China must protect basic human rights

Supporters of Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che protested against his imprisonment in China for holding online political lectures and helping the families of jailed dissidents. Photo: AP

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 12:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 12:33am

Three international conferences held in China this month highlighted the country’s intention to play a more active role in global affairs. A gathering of political groups from 120 nations in Beijing was followed by an international internet conference in Wuzhen. Most recently, a meeting on human rights drew 300 participants from more than 50 nations. Each conference provided a platform for China to promote its own ideas, while stressing that the intention was to further better understanding between nations rather than impose its own views on others. The human rights gathering was attended mostly by delegates from developing countries, as well as from the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation. But there was no representation from NGOs that have been sharply critical of aspects of China’s human rights record, from curbs on free speech, to the detention of defence lawyers, and restrictions on religious freedom.

Beijing’s perspective on human rights has long favoured economic and cultural rights over civil and political liberties. The government saw lifting people out of poverty and providing them with food and warmth as the priority. Wen Jiabao, when premier, said the biggest human rights issue was feeding 1.3 billion people. Civil liberties were rejected as Western ideals. That approach was apparent at the conference.

China, however, is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the country signing the agreement. It has still not brought it into effect. As China’s population becomes wealthier and better educated, people’s aspirations for civil and political rights will grow. Protecting such rights will be necessary in order to avoid discontent and disorder. A white paper on human rights issued this month highlighted legal reforms. Establishing fairer trial procedures should be a priority.

While national sovereignty and security are important, new laws dealing with cybersecurity, intelligence services and corruption will be open to abuse without safeguards to protect basic rights. As China continues to develop and play a bigger role on the world stage, protection of human rights will become increasingly important.