'New' China, Old Repression
By James Mann
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Has China been transformed? That is the suggestion of French President Jacques Chirac, who is trying to persuade the European Union to lift its embargo on arms sales to China. Europe, like the United States, imposed the arms ban in 1989, soon after the Chinese regime brought its tanks and army into Beijing to end the weeks of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Urged on by the French defense industry, Chirac contends that China today is different from 10 or 15 years ago. That argument seems to dovetail with visitors' impressions of a glitzy China and with the currently fashionable cliches about how China is being integrated into the international community.
The problem is that in fundamental ways relating to human rights and political repression, China today is not much different than it was a decade ago. Yes, China has been brought into the international community, if we define that phrase exclusively in terms of economics. But ordinarily the international community is not defined solely by membership in the World Trade Organization.
To illustrate this point, let's take an example: China's unwillingness to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons.
China has never allowed the ICRC (which is an excellent example of the international community) to visit its prisons. One stumbling block has been that the Red Cross insists on the right to interview prisoners privately and with its own interpreters.
Over a decade ago, on the eve of President Bill Clinton's first meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said at a news conference that China was prepared to let the ICRC into Chinese jails. This was treated as a great breakthrough, and it eased the climate for Clinton's meeting.
But nothing happened. At first there were suggestions that China might give the Red Cross access to its prisons only after the Clinton administration dropped its attempt to impose human rights conditions on China's trade benefits. Clinton did that, but China didn't act on the ICRC. The Clinton administration raised the issue of prison access again and again in Clinton's second term, without success. The current Bush administration has tried too, but today, 10 years after China first hinted it was about to open up its prisons to inspection by the international community, it still hasn't done so.
This is not some abstract or bureaucratic issue. The significance of ICRC access to prisons was explained by one International Red Cross official in this way: "At a minimum, our visits give the prisoner the solace of an hour's conversation with a reasonable human being in his own language. In the most extreme cases, a visit can prevent the prisoner from disappearance and death."
Those eloquent words happen to have been spoken with a particular case in mind -- the U.S. detention camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last year, the ICRC said publicly that the U.S. policies at Guantanamo were unacceptable, and its criticisms, many of them legitimate, were widely reported in Europe.
But please note that at least the United States permitted the ICRC to visit Guantanamo. That's more than China has done for its entire prison system. And yet the Europeans who are so forthright in condemning American policies at Guantanamo seem to be silent about a Chinese regime whose jails are still considered entirely off-limits to the ICRC. That is a classic double standard.
Over the past 10 years, China has managed to defuse international human rights complaints by channeling them into endless disputes over meetings, visits, human rights "dialogues," requests by various organizations for offices in Beijing -- anything that doesn't substantively require China to alter its policies.
Yes, China has changed in some ways in the past decade. The Chinese people now have the freedom to wear what they want. Ordinary citizens can generally say what they want in private or in some public settings -- so long as they remain completely unorganized and unchallenging to the regime.
But when it comes to tolerance of any political opposition, or to human rights standards as generally defined by the international community, China is essentially the same as it was a decade ago. The regime has never expressed the slightest remorse for using weaponry against its own people.
Chirac is right about one thing -- something has changed over the past decade. But it's not China. Rather, the rest of the world has become far more tolerant of the same Chinese political repression that it condemned in the early 1990s. A lifting of the EU arms embargo would be one more big step in this tawdry policy of accepting repression.
James Mann is a senior writer-in-residence at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.