Our silence on human rights in China undermines our own

The visit of deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to China two weeks ago is recognition of China’s growing footprint in Africa.

Motlanthe appears to have reaped a windfall of promises of investment and thus jobs, persuading the party bosses in Beijing to spend some of their vast capital reserves on infrastructure projects in South Africa.

In spite of the horror stories about Chinese employers that stretch across the continent, he told his hosts that we “wholeheartedly support Chinese investment in the productive sector in Africa”. But, as we saw with the government’s refusal to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama, there is no free lunch.

Several weeks ago I, too, visited China. But it was for a different purpose. I went to work with fledgling human rights organisations and lawyers and to take the temperature of that part of society neither seen or smelt in state visits.

Here I try to convey some of those smells and the difficult questions they pose for a South African foreign policy that seems profoundly out of kilter with our Constitution.


China is a giant that is growing bigger and bigger. In China, it seems, everything is expanding. Its big cities bustle. Transport systems are new. Cranes and construction are pockmarks on every cityscape. People swarm the streets, apparently occupied and rooted. Modern city roads carry every form of transport, from bicycles to tractors. The police are ever present, but not overly authoritarian. In Beijing’s Forbidden City, they now play much the same role as the Horse Guards at Buckingham Palace.

People appear free, even content. Tradition and history abound. Millions are acquiring wealth. The state-owned newspapers exude confidence and control.

‘Endemic social upheavals’
In a lecture at the Chinese Executive Leadership Academy on September 28, Motlanthe praised China’s achievements. He was anxious to flatter his hosts, contrasting their expanding society with the contractive convulsions of the West. Referring to social crises in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, he talked about the “disharmony and sharpened contradictions between property relations and forces of production” and “endemic social upheavals” as a “manifestation of this chronic economic crisis”.

Listening to this, you might think that China has progressed beyond class conflict and that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has at last realised the mandate of heaven originally given to China’s emperors. You might think China faced no such upheavals. That is not the truth.

Motlanthe’s CPC hosts would not have told him this, but according to my hosts (who, as you will see, must remain nameless) class conflict is sharpening in China. They report that there are hundreds of thousands of spontaneous but separate local revolts in cities and villages every year, including in its economic sweatshops. The CPC is doing all it can to prevent these uprising from merging into a “lotus revolution”.

In the big cities that now interact with “the West”, the appearance of peace is well preserved. Viewed from the window of a presidential motorcade, you might think these cities are free and modernising. But what I have learnt — and seen — is that the days when the CPC exercised its power by visible brute force are over (for the time being). Today, repression is more sophisticated but no less brutal. Methods of control are being perfected.

For the people of China there is a line that cannot be crossed. All seem aware of it, though how isn’t clear, possibly just by word of mouth. Stories circulate about what happens to those who press too hard for freedoms the state claims already exist (which they do, in China’s decapitated Constitution) but which the people know do not.

Beneath the surface functionality — and not far beneath — things are much more sinister. Hu Jintao’s government is intent on tight control of all aspects of the transition to state-directed capitalism and a modern society. They fear that activists could open the floodgates of popular discontent and the desire for modern democracy.

In the past 12 months the Chinese state has been rattled by the “jasmine revolutions” of North Africa, and lately by the uprising of marginalised youth in Spain and Britain.

Unfortunately, this has not, as Motlanthe advised his hosts, led to a “transformative struggle to bring about a human-driven, socio-economic transition” in China. Rather, it has led to an even tighter state grip on civil society, to closer monitoring and blocking of internet traffic.

China has a phalanx of lawyers, but there is no rule of law. The law is evolved by edict. Still, lawyers appear to be a particular target for persecution. It is unlawful to stand up for your rights and it is also unlawful to try to defend lawfully those upon whom the state stamps. Lawyers who do get stamped on too.

Various means are used to place lawyers under siege. There are gradations of threat and intimidation. Some lawyers who represent people in “sensitive” cases simply lose their licenses to practise or no longer receive work from the government (which, in a one-party state, is almost the only employer).

Formal arrests, trials and imprisonment draw undue international attention, so sometimes troublesome people simply disappear. One young lawyer I met was lifted off the streets and taken to a hotel for three days, given 24-hour police supervision and lectures on obedience and then put back on the streets — hopefully chastised. Which he was not.

Another spent two months earlier this year similarly imprisoned. On the day I had arranged to see him, he got a call from public security warning him off. Another, who has just been released after four years in prison for representing women who were resisting forced abortions, now lives in his village under 24-hour observation by a small group of thugs. Anyone who attempts to visit him is sent away with a beating. Many more such stories are reported by the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.

So the question (again) is: should a government such as ours, which leads the world in the recognition and protection of human rights, stay silent when we know there are grave and systematic violations in the countries we do business with? If we don’t advance the values of our Constitution and stand up for human rights in our talks with other members of the global village, how long will it be before they begin to erode our rights? Indeed, is this not exactly what happened with the Dalai Lama?

The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous so that Chinese colleagues are not persecuted and to avoid being barred from China

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