Salil Shetty: China must use its clout to defend human rights

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Speculation is rife about the changing of the guard at the 18th Communist Party Congress and what a new leadership will mean for China and the world.

The new Chinese leaders must bear some fundamental principles in mind if the country is to gain the real stability it needs, and the government must reconcile its actions with its claims.

Domestically, real progress has been made in reducing poverty, but huge challenges remain.

China is a leading player on the global stage. The country's economic influence is undeniable. But with global power comes responsibility, at the UN Security Council and elsewhere. Instead, China has often used its clout to ensure as little debate as possible about serious human rights violations committed around the world.

In the past 18 months, Beijing talked of being "deeply saddened" by the death toll in Syria, now estimated at more than 30,000. And yet China played a key role in ensuring that the Security Council failed to act to prevent the nightmare that civilians are living through in Syria today.

At the United Nations in New York in July, China joined the United States and Russia to delay an Arms Trade Treaty which could help save countless lives, and which governments in Asia, Africa and around the world have argued for.

In China, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is wide.

Freedom of expression is promised in the Chinese constitution. And yet, citizens are denied this right time and again. Hundreds of protests take place daily across China demanding basic rights and against official lawlessness. Those who speak out can be severely punished.

The incarceration of the Nobel-prize winning Liu Xiaobo for seeking increased freedom of expression and political participation for the Chinese people caused worldwide outrage. His is just one case of injustice among many.

Three months ago, Zhu Chengzhi was formally arrested on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power". His last known whereabouts are a detention facility in Shaoyang city, Hunan province where he is being held incommunicado.

According to his friends, the reason why Zhu Chengzhi was detained is because he photographed the scene where his good friend the dissident Li Wangyang died and shared those pictures through the internet.

The local authorities maintain that Li's death in hospital in June was suicide. But, as the protests by tens of thousands on the streets of Hong Kong reminded us, many questions remain unanswered. The authorities, meanwhile, refuse calls for an independent investigation according to international standards.

A key source of popular discontent in China has been the issue of forced evictions. Amnesty International recently released a report which documents in depressing detail the lawlessness of the forced evictions of ordinary Chinese from their homes or farmland, without consultation, compensation or suitable alternative accommodation. This violates China's international human rights obligations on an enormous scale.

Premier Wen Jiabao has acknowledged problems with forced evictions. But other officials have defended abuses in the eviction process as the necessary price of modernisation.

In the words of housing rights advocate Mao Hengfeng: "What's the point if a few of us live well and shut our mouths but the government continues to abuse other citizens ... ? What we ask for is not a personal settlement, but public justice."

Meanwhile, lawyers who dare to defend human rights are themselves punished.

Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is again in detention in Xinjiang for violating the conditions of his suspended sentence for "inciting subversion". His crime? Defending the rights of his clients. For his efforts, he and his family have suffered years of surveillance, harassment and torture.

These examples can be multiplied many times over. But Chinese leaders must understand: security will not be won by repression at home, nor by attempting to draw a veil over repression elsewhere in the world.

If China is to continue to build on its achievements in the 21st century, basic rights must be observed and enforced. If China's new leaders continue to put rights to one side, it will be bad for the Chinese government, bad for the people of China, and bad for the world.

Salil Shetty is Secretary-General of Amnesty International.

- NZ Herald

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