During the recent high-profile visit to China by a UK trade delegation, from 20-25 September, human rights lawyer Wang Yu was in her tenth week of detention in an undisclosed location. Lawyer Li Heping was also in his tenth week of “secret and illegal” detention, and repeated efforts to find out where he had come to nothing. Fellow lawyer Zhang Kai was being held incommunicado, accused of “spying”, “disturbing social order”, and providing state secrets to entities outside China. All three were denied access to a lawyer.
These three cases are not isolated occurrences. This year has seen the
unprecedented arrestand detention of hundreds of Chinese lawyers and activists since July 2015. To put this in perspective, legal scholar and China expert Eva Pils estimates there are between 200 and 300 human rights lawyers in China. The scale of these recent arrests, which have affected not only over 130 of these lawyers, but also over 150 of their colleagues and family members as well as activists, can surely only be seen as the deliberate targeting of a crucial segment of the legal community.
The arrests of human rights lawyers in China have been reported widely in the international media and by human rights groups since July. Lawyer Wang Yu was the first to be detained. She had previously defended members of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice banned in China, as well as women’s rights activists and Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti. Many of the lawyers detained and interrogated in the following weeks were signatories to a letter condemning her forced disappearance. Among the lawyers arrested are many who have worked on "sensitive" cases, such as defending the right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. They are on the frontlines of a battle for the rule of law in China.
The rule of law, justice, human rights – these are ideals enshrined in our legal system and widely celebrated this year on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. At the anniversary of its signing, the Prime Minister affirmed that countries whose governments are subject to the rule of law tend to be “the long term successes”, while those who don’t “tend to be the long term failures”. While we laud China’s commercial development and seek ever closer trade relationships, this should surely not be at the expense of neglecting enduring values which we hold dear. Human rights should not be sidelined from trade discussions. It is not a case of trade and investment being pitted against human rights. It is not a case of engaging with one but not the other. It needs to be both.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an advocacy organisation working to uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief, believes that freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is a touchstone for human rights standards in a nation. China’s record on FoRB is lamentable and many of the imprisoned lawyers have been censured for defending religious minorities. In Zhejiang province alone, over one thousand crosses have been removed from churches since early 2014, prompting Catholic and Protestant church leaders, lay Christians and human rights lawyers in China to speak out in protest, including the Anglican Archbishop of Hong Kong. In Xinjiang, which the delegation visited on their trip,
Muslims face restrictionson their dress and religious observance, and intrusive monitoring of religious activities, under the guise of anti-terror measures.
China’s record on FoRB and human rights should matter to Britain if we’re serious about trade and investment. A
recent studyby Georgetown University and Brigham Young University found that religious freedom contributes to “better economic and business outcomes”. The authors go on to suggest that improving religious freedom is in the self-interest of businesses, governments, and societies.
Next week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will make the first state visit to the UK of a Chinese leader for over a decade; another sign of Britain’s deepening friendship with China. But friends must also speak the truth to one another. We must not shirk from raising human rights issues with China if it fails to hold itself accountable to domestic and international law, including by urging the government to end practices and policies restricting freedom of religion or belief. The values enshrined in Magna Carta are not only for British citizens but are relevant today the world over; Britain should demand the release of human rights defenders, lawyers and religious leaders detained or imprisoned in connection with the peaceful and lawful defence of their rights and the rights of others.
Although the recent arrests of rights lawyers are unprecedented in scale, they are at the sharp end of a long-term trend of oppression. Human rights lawyers in China have faced years of attacks on their private and professional lives. After being warned off certain cases, lawyers who refuse to quit are often disbarred, followed, and threatened. The threat of arrest or violence extends to their homes, workplaces and families, even as the Chinese government makes much-vaunted pronouncements about the rule of law. China also has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to have a Nobel laureate, Liu Xiabo, under house arrest.
Governments and companies doing business with China should consider what the rule of law really means in light of these recent events, and whether China is committed to strengthening rule by law instead. At the very least, we should not hesitate to ask these questions directly.
Fiona Bruce is the Conservative MP for Congleton and Chairman of the
Conservative Party Human Rights Commission