Several days before Wen’s European mission, artist dissident Ai Weiwei was released from prison. Likewise, a few hours before the Cameron-Wen press conference, another dissident, Hu Jia, was freed. It was said that Hu’s release, like Ai’s, was a gesture of goodwill to Britain and Europe. However, Hu was actually released on the last day of his sentence and Ai due to “confession of his crimes”. At the press conference. there was no mention of these well-known defenders of human rights, who had been jailed for daring to criticise the Chinese government (in Chinese terms “inciting subversion of state power”, of which Hu Jia was convicted). The sole subject of the Cameron-Wen meeting on Monday 27th June was trade. As reported by Jonathan Mirsky in the New York Review of Books, among other topics, Mr. Cameron spoke enthusiastically about Chinese investment in a British high-speed railway, presumably unaware of the fact that the Chinese Railways’ minister who oversaw the high-speed link from Beijing to Shanghai is now behind bars for demanding huge kickbacks from those seeking contracts.
As reported by Mirsky, at the press conference following the meeting, journalist Adam Boulton of Sky News was scolded when he challenged Wen on human rights ; the latter saying that Boulton “clearly hadn’t travelled much in China.” Wen Jiabao seemed not to know that Boulton had recently been refused a Chinese visa. In addition, Mirsky notes that although Cameron spoke briefly about human rights, there was no suggestion that he had confronted his Chinese counterpart about the hundreds of disappeared or detained human rights activists, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving eleven years for “sedition”.
Thus, Mr. Cameron’s commitment to establishing human rights as the “irreducible core” of foreign policy has to be questioned. Although he has been outspoken in his support of demonstrators involved in the Arab spring, he has been much less forthcoming with regards to China, where the recent detention of Ai Weiwei, the ongoing crackdown at Kirti monastery in Tibet and the continued jailing of dissidents are just a few examples of the oppressive nature of the current Chinese administration.
Equally worrying is what happened in Hungary on 24th and 25th June when Wen Jiabao made his official visit. It was reported that demonstrations to call on China to uphold human rights were banned and Tibetans legally living and working in Hungary were required to report to the Hungarian immigration office. Hungarian Falun Gong practitioners were refused permission to hold demonstrations because they “could block traffic.” Likewise, individuals with Tibetan flags were escorted away from the route that Wen Jiabao’s motorcade was to take. Yet, people raising the People’s Republic of China’s five-star flag were allowed to remain, express their opinions and demonstrate freely without anybody accusing them of disrupting traffic. On Monday 27th June, in a speech in the Hungarian Parliament, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that “Hungary will also in the future not tolerate any form of protest that might damage the strategic interests of the country through disturbing the official visits of key foreign representatives.” Although demonstrations should not endanger public order and national security, individuals should be free to express their opinions by peaceful means. In addition, people living in Europe, regardless of their nationalities or origins, are guaranteed the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas by the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Treaty on European Union. Fundamental rights guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights constitute general principles of European Union law. However, what happened in Hungary poses serious concerns over the upholding of European basic human rights standards.
This is particularly problematic considering what emerged from papers leaked from the Chinese Communist Party to the Danish newspaper Information, which revealed that aspirations of reform made by Chinese leaders outside China are designed purely to deflect criticism, while the actual plan is to intensify repression in China and Tibet. While Germany was bolder in raising human rights violations in China, it is of great concern that countries facing economic difficulties engage with China without addressing human rights abuses, and highlights a worrying trend that is slowly developing in Europe : to paraphrase Philippa Carrick, CEO of Tibet Society, countries are selling out their human rights values in the short-term interest of trade with China. It remains to be seen whether the European Union will be more vocal in challenging China on its human rights violations, on behalf of all Member States, or whether it will leave individual European countries to do this, and to face China’s reprisals, alone.