BEIJING — Not since the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests has there been this much diplomatic concern about the direction China is taking. And for once, in a highly unusual show of frustration and unity, Western nations are speaking out in concert.
In the past two months, the United States has been joined by European nations, Canada and Japan in a series of strongly worded joint statements expressing deep concern about where China is headed under President Xi Jinping.
Some have been made in public joint letters to the Chinese government, others in private. Whether they make a difference is an open question.
“Western nations are more united,” said one diplomat, who declined to be identified to talk freely about sensitive matters. “We are worried China is taking a wrong turn.”
Under Xi, China has tightened the screws of repression and censorship, the nations complain. Security concerns are trumping business interests, while market-opening reforms aren’t happening fast enough. At the same time, China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea have not just spooked its Asian neighbors but sparked concerns from Washington to Brussels.
In a strongly worded letter sent Feb. 25, the ambassadors of the United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan and other nations expressed “growing concerns over the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law and basic human rights.”
The previously unreported letter, seen by The Washington Post, was addressed to the minister of public security, Guo Shengkun. It complained about the arrests of civil-society actors, human rights defenders, lawyers and labor rights activists, and about a series of televised “confessions” that “make an unbiased trial impossible.” It has yet to elicit a formal response, diplomats say.
“Frustration had been building because we got the sense China isn’t responding when we raise concerns individually,” another diplomat said. “So we saw the need for a united front, for joint action to really get China’s attention.”
Some Western nations remain too keen to attract Chinese trade and investment to say much about human rights. But others calculate that China’s repressive domestic policies and assertive foreign policies can no longer be ignored — partly because they are unsettling the foreign business community and affecting foreign nationals.
Two weeks ago — this time publicly before the U.N. Human Rights Council — the United States was joined by Australia, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden in issuing an explicit condemnation of China’s “problematic” and “deteriorating” human rights record.
Among the complaints: “the unexplained recent disappearances and apparent coerced returns of Chinese and foreign citizens from outside mainland China,” which the statement called “unacceptable, out of step with the expectations of the international community, and a challenge to the rules-based international order.”
In the past six months, several dissidents have been arrested or abducted by Chinese security police in Thailand, Burma and Hong Kong and repatriated to mainland China, including two Hong Kong booksellers holding British and Swedish passports respectively.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said the joint diplomatic reaction showed how serious the situation had become.
“It’s been 12 years since this many governments spoke with one voice about human rights erosions in China,” she said, calling it “a powerful and public metric of concern about abuses inside the country and, alarmingly, abuses by Beijing well beyond its borders.”
In January, U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus was joined by counterparts from Canada, Germany, Japan and the European Union in signing a joint letter expressing unease about a new counterterrorism law and draft laws on cybersecurity and nongovernmental organizations.
The laws, diplomats say, show Xi’s government as making internal security such an overriding concern that the government is not just repressing its own people but is also potentially damaging its own economy and scaring away investors.
That letter, first revealed by Reuters, expressed concern that the laws would “impede commerce, stifle innovation and infringe on China’s obligation to protect human rights in accordance with international law.”
This month, the European Union issued another forthright comment on a separate issue: tensions in the South China Sea. Although it did not name names, its concerns, including the deployment of missiles or military forces on disputed islands, seemed to have Beijing squarely in mind.
It is a dramatic diplomatic shift in just a few months. In December, the United States, Canada and Germany were the only major nations to mark International Human Rights Day with strong statements about China. Britain had then been at the forefront of those trying to play down concerns, talking of a “golden era” in relations and praising China for progress in protecting civil and political rights.
Now, diplomats say, Britain has signed on willingly to several joint statements. The main reason: China’s intransigence over the fate of bookseller and British citizen Lee Bo, apparently abducted from Hong Kong in December and held without access to legal or diplomatic representation.
When British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond visited Beijing in January, his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, declared that Lee was “first and foremost a Chinese citizen.” When Hammond later complained that Lee’s disappearance was a serious breach of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula under which China took back Hong Kong, Britain was told to stop interfering and “mind its words.”
This was a serious embarrassment, several diplomats said, and a sign that the “golden era” in relations meant less to Beijing than it did to London.
Sweden has also found its complaints falling on deaf ears. Two of its citizens — bookseller Gui Minhai and human rights worker Peter Dahlin — have been caught up in the crackdown. Their forced confessions were aired on national television, in scenes that critics say are more reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution or North Korea than would be appropriate for a world power in the 21st century.
On March 2, the Swedish ambassador to China, Lars Fredén, expressed concern about Gui’s confession, posting on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, that it was “something many hoped had ended in China decades ago.”
His comment attracted more than 1.3 million views, and many positive comments, before it was deleted by China’s censors.
In public, China’s response has been mixed. At the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, the country’s top diplomat, Fu Cong, accused the United States of hypocrisy, kidnapping and large-scale extraterritorial eavesdropping, and alleged that U.S. troops raped and murdered civilians on foreign soil.
But the state-run China Daily argued that Beijing should “listen and respond” to international concerns over some of the new laws, while reassuring Western observers that China would continue with the process of “reform and opening up.”
Diplomats don’t expect much movement on the human rights question, but on one area at least, there has been a sliver of hope.
Passage of the draft NGO law appears to have stalled, with concerns also raised from within China itself and a debate apparently continuing inside the party, diplomats say. Despite China’s repressive turn, that at least, they say, shows that someone, somewhere, is listening.