Sky Views: China's consequence free crackdown
  • Tue, 06/13/2017 - 16:57

Katie Stallard, Asia Correspondent

China's president, Xi Jinping, has been having quite the year so far.

From being lauded as a great defender of globalisation in Davos, to educating Donald "after listening for 10 minutes I realised it's not so easy" Trump on the complexity of Korean history in Florida, the business of global statesmanship has been going pretty well.

Last month brought the much-hyped, if awkwardly named "Belt and Road Forum" to Beijing, along with a procession of heads of state (although mostly not the leaders of major western economies) in search of a share of the multi-billion pound trade and infrastructure project.

And then the US walked away from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, gifting de-facto leadership on the issue to the world's biggest polluter.

Human rights groups say the Chinese president is overseeing the most concerted attack on domestic rights since Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Katie Stallard

"Now China leads," the new French president is reported to have said.

The timing could not be more perfect for Mr Xi.

Later this year, he will preside over an important party congress, held every five years, where he hopes to consolidate power, and manoeuvre his allies into the top ranks of the politburo.

If ever there was a moment when he needs to be looking like a capable global leader, it is now.

But all is not rosy in Xi's China.

For all the country's economic progress, human rights groups say the Chinese president is overseeing the most concerted attack on domestic rights since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The 28th anniversary of the crackdown passed quietly a fortnight ago, coincidentally the same weekend China was being feted for its leadership on climate change.

President Trump and President Xi at a bilateral meeting in in Palm Beach, Florida

In Xinjiang, authorities have banned the region's Uighur Muslims from wearing veils to work in public places, growing "abnormal beards", and naming their children "to incite religious fervour" - a list thought to include Mecca and Mohammed - under the auspices of tackling religious extremism.

Meanwhile, there are accounts of lawyers being detained and tortured for their work on human rights, allegations dismissed by China's state media as "fake news".

Eleven countries, including the UK, but not the US, signed a joint letter in February, calling for an investigation into what it called "credible claims of torture" against the lawyers, but the letter was sent privately.

British government officials say they raise human rights issues with China robustly, but for the most part, the best way to do this is in private, rather than resorting to what they call "megaphone diplomacy".

But does that actually work?

I put this to Germany's ambassador to China, Michael Clauss, recently.

His country takes a more direct approach.

Angela Merkel and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang during his visit to Berlin

Chancellor Merkel insists on meeting human rights activists during her visits, and openly voicing criticism, despite which trade relations seem to be going strong.

Was it time for other countries to start using the megaphone, I asked the ambassador.

He said they consult many human rights activists here on this, and the response is - by all means raise these issues in private, but please also raise them in public.

We talk to a lot of people, he reiterated, and there is nobody saying it would be better if you could raise this privately, please just keep it quiet.

He was too diplomatic to say more, but he didn't need to. Twenty eight years ago there was a price to pay for cracking down on its people - China was sanctioned and treated as a global pariah.

Now, with the exception of mild statements of concern, the crackdown seems to be almost entirely consequence-free.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.