World Trade Organization, permanent. With the start of dialogues with the European Union in 1995 and Norway, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom in 1997, the chance that China would be censured by the passage of a country-specific resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission was greatly diminished. The United States was left, for most years, to sponsor the “China resolution” by itself and see it blocked from consideration by Chinese allies.

With its principal goals achieved, Beijing saw the incentive for holding human rights dialogues diminish but not disappear. Dialogues could smooth state visits and bolstered China’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Beijing officials also came to realize that Western politicians needed the dialogues to assuage their publics and thus found them useful for political wrangling. Most significantly, by continuing to hold bilateral dialogues, Beijing felt justified in keeping human rights out of high-level meetings—dialogues became a means of marginalizing China’s human rights record.

Shifting Gears

Although Beijing continues to see their value, human rights dialogues have been reduced in number, frequency, and length. The United States and Canada have suspended dialogues for a perceived lack of improvement in China’s human rights situation. Western governments express concern that the dialogues are ineffective and give cover for excluding rights issues from other fora. For the West, the dialogues’ raison d’être is promoting tangible improvement in China’s human rights situation. For China, it’s persuading the West that tangible improvement is steadily occurring.

While Western decisions to suspend dialogues are rooted in perceived faults of the dialogues themselves, China’s decisions to cancel or suspend are often matters of overarching national pride: In 1999 NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and China cancelled its dialogue with the United States. In 2005 senior Japanese leaders visited the Yasukuni Shrine, and China cancelled on Japan. In 2007 the Dalai Lama visited Germany, and China suspended the German dialogue. In 2009 two cantons in Switzerland granted asylum to three Chinese citizens of Uyghur and Kazakh ethnicities, and China put its Swiss dialogue on hold. In 2010 British protests over China’s execution of a Briton “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” and China postponed the UK dialogue.

China’s dialogue with Norway has been indefinitely suspended due to the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. This decision may also have played a role in Beijing canceling the second round of its EU human rights dialogue in 2010. That said, China is generally keen to reduce the frequency of human rights dialogues in order to focus on what it sees as more pressing bilateral issues like economic ties and national security threats. And, in 2010, the European Union was the only dialogue partner expecting two sessions. (Since 2007 China has refused repeated British requests to schedule second rounds.)

As a result, the number of functioning dialogues dropped to six in 2011—held with Australia, the European Union, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States—field trips ceased completely, and NGO participation in legal seminars was curtailed sharply. Replacing the usual two, officials allotted only one day to dialogues with Australia (December 2010) and the European Union (June 2011). Accounting for periods where China has the floor, and pauses for translation, participants say one day equates to a maximum of two to three hours for Western diplomats to raise concerns about rights abuses in China.

China’s human rights diplomats have become increasingly resistant to accepting prisoner lists and over the last two years have only provided responses to lists submitted by the United States and the European Union. Diplomats of these countries have expressed dissatisfaction with the responses, claiming that they lack information on sensitive cases and inaccurately portray the treatment of individual prisoners. Moreover, basic information like place of incarceration and health status is now rarely given.

Western Mainstreaming

The Western approach to shrunken dialogues and deterioration in China’s human rights situation has been to support the mainstreaming of human rights: raising human rights at all levels and in all talks, including state visits and informal meetings. Mainstreaming is not new to human rights advocacy but has been most commonly applied to domestic policymaking. It now applies to China. In a May press release, Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs said this:

Human Rights issues are no longer to be the object of isolated discussions conducted according to strict guidelines with selected partners. … Henceforth, Human Rights issues are to be diversified and increasingly integrated into all domains of Swiss foreign policy. (emphasis added)

With few exceptions, Chinese counterparts would like to continue bilateral human rights dialogues while mainstreaming human rights at higher-level talks. British Prime Minister David Cameron said as much when telling members of parliament about his meetings with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on June 27. According to a Press Association report, Cameron said “it is right to have a dialogue both at the leader-to-leader level but also at the level of the human rights dialogue.”

Two recent examples of mainstreaming are the inclusion of human rights in the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Washington in May and the prominence of human rights in Premier Wen Jiabao’s meetings with British and German leaders in June visits to London and Berlin. (Many in Western Europe believe that the artist and activist Ai Weiwei was released on bail to blunt criticism of China’s human rights record during the visits.)

Western countries are also determined to use the United Nations Human Rights Council and its mechanisms to heighten criticism of China. In the first seven months of 2011, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay issued three public statements decrying increased restrictions on freedom of expression. If Pillay visits China before her term ends in August 2012, cases of individual human rights defenders will be at the forefront of discussions.

Chinese Response

During a June meeting a Chinese diplomat explained the reaction of Chinese leaders to the rise in mainstreaming: If we are subjected to “finger-pointing” by senior Western leaders in high-level talks, why should we continue holding human rights dialogues at lower levels?

Mainstreaming was conceived as a means to combat the inefficacy of bilateral rights dialogues, but what it may do is kill the dialogues altogether . If dialogues no longer serve a purpose, this would be a win for cost-conscious bureaucrats in the West, but would it be a win for human rights in China?

Given that western countries only have a few hours to raise concerns at dialogues allocated specifically to human rights, how many hours, or minutes, would be reserved for human rights at high-level talks focused on global economy or international security?

But if mainstreaming results in further marginalizing official rights dialogues, it could also mean opportunities for non-governmental human rights and humanitarian organizations to increase engagement with China. Filling the void, NGO collaboration would allow China to learn of top cases of international concern and gain perspective on criminal justice systems in other countries.

While such engagement is one possible outcome of intensified public pressure, it has its barriers. From a bureaucratic perspective, MFA is unlikely to accept the diminution of its role in managing China’s human rights diplomacy. From a global perspective, economic growth has allowed China to become more pertinacious in its unwillingness to be “bullied” and judged by outsiders. Moreover, engagement with independent NGOs would be a departure from the de facto Chinese policy of privileging government-organized non-governmental organizations (so-called GONGOs)—a rather large departure since China tends to see civil society as a threat to stability.

Mainstreaming threatens the decades-old policy of bilateral dialogues, but whether it threatens human rights advocacy is open for debate. The means of engagement are changing; action is necessary to improve China’s human rights situation; and China is at bat.