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Commentary

Taste of peer review sours China

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

China presented a report on human rights to the United Nations last week and, while its record was widely praised by Third World nations, the government was clearly not happy that it was criticized by Australia, Canada and some European countries. The United States was silent.

The UN Human Rights Council held what is known as a Universal Periodic Review, which all member states have to go through every four years. This was China's first report.

China was hailed for being the first country to meet the poverty-reduction target set out in the UN Millennium Development Goals. Beijing reported that, since 1978, the number of people in rural areas living in poverty had fallen from 250 million to more than 14 million.

Some countries, including the Philippines, Algeria, Vietnam and Malaysia, asked China to share its experience on poverty-reduction strategies, especially in rural areas. But some Western nations took China to task for what they saw as failings on civil and political rights.

Australia and Canada, among others, called on Beijing to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998. Australia called on China to abolish the death penalty and, meanwhile, to reduce the number of crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed and publish figures on executions. It also asked China to allow foreign journalists to visit Tibet and to relax restraints on Chinese journalists.

Canada expressed “deep concern” about reports of arbitrary detention of Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols, as well as Falun Gong practitioners. It urged China to provide those held on state-security charges with “fundamental legal safeguards,” including access to counsel and public trial and sentencing.

China grouped its response to the recommendations into categories. One list enjoyed China's support. A second contained recommendations that China says it's already implemented, such as guaranteeing detainees be held in decent facilities. A third had recommendations that China says it will study; these include reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty and adopting legislation on domestic violence.

The final list contained recommendations that “did not enjoy the support of China.” These include publishing the number of annual executions, abolishing administrative detention and setting up an independent human-rights institution.

Some of the recommendations were apparently rejected because China insists there is no problem. On freedom of speech and expression, for example, the Chinese delegation said “there is no censorship in the country.” The delegation also “noted with regret that there were a few countries, like Australia, which made some ill-founded comments on Tibet. China categorically rejects this attempt to politicize the issue.”

Australia was the only country mentioned by name in the Chinese response. Ironically, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a fluent Mandarin speaker, visited China last year and, in a speech at Peking University, said Australia wanted to be China's zheng you – a good friend who dares to disagree. Now, it would appear, China is indicating that's not the kind of friend it wants.

The Chinese government's attitude may have been expressed by Vice-President Xi Jinping, who was visiting Mexico. Addressing a group of overseas Chinese, Mr. Xi, who's widely expected to be the country's next leader when President Hu Jintao steps down, said: “There are some foreigners who had eaten their fill and had nothing better to do, pointing their fingers at our affairs. China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; or third, cause unnecessary trouble for you. What else is there to say?”

It is difficult to see what China expects when it takes part in the activities of the Human Rights Council. There's little point in having a review of a country's human-rights record if all that other countries are expected to do is lavish praise.

Frank Ching is the author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record

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