China's human rights record came under formal international scrutiny on Tuesday for the first time since Xi Jinping became president, with Western countries rebuking it for arresting dissidents and curtailing Internet use and Tibetan rights.
Hours before the United Nations Human Rights Council, which reviews all UN members every four years, began its session in Geneva, Tibetan activists scaled the building and unfurled a banner reading: "China fails human rights in Tibet - UN stand up for Tibet". In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was willing to work with other countries on human rights as long as it was in a spirit of mutual respect. "But we firmly oppose those kinds of biased and malicious criticisms," she added, referring to the Tibetan protest.
At the session, Western delegations took the floor to voice deep concerns. China should permanently lift restrictions on access to minority areas including for diplomats, international human rights groups and journalists, Australia's charge d'affaires, Ruth Stone, said. Australia was concerned at reports of "harassment and arbitrary punishment of human rights advocates," including lawyers, and their families and associates, she added. German Ambassador Hanns Schumacher urged China to ensure freedom of opinion and expression, including on the Internet, and to continue reforming the criminal justice system, in particular to abolish the Reeducation through Labour system.
Schumacher also urged China "to further reduce the number of crimes carrying the death penalty, publish figures on death verdicts and executions and inform a public debate with a view to a moratorium and eventual abolition". A Chinese diplomat told the Geneva talks: "Our government decision is to retain the death penalty but exercise strict control of its use."
EXTENSIVE HUMAN RIGHTS
China's special envoy Wu Hailong, who led Beijing's delegation in Geneva, made no reference to the Tibet protest, but told the talks: "The Chinese government ensures that minority ethnic groups in China enjoy extensive human rights." Minorities participated in China's state and local affairs "as equals with the Han ethnic group", he said.
China has faced criticism from Western countries for what they call its cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in the vast western Xinjiang region. "We must strike a balance between reform, development and stability," Wu said, adding that reducing poverty was a priority. "Nearly 100 million people live in poverty. Some of them don't even have enough food and clothes. There is a saying that a 'hungry crowd is an angry crowd'. Big problems will occur if we cannot feed the poor," he said.
Some experts had thought the administration of Xi would be less hardline than his predecessors. Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clamp down that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change. For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth as well as scores of people accused of online "rum our-mongering"."Xi Jin ping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights," prominent rights lawyer Mo Sharping told Reuters.
The council has no binding powers. Its rotating membership of 47 states does not include China, although Beijing is expected to run for a place in early November. China's record was previously assessed in 2009 by the Geneva forum. Maya Wang, an Asia expert for New York-based Human Rights Watch, voiced concern at the August arrest of prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, who called for officials to reveal their wealth. Wang also cited the September disappearance of Ca Shun, who had helped stage a sit-in this year outside the Foreign Ministry to press for the public to be allowed to contribute to a national human rights report.