Human and Political Rights

Australia and China have different official perceptions of human and political rights.

The Australian government proclaims that upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reflecting ‘liberal democratic ideals … and the equal and inalienable rights of all people’, is an ‘underlying principle of Australia’s engagement with the international community’. Human rights abuses and the one-party state are regular themes in Australian media coverage of China. Australian politicians frequently come under pressure to raise human rights issues with Chinese counterparts during official meetings, especially Tibet and the plight of Australians in the Chinese justice system [topic link page].

Similarly, the Chinese Constitution declares that ‘the state respects and protects human rights’, but Chinese government discourse emphasises that the ‘economic and social rights’ of its citizenry to enjoy higher living standards take precedence over the political and civil rights of individual citizens. It advocates ‘non-interference’ by the international community in domestic jurisdictions and asserts that ‘human rights’ are a subjective concept strictly dependent on local circumstances.

Australia’s diplomatic approach to human rights concerns in China centres on ‘constructive dialogue’. Since 1997, there have been fifteen rounds of the Australia–China Human Rights Dialogue, a forum ‘for frank exchanges on human rights and for identifying areas where Australia can help China implement international human rights standards’, complemented by the Australia–China Human Rights Technical Cooperation Program. However, rights groups and commentators criticise the Dialogue for lacking effectiveness, benchmarks and transparency. Australian leaders are accused of compromising Australian values to safeguard economic interests [topic link page] by offering ‘mutual respect’ to China and not bringing human rights into the broader relationship.

Tibet has been a recurring flashpoint in diplomatic relations. Australia officially expresses concern about human rights in Tibet and calls for dialogue between China and Tibetan representatives, but the Chinese government insists that Tibet is an ‘internal matter’. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd [topic link page] caused strain in the bilateral relationship in April 2008 when he stated: ‘There are significant human rights problems in Tibet’ during a speech in Chinese at Peking University. Later that month, the Chinese Embassy stirred controversy in Australia by bussing in thousands of Chinese students to overwhelm pro-Tibet demonstrators during the 2008 Olympic torch relay leg in Canberra. There is debate over whether Australian political leaders should meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama each time he visits Australia; those who meet with him risk a diplomatic backlash from China, but those who do not risk accusations of ‘kowtowing’ to Beijing from advocacy groups and partisan opponents. The last prime minister to meet with the Dalai Lama was John Howard, in June 2007.

Public awareness and diplomatic remonstrations about Uyghur rights in Xinjiang are somewhat less high-profile than Tibet, but a major diplomatic row erupted in 2009 when Australia granted a visa to Rebiya Kadeer [topic link page], President of the World Uyghur Congress, who is regarded as a dangerous ‘splittist’ by Beijing. Additionally, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was warned by Chinese diplomats not to screen news programs about the political situation in Xinjiang.

There are multiple reports from Chinese defectors that China’s diplomatic missions in Australia maintain a network of informants to spy on Chinese visitors, students and residents, with a particular focus on monitoring and threatening dissidents, including: Falun Gong adherents, anti-communist campaigners and advocates for Tibetan, Uyghur and Taiwanese independence. Furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda organs have bought up a significant proportion of Australia’s Chinese-language media, ensuring that only pro-Beijing news is reported.

While visiting China as Opposition Leader in July 2012, Tony Abbott [topic link page] expressed ‘hope for political reform to match China’s economic liberalisation’. He has been credited by some observers with injecting values and human rights discourse back into the Australia–China relationship, following the more reserved approach of the Gillard government [topic link page]. However, in October 2013, Abbott indicated he had not raised human rights in trade-focused meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, stating: ‘We will say our piece when there are major human rights abuses taking place but, generally speaking, it’s not the job of the Australian Prime Minister to stand up and give lectures to the wider world.’

Many commentators contend that the vital economic importance of China for Australia is an incentive for both sides of Australian political politics to maintain a harmonious bilateral relationship by reducing the prominence of human rights discourse. For instance, when the Occupy Central democracy movement swept Hong Kong in mid-late 2014, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged China to give Hong Kong citizens a ‘genuine say in their elections’ but altered travel plans to avoid being in Hong Kong during the protests.


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