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How to pick quarrels and influence people (in China)

In China “picking quarrels” is a serious criminal offence, that can lead to those convicted spending lengthy amounts of time languishing in jail, writes Allan Hogarth.

Last week Amnesty International issued a statement highlighting the plight of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang who was formally arrested for “picking quarrels” and “illegally obtaining personal information”. He was originally detained by police on 6 May after he attended a seminar in Beijing that called for an investigation into the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

This week will see Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visit London for three days of meetings with the Prime Minister, and – as has been much discussed – an audience with the Queen. Mr Li is reportedly being joined on the visit by 200 Chinese business people, all looking for opportunities to invest in UK plc, investment which could, according to The Guardian, be worth a staggering £18 billion.

The visit comes just two weeks after the 25th Anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown which saw hundreds and possibly thousands killed as they demonstrated for democracy and human rights. In China repression intensified around the anniversary and in London there was a stony silence from the UK government who failed to issue a statement marking the date. At the time I was slightly perplexed by this silence as the UK does usually make a statement – something seemed amiss.

However, when I saw the announcement of Mr Li’s visit I realised why the government may have remained silent – perhaps they did not want to be accused of “picking quarrels”. The UK government has, after all, been keen to improve relations with China following a difficult couple of years, notably since Mr Cameron met with the Dalai Lama and the breakdown of the China/UK human rights dialogue earlier this year.

Whilst I understand the importance that the UK government put on ensuring the economy is healthy, it is critical that in these cash-strapped post-banking-crisis times, human rights are not elbowed off the agenda at the cost of economic discussions. Whilst it’s easy to see why the UK and other governments are keen to cosy up to the financial behemoths and secure economic ties, it is important that they take a long view and ensure human rights are raised.

It would appear that conventional wisdom seems to accept that China will recoil at any mention of human rights – this must be challenged. After all, only last year they joined the UK in being elected to the UN Human Rights Council – if they are sincere about their role on the Council then they must demonstrate this by being open to dialogues on human rights.

A lot of work needs to be done on improving China’s human rights. For example, China executes more people than the rest of the world put together. Mr Cameron should call for an end to this. He could also condemn the persecution of government critics like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate serving 11 years after he called for free elections and respect for human rights. Cameron could also mention Liu Xia, his wife, who has endured years of surveillance and isolation. Pu Zhiqiang’s arrest last week for “picking quarrels” and “illegally obtaining personal information” reminds us of the constant challenge such activists face.

According to The Economist, civil society in China is thriving with over 500,000 Non-Governmental Organisations already registered with the state. However, the Chinese authorities continue to draw the line at human rights organisations, which remain banned. This growth in civil society participation in China is interesting; the UK and other governments should take note of this and consider how “people power” could bring about significant social change. Perhaps Mr Cameron may wish to discuss with Mr Li how such engagement can be extended in order that human rights organisations can participate?

Mr Cameron should challenge conventional wisdom and raise human rights – he may be accused of “picking quarrels”, but then some things are worth fighting for.

 Allan Hogarth is Amnesty International UK Head of Advocacy and Programmes 

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