Updated: October 19, 2015 06:11 PM GMT
British Prime Minister David Cameron attends a signing ceremony in Beijing in 2013. Cameron will have the chance to highlight rights concerns during Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit starting Oct. 20. (Photo by Ed Jones/AFP)
In June, British Prime Minister David Cameron noted the enduring relevance of the Magna Carta, a landmark document designed to create a fairer society in England back in 1215. Marking the 800th anniversary of its signing, Cameron said the charter had "shaped the world for the best part of a millennium helping to promote arguments for justice and freedom."
He cited examples in the United States, India and South Africa. It is our duty, he said, to safeguard "the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement" of those responsible for its inception.
From Oct. 20 to 23, the British prime minister will have an opportunity to do just that – and without even leaving the United Kingdom. Chinese President Xi Jinping will make his first state visit to London, the first by a Chinese president for 10 years. Alongside an expected focus on trade and the usual trappings of such a visit, activists are calling on the British government to make human rights and rule of law high on the agenda, both in public and in private.
There is plenty to talk about. Since early July, more than 280 lawyers, activists and their family members and colleagues have been detained, interrogated, and in some cases held incommunicado by a leadership that has pledged to uphold "rule of law," its flagship policy. The same government that claims to protect religious freedom denies its own members the right to choose a religion or belief.
In Zhejiang province alone, more than 1,000 crosses have been removed from churches, despite statements of protest by both independent and state-sanctioned Christians. In Henan, Hebei and Xinjiang, Catholic and Protestant leaders are serving long sentences on spurious or unknown charges. In Tibet and again in Xinjiang, Beijing's response to all forms of protest – both violent and peaceful – has been to clamp down on cultural and religious expression, handing down lengthy prison terms on those who organize and lead, including religious leaders and scholars.
The chance the British government will raise these issues during Xi's visit are disappointingly slim. U.K. Finance Minister George Osborne was recently applauded by China's state-run Global Times newspaper for focusing on business "rather than raising a magnifying glass to the 'human rights issue.'"
In response to criticisms that he has downplayed human rights abuses, Osborne said: "It would be very strange if Britain's relations with a country that has one-fifth of the world's population was solely about human rights." Indeed it would; but it would be equally strange if a government that claims to cherish justice and rule of law then failed to mention the mass arrest of a sizable chunk of the legal rights defense community in a country it sees as a key partner.
It is possible to talk about human rights alongside a range of other issues. When President Xi visited the U.S. in September, President Barack Obama publicly affirmed unwavering support for the "human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people, including freedom of assembly and expression, freedom of the press and freedom of religion." He made specific mention of closed churches, restrictions on civil society and Tibet.
Reactions from rights groups and the media were mixed. Some called for Obama to be more direct on recent abuses, while others believed his remarks were very pointed, given the context. While activists rightly call for stronger condemnation of specific abuses, human rights were at least on the agenda during the visit, both publicly and privately. The question is whether the British government will also engage China in public conversations on rights. It is in the U.K.'s own interests to do so.
Osborne wants Britain to be China's strongest partner in the West, but if a relationship with Beijing is to be truly in Britain's interests, difficult issues must also be considered. Partnership must be based on a common understanding of terms. It is in Britain's interests to ask: If rule of law represents something different in China, then what exactly does it mean? If "rule of law" turns out to mean rule by law – a tool for the powerful – how can China curb corruption and abuses of power in the long term? Does a shrinking space for civil society, including religious communities, mean there is less space for collaboration in a wider range of fields, such as academia, media, the arts and entertainment?
Equally as important is Britain's obligation as a partner of all of China – not only those in power – to do everything possible to ensure Chinese citizens are afforded the same rights and freedoms celebrated in David Cameron's June speech. That same speech referenced Gandhi and Mandela. China's Gandhis, China's Mandelas are languishing in jail. It is not enough to celebrate their courage in the future: we must support them in the present. These concerns can and should be raised in private meetings with Xi Jinping and Chinese delegates. But there is also value to be had by including rights concerns in public messages, which not only lets China know where the U.K. stands on such issues, but also encourages – and to some extent protects – those fighting for their rights inside China.
This week, the British prime minister will have the opportunity to show that the U.K.'s celebration of the Magna Carta is more than just rhetoric. If it matters, it should be a concern everywhere and for everyone. Indeed, in the words of Cameron himself: "What we do today will shape the world, for many, many years to come."
The author is a researcher on China and other East Asian countries for Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is based in London.
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