Guilty by Association

Following Brexit, many have sought a new UK-China relationship to fill the hole left by the European Union.  But how far should we be willing to compromise?


The UK should be wary of a relationship with China given its poor human rights record. (Photo: iStock)

The UK should be wary of a relationship with China given its poor human rights record. (Photo: iStock)

With a list of human rights violations longer than its Great Wall, China isn’t exactly the best country to be associated with. Fortunately for them, being the world’s second largest economy has its perks, especially when it comes to convincing other countries to turn a blind eye to their blatant violations of human rights. The UK isn’t exactly an insignificant or desperate power but even for them, China would be an invaluable partner, with unparalleled economic and strategic significance. However, irrespective of these benefits, to remain silent in the face of such grave offences simply for financial gain would, in effect, be condoning these practices and would cause irreparable damage to the UK’s reputation.

For a country that plays such a vital role in the world and has seemingly infinite resources, China has done relatively little to cover up the poor treatment and daily oppression of their citizens that would be major scandals in any other major nation. Whether this is due to laziness or a belief that they are untouchable, one thing is clear: they’re getting away with it. It shouldn’t be in any country’s best interests to witness and ignore a lack of respect for human rights, regardless of whether it occurs in a Third World country or a global superpower. So how can the UK possibly justify attempting to have a relationship with a country that can’t even be trusted to follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

The Great Firewall of China: websites blocked in China include Google, Facebook and YouTube. (Source: Creative Commons)

The Great Firewall of China: websites blocked in China include Google, Facebook and YouTube. (Source: Creative Commons)

When it comes to the specifics of China’s human rights record, there really are too many issues to list: discrimination against ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, torture, the death penalty and infringement on internet freedom are only the tip of the iceberg. Although figures have remained a state secret, Amnesty International has asserted that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined. Even those who may escape the death penalty arguably face a worse fate, whether they are imprisoned indefinitely or even tortured for information. For those who still dare to question the reasoning behind the government’s actions, their ability to act is becoming increasingly limited. With forced confessions becoming more rampant and the Great Firewall all but eradicating free speech, the truth is harder and harder for them to find.

Unsurprisingly, China remains an authoritarian state, ruled by the Communist Party for over six decades. This system of government effectively gives them free rein to do as they please, allowing them to systematically restrict fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and religion. For those brave enough to oppose the government, even more problems await with over 248 lawyers and activists being questioned or detained during an unprecedented crackdown in 2015, simply for taking on social, political and religious cases. These individuals are the clearest casualties of a violent governmental campaign that uses a climate of fear to suppress and eliminate those who even slightly criticise it, with methods ranging from abductions to torture.

Pu Zhiqiang (right) defended fellow activist and artist Ai Wei Wei (left) following his arrest in 2011. (Photo: BBC)

Pu Zhiqiang (right) defended fellow activist and artist Ai Wei Wei (left) following his arrest in 2011. (Photo: BBC)

One such courageous individual is one of China’s most admired civil rights lawyers, Pu Zhiqiang, a Tiananmen Square survivor who vowed to give a voice to those who died in 1989. With a reputation for defending dissident writers and activists, Zhiqiang has always been on the government’s radar for all the wrong reasons. Having recently had his licence revoked following a three-year suspended prison term, the Chinese people are running out of people to fight for them. When even the most powerful lawyers can be charged and silenced, what chance do ordinary citizens have?

China has shown time and time again that they would rather silence criticism than cooperate with lawyers, writers and whistleblowers to deal with growing social unrest. No country has a perfect human rights record but China’s stubborn attitude and unwillingness to change should at least make us think twice. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, a member of the UN Security Council and of the G8; we have the power and the responsibility to do something. Realistically, a Sino-British relationship will always be important but it shouldn’t come at all costs. Being close to China doesn’t necessarily mean siding with them in every regard; in fact, it can mean the opposite. If a partnership with China is formed, it would put us in the perfect position to exert pressure from the inside, a factor that might just be enough to force them to take it seriously. The UK should be an ally to the people of China, not just the government – and that means taking a public stand to protect their human rights

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Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas

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