Campaign groups want Western leaders to consider human rights when trading with China, writes Caroline O’Doherty
DONGXUE Dai last saw China on Jan 4, 2000, when she waved goodbye to family before boarding a flight for Ireland with reassurances that she’d see them again before long.
That’s a promise she hasn’t been able to keep. Her passport expired the following year but the Chinese authorities refused her a renewal.
She told herself not to be alarmed, that she was just being taught a temporary lesson because of her involvement in Falun Gong, the spiritual movement outlawed in China in 1999.
However, when she tried again in order to get home to see her ill mother and was once more refused, she began to fear permanent consequences.
She never got to her mother’s funeral. Neither did two of her sisters, who were both being detained in labour camps in China for their Falun Gong activism.
Two years later and with no sign of the authorities having a change of heart, she applied for, and was granted, Irish citizenship. So now she’s free to travel where any Irish person can — everywhere but her homeland.
“They make everything difficult for you in order to force you to give up your beliefs,” she says. “My sisters had to renounce their’s just to be allowed back into society. But what kind of society is that?”
Dai, who is part of the Irish Falun Dafa Association, was one of the people who sent messages to Taoiseach Enda Kenny urging him not to omit human rights from his agenda when he meets officials in China this week.
Others included those concerned about China’s behaviour in Tibet which is ostensibly an autonomous region within China but in reality has no control over its own affairs and suffers daily suppression of religious expression, political opposition or public demonstration.
Those issues have long been raised internationally by the country’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, but lately another matter has been causing alarm.
“China needs water and Tibet has it,” says Niall Steedman of the Tibet Support Group Ireland. “The five main rivers in Asia all start in Tibet and they supply the water to one third of the world’s population.
“China is building dams to divert the bulk of the supply to its own needs which will be catastrophic, not just to Tibet, but to India, Pakistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka — a vast region.
“But it gets worse because the Tibetan grasslands hold the moisture which is picked up by the winds that feed the monsoons which supply an even greater percentage of the world’s population.
“China sees these grasslands with a few yaks on them as a waste of water so they are getting rid of the grasslands and moving the nomadic herdsmen off the land and into what they call resettlement camps. They are destroying a way of life and risking an environmental disaster.”
Human rights campaigners have many such complaints about China. In its latest world report, Human Rights Watch sums it up as “an authoritarian one-party stage that imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association and religion; openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom, and arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders and organisation”.
Amnesty International, assessing the country in 2011, took a similar line, stating: “The Chinese government responded to a burgeoning civil society by jailing and persecuting people for peacefully expressing their views, holding religious beliefs not sanctioned by the state, advocating for democratic reform and human rights, and defending the rights of others.”
Meanwhile, Front Line Defenders is highlighting the case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who has argued for rights for people with disabilities and who has been repeatedly arrested, detained, beaten, and jailed for inciting public disturbance. He is under virtual house arrest.
There are many such examples of individuals considered troublemakers being targeted to dissuade others from following suit.
Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 2010 for his campaign for political reform in China, couldn’t pick up his award in person as he was imprisoned for “instigating subversion of state power”.
It is not just outspoken individuals who are suppressed. The entire population is subject to an extraordinary degree of control.
China is a one-party state, communist in name and totalitarian by nature. Its parliament, the National People’s Congress, is made up of almost 3,000 delegates elected by universal suffrage but they only meet collectively once a year for a few days and have no real power.
The one-child policy introduced in 1979 restricts families to a single child unless they live in areas of population shortage or are wealthy enough to pay the penalties attached to breaching the regulations.
Chinese society is organised on the hokou, an antiquated registration system which assigns rights to schooling, healthcare, and housing on the basis of where an individual’s ancestors were born and raised.
To leave your home village means sacrificing those rights and paying privately for basic services, something few Chinese workers can afford. The result is that while millions migrate to work in industrial centres, they feel compelled to leave their children at home with grandparents, to whom they send their wages.
Although the demand for industrial labour has led to an improvement in working conditions, workers still endure long hours, low pay, poor safety standards in the heavy industry sector, and arbitrary compensation practices in the case of workplace injury.
Those who stay and work the land live with the knowledge that their rights to that land can be removed at the stroke of a pen to make way for a dam, road, railway or other piece of infrastructure without recourse to public hearing or appeal.
Capital punishment, detention without just cause, the use of labour camps and torture, routine (though increasingly futile) attempts at internet censorship and the swift dispersal of public demonstrations are all other reasons human rights groups want western leaders to see beyond economics when trading with China.
“We have no objection to Ireland doing business with China,” says Niall Steedman. “If developing trade between Ireland and China helps people get out of poverty or improves livelihoods, that’s fine, you can’t argue against it.
“But human rights should be on an equal footing. If you stay silent on human rights issues in order to get trade, that’s going against our own basic democratic principles.
“The politicians can turn around and say there is a time and place that is appropriate to raise such issues or they pass it over to the EU [to the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue] but it’s a joke, it is completely ineffective.
“Besides, it should not necessarily just be a part of foreign policy. You should stand up for human rights in everything you do.”
Dongxue Dai feels the same. “The Chinese government put on a really nice mask and they go around the world to give people business and the western world including countries like Ireland are afraid to bring up these issues because they are afraid to not get the business.
“But the Chinese government needs these business links too so countries like Ireland do not have to be afraid to speak up.
“Also, Western countries have to ask, if the Chinese government treats its own people so badly, how can you trust them? If you see me treat my mother or my friends very harshly, do you want to be friends with me?
“I am not saying Ireland should not to business with China but to me there is a principle, a baseline we should not abandon.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved