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China’s economic woes risk trickling down to civil society

United Kingdom

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Premier Wen at the UK-China Summit press conference, 27 June 2011. Foreign and Commonwealth Office under a Creative Commons Licence

China's recent clampdown suggests deep concern over future levels of unemployment, writes Jessica Toale.

The UK has made great strides in developing its relationship with China. We are now the fourth largest recipient of China’s direct investment, which has benefited our tech and infrastructure sectors in particular. Last year was the first ever UK-China Year of Culture, and of course President Xi visited the UK in October, heralding the beginning of a 'Golden Era of UK-China relations’.

However, the success we have had in building our economic relationship with China has not been matched by development of the political side of this relationship – and has even come at the expense of some of our long-held values. David Cameron’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama in 2015 sparked criticism of his prioritizing ‘money over morality,’ and I discovered on a visit to Beijing last October the open secret that George Osborne’s decision not to raise human rights on his trade mission made the UK appear weak. This lost us not only the respect of members of the diplomatic community, but also our Chinese counterparts.

This is all the more important in the context of China’s current economic woes and recent moves to clamp down on religious and civil society freedoms. According to Bob Fu from the Chinese human rights organization China aid, who spoke in UK Parliament recently, China's regime is becoming increasingly repressive and rule of law regressed in 2015 at its most drastic pace since the Cultural Revolution. In the same meeting Miss World Canada, Anastasia Lin, who was denied entry to China for her activism, spoke passionately of the injustices and religious persecution faced by minority groups. She also raised the scale of illegal organ harvesting from political prisoners and ‘prisoners of conscience’ in China, citing UN calls for the government to prove the provenance of its apparent oversupply of organs.

The clampdown has come in the form of legislation and action to curtail religious freedoms, close civil society space, and arrest human rights defenders. In eastern China, thousands of churches have had their crosses removed or demolished. A large number of human rights defenders were arbitrarily arrested in a massive police operation last July, and the number of people imprisoned for security related reasons doubled between 2014 and 2015. Laws governing national security and civil society have been introduced to increase surveillance including the recent comprehensive law on charities and non-profits, which increases government oversight on charities’ internal management. And most recently a number of journalists and their family members were detained in connection with an investigation over a document calling for the resignation of President Xi. Increasingly, national security is being cited as a reason for cracking down on human rights defenders and civil society.

The same week in which the new law governing civil society organizations was passed, China’s top leaders met in Boao to discuss how to deal with the impact of slower economic growth, including the potential resulting mass job losses. It is worth noting that while the official unemployment rate remains steady at around 4 per cent, the National Bureau of Economic Research has revealed it may actually closer to 11 per cent.

This is significant because there is a clear link between unemployment and civil unrest. This suggests the Chinese government’s recent clampdown is inextricably connected to its concern over future levels of unemployment. Together, they form an active economic and national security strategy – and it is likely to get worse.

The UK is meant to be a world leader on governance, justice, human rights and rule of law. The UK government has frequently pushed for progress on these issues at UN-level, especially in its support for Goal 16 of the new Sustainable Development Goals which commits to creating peaceful, just and inclusive societies. Despite this, in managing its relationship with China, the government is foundering.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for Britain: How do we reconcile our desire for a greater economic partnership and the opportunities it brings with the need for political collaboration which would enhance dialogue and allow us to tackle difficult issues like human rights and other freedoms – particularly if the current trajectory tells us that the situation in China will continue to deteriorate. The UK government and business community appear reluctant to do this and risk upsetting the Chinese. However, there are signs of hope. The Conservative Human Rights Commission, under the leadership of Fiona Bruce MP, launched an inquiry on human rights in China. Bruce even acknowledged that to be a true friend, we must be a critical friend.

The UK and China share a number of diplomatic platforms, from permanent seats on the UN Security Council to the board of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. They will continue to come face-to-face on challenging political issues, and increasingly, if the UK steel crisis is anything to go by, economic hurdles which pit Chinese and UK economic and national security priorities at odds. In this context, direct government-to-government dialogue must develop rather than diminish. Building a strong diplomatic relationship based on mutual trust and respect with China will require genuine economic and political exchange if we are to truly usher in a golden era of UK-China relations.

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