On May 31 2021 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held a joint Press Conference in Queenstown, New Zealand. While these two countries previously diverged in their criticism towards China’s treatment of their citizens, at this Conference both Prime Ministers joined in denouncing China’s human rights abuses: “The Prime Ministers expressed deep concern over developments that limit the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and undermine the high degree of autonomy China guaranteed Hong Kong until 2047 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
This new united front from Australia and New Zealand represents a significant change from New Zealand’s previous policy regarding China. BBC reports that “China is New Zealand’s largest export market; New Zealand depends on China for close to 30% of its exports, mostly dairy products.” This previously created a monetary motive for New Zealand to refrain from criticizing China’s human rights violations. Not only did their failure to condemn China stray from Australia’s policy, but it also contradicted their 5 Eyes Alliance counterparts who have all denounced China’s actions.
BBC explains that “The 5 Eyes Alliance is an intelligence-sharing arrangement between five English-speaking democracies: the U.S.A., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It evolved during the Cold War as a mechanism for monitoring the Soviet Union and sharing classified intelligence. It is often described as the world’s most successful intelligence alliance.” Because of New Zealand’s long-held leniency towards China, reuniting with the policies of 5 Eyes Alliance shows a drastic change in foreign policy. The reunification with Australia, in reprimanding Chinese human rights abuses, could be the push the international community needs to unequivocally pressure China to stop violating human rights law.
Human rights abuses have persisted in China for a multitude of reasons. Not only does the country resist international opinion and censure the voices of their citizens, but the inaction of countries like New Zealand also disincentivizes change. For instance, in April and May 2021, the 5 Eyes Alliance condemned China. As reported by the BBC, “Four of the members have jointly condemned China’s treatment of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang province.” The only member of the 5 Eyes Alliance who did not join in this condemnation was New Zealand. By not corroborating the criticism, the action of the whole organization bears less weight and suggests disunity in regard to China.
In regard to ongoing human rights issues in the country, there have been multiple reports from many different human rights organizations concerning the severity of the issue. Human Rights Watch reports that as many as one million Turkic Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, specifically the Uyghurs, have been detained in “political education camps.” This potential genocide is not a new issue. Turkic Muslims have faced decades of prosecution since current detentions began in 2014.
Human rights violations in Hong Kong are also extremely serious. Citizens in the region continuously protest in favour of democracy, often resulting in violent police crackdowns. The unrest also gives China an excuse to reduce Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Hong Kong is part of Beijing’s one country, two systems policy, as Hong Kong was returned to China from British rule in 1997. Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong is under a capitalist system which creates a very different civil society from the communist regime in China. National Geographic reports that up to 100,000 Chinese fled to Hong Kong after the Communist Party took over in 1949. Since June 4 is the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, activists are currently trying to find a way to commemorate the lives lost in 1989 and continue the fight for democracy. Clearly, these human rights abuses are not new issues. In part, the international community has begotten limited success in stopping these human rights abuses because countries like New Zealand have refrained criticism of China.
International pressure is extremely important in cases of human rights violations. China must understand that change is necessary to maintain its economic prosperity and political legitimacy. However, New Zealand is just a singular country. Its objection merely adds to a long list of organizations and countries calling for change that has yet to come. PBS reports that, in 2019, five human rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, sent a letter urging the U.N. to condemn China’s treatment of Muslims. While this letter was sent in 2019, the issues began long before that year.
As New Zealand condemns China for these same issues in 2021, it is obvious that change has not been made. Even so, the denouncement evidences greater exposure of the issue. BBC News reports that, in a united effort in March 2021, the U.S., the E.U., the U.K., and Canada sanctioned China for their human rights abuses in the region of Xinjiang. The bloc represents the first time the E.U. has “imposed new sanctions on China over human rights abuses since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, when troops in Beijing opened fire on pro-democracy protesters.”
Australia and New Zealand have not added any sanctions of their own, but their recent joint statement could display their willingness to force change. To persuade China to consider the impact of the international community, these countries need to do more. While Australia and New Zealand condemn China, actualized sanctions are necessary.
Human Rights Watch published an article in 2016 explaining necessary steps to make China terminate human rights abuses against their own citizens. The author writes “Decades of experience should make clear to Washington, Brussels, and others that Beijing responds only to the expectation of unpleasant consequences.” The non-governmental organization then outlines six approaches that countries should take if they are serious about stopping China’s human rights abuses. The most notable entry points Human Rights Watch discusses are “Beijing’s dislike of public embarrassment,” “Beijing’s quest for pomp to protect its power,” and “Beijing’s need for the rest of the world.” All three of these points exemplify how international public opinion and pressure are more influential than one may think, and the power in numbers can be helpful.
By continuing to expose these human rights abuses in the international community, Beijing could lose credibility and influence. This is exemplified by the actions of Australia and New Zealand in the past week. But, in order to convince China to change, there also needs to be specific calls to action. For instance, disinviting Chinese officials to major diplomatic events, halting certain exports or imports from the country, and continuing to publicly and harshly denounce them in rank with other democracies and human rights organizations.
Human Rights Watch says “No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how consistent, and no matter how passionately argued, efforts to persuade Beijing that its self-interest depends on better respect for human rights have failed.” This leaves democratic countries and organizations to utilize international policy and harsh rhetoric to force China into a change that will potentially save millions of lives in China and evade military conflict.
Doing nothing is no longer an option. Turkic Muslims, Hong Kong citizens, and many others across China face oppression, unwarranted arrests, and censorship. To effectively stop these abuses, China cannot be criticized lightly. It must feel the diplomatic force of the entire international community with no hesitancy.