The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Look who’s talking — and who’s not. Western nations choose words carefully on China human rights.

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang talks to media in Beijing in this July 20, 2012 photo. (REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic).

Money might not buy you love, but it can certainly buy you silence.

Last Thursday, the United Nations celebrated Human Rights Day to mark the 67th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In China, the event prompted some discussion among the diplomatic community. Who would be brave enough to put out a public statement calling out China on its increasingly grim human rights record? Would European or Western nations be prepared to issue a joint statement?

If diplomats needed any reminder of the crackdown that has ensued since Xi Jinping became president, they needed only to look at the case of Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s most prominent and admired lawyers, who faced trial Monday on charges widely derided by Western legal experts, after 18 months in detention.

In the end, very few decided to speak out, and some balked at the idea of a joint statement.

[Read: 'Picking quarrels and provoking troubles': Influential Chinese lawyer on trial for seven tweets]

While diplomats and journalists, including The Post’s Emily Rauhala, were cursed and shoved outside Pu’s trial, WorldViews sat back in the warmth and took a look at the websites of some of the major Western nations.

Of the countries we surveyed, only three issued statements last Thursday containing criticism of China’s human rights record.

They were the United States, Canada and Germany.

U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus said respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would “create a more stable and prosperous China.” He cited the case of three lawyers, Wang Yu, Li Heping and Zhang Kai, fighting “bravely” for people’s rights, who have disappeared into custody, as well as that of Pu.

“In some cases, these Chinese citizens have been detained in secret locations without access to their families or their lawyers,” Baucus said. “This is deeply troubling and calls into question China’s commitment to the rule of law.”

The German Embassy praised China for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty but also mentioned “setbacks” such as a “massive crackdown” on hundreds of lawyers and activists. Mentioning lawyers Wang, Li and Zhou Shifeng, it also cited the case of Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. She has been under house arrest for five years.

[Read: Lu Xiaobo’s wife describes her house arrest]

Canadian Ambassador Guy Saint-Jacques said he had witnessed a “worrisome increase in the number of Chinese citizens jailed for peacefully expressing their views, as well as attempts to silence critics outside of China.”

[Read: China’s irrepressible lawyers]

But outside these three countries, the picture was much darker. The European Union was unwilling to say anything, instead issuing a bland global statement about the importance of human rights and the benefits of a “vibrant civil society” without mentioning any country by name.

Many European countries, including France, Sweden and the Netherlands, simply cut and pasted copies of the E.U. statement. There was nothing at all about human rights that we could see on the websites of the embassies of Australia, New Zealand or Japan.

But perhaps silence was a better tactic than the statement issued by the British Embassy. Rather than offering even meek criticism of China, the embassy decided to praise it, celebrating what both sides have labeled a “golden age” in relations.

“China has taken strides to better protect civil and political rights by abolishing re-education through labour,” the statement said admiringly. “Current reforms aim to produce a more transparent and professional justice system.”

Lawyers locked up? No mention. A crackdown on religious freedom? An assault on free speech? Not a word. Instead, a quote from Chinese President Xi that “there is always room for improvement.”

As Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted, the statement was widely derided on social media, even though the embassy later told the paper that it does engage with China over rights.

The paper’s correspondent, Tom Phillips, was also outside Pu’s trial today, and he had this to add:

Human Rights Watch had called on ambassadors to attend Pu’s trial, but in the end none came. To be fair, diplomats from Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom were all spotted there, along with deputy political counselor Dan Biers from the U.S. Embassy.

Here is how Biers was treated when he tried to read out a statement expressing concern about the charges Pu faced, with unidentified men shoving him and reporters in an attempt to prevent him talking.

An E.U. diplomat also tried to make a statement but was prevented from doing so.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin observed, “the aggression directed by police and plainclothes thugs against diplomats, journalists and the lawyer’s supporters was unusually brassy — in keeping with the Chinese government’s increasingly defiant stance on questions of human rights.”

Indeed, there is no doubt that China is growing increasingly assertive in pushing back against Western criticism of its human rights record.

But as many students of China’s foreign policy will tell you, the government in Beijing tends to respect strength and punish weakness. Countries such as Germany that have stood up to China on human rights still enjoy warm and growing trade relations. Even archrival Japan has a thriving business relationship with China.

But show any weakness and Beijing will push for more concessions, some experts say. It remains to be seen whether silence and sycophancy will yield any material rewards.

At Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson had this to say:

“We believe it remains critically important for embassies in China to seize any opportunity to talk about human rights, and international human rights day is a key moment in the calendar. The statements from Canada, Germany, and the U.S. are welcome contributions: they explicitly express concerns about negative trends like the crackdown on lawyers and civil society, they offer recommendations about what Beijing should do, and, arguably most important, they recognize specific individuals being persecuted for their peaceful activism.

"The U.K.'s statement does none of this: instead, it appears a contorted effort to say something on human rights day, but only something the Chinese government would like to hear.  That statement caps a year of extraordinary human rights capitulation from the U.K. on China.

"Too many E.U. member states hid behind the E.U.’s skirts in opting only to support the E.U.’s annual and always global statement rather than issue their own."

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.