Having just returned from four years living in China I can’t help but look at visits by Western leaders to Beijing with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I have heard personal accounts of the difference international pressure can make to activists languishing in Chinese jails. In September 2010, for example, I met artist Yan Zhengxue. He had recently been released from three years in a prison in China’s harsh northeast, where winter temperatures can plummet as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius. Yan was imprisoned in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics for his work advising peasants of their rights in property disputes with local authorities. He had also published articles about human rights issues in foreign publications.
After being incarcerated, Yan claims he was deliberately placed in cells with violent, mentally ill prisoners who beat him. Close to death, Yan was only released after the then Speaker of the House of Representatives in the US, Nancy Pelosi, visited China in mid-2009 and presented Chinese President Hu Jintao with a list of political prisoners that human rights groups were particularly concerned about. Yan’s situation in prison rapidly improved and he was released soon after.
On the other hand, the rhetoric of Western political leaders visiting China is often counterproductive for those fighting to improve the human rights situation within the People’s Republic. Especially when these statements are based on simplistic, ahistorical binaries bound to make non-Western leaders — and not a few ordinary citizens in country like China — bristle.
Take Gillard’s statement in Beijing on 27 April that, "We raise human rights … because of who we are and what we believe in. It’s part of us to believe in human rights and consequently to raise our voice on human rights."
There’s an obvious question here: Who is the "we" Gillard refers to? Presumably not her own government, given their blatant violations of international agreements on the treatment of refugees. Chinese authorities have made exactly this point in talks with Australian officials, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week.
Perhaps Gillard means "we" the Australian people. Yet the assertion that human rights are inherently "a part of us" — and by implication not part of the Chinese people — is hardly helpful for those actually fighting for a rule of law inside the People’s Republic. On the contrary, it’s grist to mill for the Chinese Government, who argue that human rights are a Western invention used as an excuse to meddle in the domestic affairs of non-Western nations.
Human rights are not inherently a part of any nation or people. They are a set of principles that have evolved over time, have been hard fought for and need to be constantly defended against governments of all stripes. Acknowledgment of this fact by Western leaders, combined with an adherence to international agreements on these matters, would do much to deflect the Chinese Government’s often scathing responses to Western criticisms of its abuses of power.
The simplistic binaries and sense of superiority underlying Gillard’s statements was already evident before she arrived in China. On ANZAC Day in the Republic of Korea — or South Korea as it’s usually called in the West — she described the Korean War as a defence of "the young republic against North Korean aggression". As Fairfax’s John Garnaut pointed out, this was a pointed inversion of the description offered by China’s Vice-President Xi Jinping last year, when he declared on the 60th anniversary of China’s intervention in Korea that theirs was a just war to resist US aggression. Gillard followed up her claim with what Garnaut called an "exercise of historical imagination," describing the conflict as "an important war in fostering and keeping democracy".
The "elections" held in South Korea before, during and after the Korean War were characterised by the imprisonment, torture and murder of opponents of Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian US-backed government. Rhee’s police force and military were riddled with former members of the collaborationist administration that had ruled Korea under the Japanese occupation, who had routinely employed torture and arbitrary executions to maintain Japan’s hold. Disgust with Rhee’s government was so strong that many Koreans initially welcomed the invasion of the south by Kim Il-Sung’s communist forces in 1950, even if attitudes quickly shifted in the face of atrocities perpetrated by northern forces.
Undoubtedly, democracy would never have flourished on the Korean peninsula if the north had succeeded in reunifying the country, but it’s simply not true to say Australian troops were fighting to "keep democracy" in the early 1950s. The Republic of Korea did not have anything approaching a genuine, functioning democracy until the late 1980s, after a decades-long, bloody fight by generations of Koreans against a string of dictatorial US-backed regimes. Human rights — including the right to vote — were won by Koreans. They were not bestowed, preserved or fostered in Korea by the West, either during or after the war. The fact that our leaders find this fact so difficult to acknowledge speaks volumes about our condescending attitude towards the people of non-Western nations.
Which brings us back to China. The human rights situation in China is dire and has grown worse in recent months, but it’s up to the Chinese people to decide their nation’s future and whether they will continue to tolerate their autocratic regime. Statements from Western politicians that imply an inherent opposition between "us" and "them", and offer gross historical simplifications in reply to equally one-dimensional and self-serving claims from Chinese politicians, do little to foster debate within China or strengthen the hand of local progressives. But then perhaps that is Gillard’s intention.
Platitudes allow our Prime Minister to appear suitably concerned while allowing the Chinese Government to dismiss her words so everyone can get down to business. The heart of Gillard’s visit was illustrated by her little publicised announcement on 27 April regarding the Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University — which would have be funny were it not so lamentably telling. Following the securing of the mining giant’s sponsorship, the Prime Minister declared the position will now be known as the "BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies". Because resources, it seems, are truly what we are and what we believe in.
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