Australia stepped up its public attack on China’s human rights record last Thursday in Geneva, only weeks after the latest defence white paper effectively identified China a potential military threat.

In concert with 11 other nations, Australia backed a statement issued by the United Nations Ambassador for Human Rights Keith Harper taking China to task for its kidnapping of five Hong Kong booksellers — some since returned — as well as a laundry list of other human rights abuses at the UN Human Rights Council:

“We are concerned about China’s deteriorating human rights record, notably the arrests and ongoing detention of rights activists, civil society leaders, and lawyers. In many cases, these individuals have not been granted access to legal counsel or allowed visits by family members,” the statement read noting, importantly, that these actions are in contravention of China’s own laws and international commitments.

“We remain concerned about the unexplained recent disappearances and apparent coerced returns of Chinese and foreign citizens from outside mainland China. These extraterritorial actions are unacceptable, out of step with the expectations of the international community, and a challenge to the rules-based international order.”

Tough but fair words, and the first joint statement on China in the 10-year history of the council.

“The statement shows that while President Xi may think he can eradicate dissent at home, the world stands with embattled human rights defenders across China,” Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement.

To say Harper’s statement was not taken well in Beijing is something of an understatement. While China has remarkably thin skin in relation to any accusations against it, its response to Harper’s statement was unusually strong even by its standards.

“The US is notorious for prison abuse at Guantanamo prison, its gun violence is rampant, racism is its deep-rooted malaise,” Chinese diplomat Fu Cong said in response.

“The United States conducts large-scale extra-territorial eavesdropping, uses drones to attack other countries’ innocent civilians, its troops on foreign soil commit rape and murder of local people. It conducts kidnapping overseas and uses black prisons.”

Drones aside, these are all actions China uses on its own citizens.

The timing of Australia’s support for the statement is interesting as well as encouraging, and Australia and Japan were the only nations in the Asia-Pacific to put their names to the statement. The full list of the other signatories was Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US.

It’s worth noting that Australia is running for a seat on the Human Rights Council against France and Spain — two nations will be elected — and neither stepped up on this issue.

Still, whatever the clearly complex reasoning in Canberra, together with the recent defence white paper that effectively fingered China as a potential military threat once again this new tougher attitude towards Beijing’s more divisive policies is to be welcomed.

At last there has opened up a clear divide between Australia’s attitude to Beijing’s military adventurism in the South China Sea — to call it anything else is to gild the lily — together with criticism of its appalling human rights record and the symbiotic economic relationship between Australia and China.

Australia has had an annual Human Rights Dialogue with China, but the continued appalling legal treatment meted out to Chinese Australian businesspeople in China, along with Xi Jinping’s detention of 200 or so human rights activists and lawyers in the past year — although a number have been released — has reignited the annual gabfest, but it is nothing more than that. When it really matters, China takes no more heed of Australia than any other country.

Now commodity prices have plunged — and last week’s iron ore rally is proving to be something of a dead-cat bounce as more supplies continue to hit markets where demand is faltering — China has what it wants from the Australian quarry. The only real testing ground left is the issue of agricultural ownership, and that is likely to continue as something of push-me pull-you, win some lose some tug-o-war that China will get enough out of to stay reasonably calm.

After all, there are plenty of other fields to plough — or buy — especially in the developing disaster that is Brazil, a country increasingly in debt to China.

In China, the censorship that has gone hand in hand with an appreciable escalation in human rights violations under the leadership of Xi Jinping has been the focus of two remarkable internal attacks in recent days from a Xinhua journalist and from pioneering finance reporter Hu Shuli, editor of the widely admired Caixin magazine.

This is a fascinating development, together with the related issue of Beijing’s continuing constriction of freedoms in Hong Kong that Canberra, and its apparent fresh interest in human rights in China, will be watching closely.

It’s clear — and has been for while now — that the time for silence and acquiescence is over. China has also made it clear that it wants to be treated and respected like a substantial country. If so it should stop its inveterate bullying of both its citizens and its neighbours and start behaving like one. Respect is earned, not taken.

Peter Fray

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