The Question of Human Rights?Posted: 10 November 2010
There has been a lot of media coverage recently over prime minister David Cameron’s trip to China, through which he is seeking to forge stronger commercial links with the country. While there are billions of pounds at stake, it’s easy to understand why Cameron is eager to make Britain appear a good choice of partner to the Chinese government. However, given the increasing concerns over human rights and political freedom on the mainland, he is being questioned for his priorities; and rightly so.
I’m not a political expert. I’m just an ordinary person, and not Chinese at that. I haven’t seen what is happening first hand in the country. But what I have seen is enough to make me worry about the message Cameron is sending. This, for example, is not enough. “Deeply held concerns” is not strong enough a phrase to do justice to how the British people feel, or should feel, about the situation of human rights in China.
What Cameron should be doing is holding up the cases of Chinese citizens such as Ai Weiwei to the Chinese government and asking them to justify them. Ai Weiwei is arguably China’s most prominent living artist and architect. His work has been exhibited around the world, but he is more well-known for his opinions than his art, especially in China.
Ai Weiwei was commissioned as the artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium (also known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’) but later distanced himself from the project due to the abuse of human rights during the Olympics in China, calling the festivities a “pretend smile” which sought to hide the true state of the country.
After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (during which an estimated 680,000 people died), Ai collaborated with fellow investigator Tan Zuoren in exposing corruption surrounding the shoddy construction of buildings which collapsed. Ai published evidence of this, as well as a list of student’s names killed in the disaster, on his blog; which was shut down by Chinese authorities. He was then attacked and beaten in the head at his hotel by Chinese police, effectively preventing him from testifying at Tan’s trial. In September 2009, Ai was admitted to hospital in Germany and given emergency brain surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage which almost killed him. Doctors believed this to be directly connected with the attack.
Two years ago, Ai and other prominent Chinese artists were persuaded by the Shanghai Municipal authorities to create a designated cultural area by building art studios in Shanghai. Earlier this year Ai created a documentary about the human rights activist Feng Zengzhu, who spent three months living at Narita airport in Tokyo after repeatedly being denied re-entry into the country.
Last week, he was placed under house arrest to prevent a party, advertised on Twitter, to bid a peaceful farewell to his studio in Shanghai. Chinese authorities are to demolish it, giving the reason that the building is “unsafe” and lacks planning permission, despite originally giving that permission when the studio was built. Ai’s studio is the only one in the area to be demolished.
Ai Weiwei is far from alone. I could give countless more examples of individuals and groups in China who have been persecuted unjustly for simply expressing their right to free speech and political freedom. What I would like to know is whether David Cameron really thinks that turning a blind eye in giving the golden handshake to a government which violently suppresses political opposition is what the British people want from their leader?
Photo credit: The Guardian Fiona Hanson/PA