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Mark Leonard, in an impressively perceptive book, ‘What does China think?’ writes, “China’s rise is different: it is the big story of our age and its after-effects could echo down generations to come.” This is certainly one reason why China is being called to account in a way that, rightly or wrongly, other smaller, less significant nations, are not. There is also a feeling of disappointment, again highlighted by Mark Leonard, that even though China has grown richer it has not become more “like us”. There has been an assumption that economic growth and development would inevitably lead to the demise of the Chinese Communist Party and to the growth of multi-party democracy. This has not happened. Indeed, the Party’s ability to reinvent itself has so far ensured its own survival and stability.|
This certainly challenges Western concepts of the supremacy of liberal democracy, as being the only way to guarantee the freedoms and rights of the governed. But in a society as ancient and continental in scale as China, whose history has experienced long periods of conflict and turmoil, stability is bound to be a dominant objective. Against that background, there can be no doubt that relations between our two
countries are best conducted within a framework of mutually respectful dialogue and exchange of views.
It is that which has characterised the work of two organisations with which I have been myself closely involved, namely the Great Britain – China Centre and the Thomson Foundation. If one takes the issue of freedom of expression as one example, it is notable that China has indeed honoured its commitment to the International Olympics Committee to remove restrictions on foreign journalists’ ability to interview people within China. So too, it has recently allowed access to the long-blocked BBC News website in English.
These two examples underline what folly it is that Hu Jia, an Aids activist, has been imprisoned for “subverting state security”, when we would consider that he was merely exercising his right to express his views on human rights. So, in spite of the significant progress to which I have already alluded, it remains the case that the Chinese authorities appear still to lack the confidence to allow their own citizens to debate and argue freely – whether in print or on electronic media – still less to allow free access to foreign websites. Not unlike some other governments, China’s rulers are still unwisely unwilling to accept criticism of their rights record – all the more so when such criticism comes from overseas.
Freedom of expression and press liberalisation must, as we believe, be the way forward - and ultimately in China’s own interests. A more balanced account of the diversity of views about, for example, Sino-Tibetan relationships and related events would have been more likely to reach the outside world, if the media had had more and not less freedom to observe and report on such matters. Media independence is often the only force that brings incompetence or misbehaviour onto a nation’s agenda – a necessary process, if such misdeeds or misbehaviour are to be identified and corrected. For this reason, the training of Chinese journalists by the Thomson Foundation (and similar work by other UK organisations) on freedom of expression are important interventions. And I am more than convinced that they help to move the debate forward. Encouragingly, there are signs that press freedom is growing in China. Magazines such as Caijing (Finance) play a role in holding the government to account. But progress of this kind is patchy since what is allowed in one month may not be tolerated in the next - which, understandably, makes editors nervous and cautious.
The promotion of the rule of law is an oft-stated goal of the Chinese government - and an organisation like the Great Britain – China Centre works hard with Chinese partners in the judiciary, police and procuratorate, to secure the introduction of best practice models from European experience – for example, in detention centre supervision, human rights training and better procedural processes. No matter how well crafted legislation may be (and there is a good deal now on China’s statute book) it is practice which is ultimately the bedrock for effective protection of human rights. Unless those responsible for implementation understand, and indeed have an interest in understanding, what the law seeks to protect, the law itself is empty -or, at best, a possible ground for appeal. On its own, the law can be no more than an instigator of necessary change. So again training programmes, dialogue and workshops - the very heart of GBCC’s work, - can do much to secure the necessary understanding and practical acceptance of the legal requirements. But we should never underestimate just how daunting a task this can be. By way of example, there are in China over 1.7 million police officers. Getting every one of them to understand and embrace the principles of human rights in their day-to-day policing must be recognised as no mean task.
Ultimately China, the Chinese government and the Chinese people, will determine the level and scope of the rights and freedoms to be enjoyed. We in the West can support dialogue and offer encouragement. We can certainly continue to hold China to account for the promises it has made – and, in particular, the promise of the Beijing Olympics officials that the games would be "an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world". But equally, I believe, we have a duty to inform ourselves of what is actually happening in China - rather than relying on alarmist knee jerk reactions to China’s growing role – political as well as economic - on the international stage.
Upon the basis of our own two thousand years of history, I remain a firm believer in the model of parliamentary democracy and in the values and benefits it confers upon the people of the United Kingdom. But I am prepared to recognise that China, with a history twice as long as ours, and a comprehensive culture of its own making, may yet be forging a new model, that will work for a unified country of one fifth of the world’s population. It is more likely than not to be borne out of its own kaleidoscopic cultural experience and political philosophies, rather than based upon a copycat model of Western historic development.