During China’s move toward a more capitalist economic system it has received repeated calls and international pressure over the last decade to match these gains in the domestic area of human rights and broader democratic principles. One of the most recent was during a meeting between President Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao in 2011 where Obama stated “History shows that societies are more harmonious, nations are successful and the world is more just when the rights and responsibilities of all nations and all people are upheld, including the universal rights of every human being,”. During this meeting activists within China also urged the president to press his counterpart to release fellow detained activists. The issue was also notably highlighted earlier in 2008 after the perceived failure of their promises to do so upon gaining the 2008 Olympics. Amnesty and other groups criticised the chinese authorities for the persecution and restriction of journalists who were prevented from practise free speech, instead facing detention and arbitrary arrests. In addition the Olympic’s own officials caved in to pressure from the Chinese authorities so that foreign athletes were forbidden to criticise the country’s human rights record.
What we must consider now is the effect Edward Snowden’s revelations will have on future efforts from the international realm to pressure China on improvements in the area of more democratic human rights. Considering China has held during the economic crisis a superior global position than its international counter-parts such pressure has, perhaps, already been compromised to a certain extent. Indeed China’s role in the continuing crisis within Syria indicates the power it yields. Along with Russia its vetoing plays a role in preventing an international consensus on an issue that could be critical to ending the conflict.
In light of this history these revelations concerning the nature of an American surveillance and espionage program on European Union offices are the type of ones that the Chinese authorities would most likely not welcome if it originated from one of their own citizens. Until then however China can continue to feel free to embarrass the United States over their perceived hypocrisy at calling for more urgent democratic reform in their country while more recently, accusing them of cyber-attacks on the American government and military contractors. In this aspect the issue of America’s surveillance program recalls how the existence of racial segregation allowed the Soviet Union to challenge the USA’s place as “Leader of The Free World” during the early period of the Cold War.
Yet when the EU accuses a capitalist country of behaving like the East German secret police; the Stasi, this might be viewed by some to be sensationalist language. Indeed such a viewpoint could be considered strange when you consider such an accusation is directed here rather than at a country like China which still largely censors its population. It is also a country within which Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year sentence in Heilongjiang province for ‘incitement to subvert state power’. Reports in 2013 by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both highlight continuing human rights issues such as the use of the death penalty and according to both sources China continued in 2012 to lead the world in executions. In parallel China has expanded its security apparatus. Amnesty’s 2013 report states that the authorities budgeted over 701 billion yuan (approximately US$112 billion) to maintain public security in 2013, an increase of over 30 billion from 2011.
In addition Edward Snowden’s new revelation could conceivably have implications for a trans-atlantic pact between the EU and US in May of this year pushed by Bob Fu – founder of the organisation ChinaAid and its president – which aimed to unite western political and civilian elements concerned about China’s democratic and human rights record. The existence of this new treaty perhaps also highlights the ineffectiveness of the existing EU-China human rights dialogue established 14 years ago. Seemingly referring to previous failures Fu’s colleague, blind activist Chen Guangcheng, criticised the pacifist notion that “economic diplomacy and dollar diplomacy can solve all problems.”
Human Rights Watch echoes this view also, stating on their website in 2012 that “For years the Chinese government has been running circles around the EU, fully cognizant that at a European level there is no real will to engage on human rights, turning these meetings into exercises of very limited utility,” (Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.) “Demands for the rule of law in China have become mainstream among ordinary citizens despite the government’s hostility – but Europe has failed to play its part by holding Beijing to its international obligations and commitments.”
The United States has long claimed that the fundamental principle of freedom is the cornerstone of their foreign policy. Yet history tells us this is not a pure form of freedom it promotes but one which it often enforces on nations through military means, and often for its own interests. As long as it continues to display this veneer individuals like Snowden are granted an opportunity to pull it down. As a consequence the democratic concepts of freedom and human rights are not only compromised at home but, in addition, their application and legitimacy abroad.