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Australia vows to keep raising human rights concerns with China despite ambassador’s warning

Xiao Qian implies resumption of dialogue conditional on Australia taking a ‘constructive attitude’ and not ‘trying to smear China’

By Daniel Hurst

January 30, 2023

China’s ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian has opened the possibility of a conditional resumption of dialogue on human rights. Photograph: Dean Lewins/EPA

The Australian government has vowed to keep raising human rights concerns “at the highest levels” after Beijing’s ambassador urged the country to avoid “trying to smear China”.

After a thaw in the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, China has signalled its openness to resuming a dedicated human rights-focused dialogue for the first time in nine years.

But China’s ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, has implied the offer is conditional on Australia taking a “constructive attitude” and the relationship returning to a more “normal” footing.

Human rights groups urged the Australian government to tread carefully, warning against a “box-ticking” exercise that could be designed to lower the volume of public criticism by leaders.

Kyinzom Dhongdue, a strategic campaigns lead for Amnesty International Australia and a Tibetan human rights campaigner, said any human rights dialogue “must take place unconditionally”.

“To the Chinese government, normalising the relationship means Australia first conforming to various Chinese government demands, including putting issues like human rights in Xinjiang off the table,” Dhongdue said.

“The Tibetans and Uyghurs seek real, tangible improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet or Xinjiang, not a dialogue for dialogue’s sake.”

The human rights dialogue between Australia and China began in 1997 and was once seen by both governments as a chance to “engage in a frank and constructive exchange of views at a senior level on human rights issues”.

But the format, which expanded over time to include politicians and the Australian Human Rights Commission, is now defunct.

Such a meeting was last held in Beijing in 2014. The EU has continued its own version of the human rights dialogue with China.

Xiao floated the idea of resuming such talks when asked by Guardian Australia about human rights during a 90-minute press conference at the embassy in Canberra this month.

The proposal largely flew under the radar in the Australian media because coverage was dominated by Xiao’s strong criticism of the Japanese ambassador to Australia, Shingo Yamagami, and of Japan’s conduct during the second world war.

Xiao said: “In future, I think we are ready to explore whether we can resume our human rights dialogue with the Australian side.”

The ambassador said China “would welcome any suggestion, any views expressed, but with constructive attitudes”. But he said it would not be constructive or helpful to level “criticism in the name of freedom of speech” in order to “smear China” or undermine “the rule of the Chinese Communist party”.

Xiao flatly rejected the findings of the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights that China’s policies in Xinjiang could constitute crimes against humanity. He said the UN report was “a product of absolute political manipulation”.

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, has described the report as “harrowing”. She met with Uyghur community groups last week.

Asked for a response to Xiao’s offer, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the government had been consistent in raising concerns about human rights in China.

“The Australian government has and will continue to advocate directly with China on human rights issues, including at the highest levels,” a spokesperson for the department said.

“As the foreign minister has said, the Australian government employs every strategy at its disposal towards upholding human rights, consistent with our values and with our interests.”

Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, questioned “the point of having an annual friendly chat on human rights”.

She warned against allowing such dialogue to become “merely a PR stunt to sidestep the thorny issues of human rights”.

“I think we are well beyond human rights dialogues when one government is committing serious abuses that amount to crimes against humanity and when one government is arbitrarily detaining the citizens of the other government,” Pearson said.

“At this point, we need accountability for those crimes and there will be no accountability if the Chinese government continues to steadfastly deny the litany of abuses occurring in Xinjiang.”

Dhongdue said if the dialogue were to resume, “civil society groups and community groups like Tibetans and Uyghurs in Australia should have the opportunity to engage with the representatives of both sides of government”.

The two governments issued contrasting accounts of the last dedicated Australia-China human rights dialogue in Beijing in 2014.

Australia said its delegation, led by a Dfat deputy secretary, had “raised a range of ongoing human rights concerns in China, including freedom of expression, assembly and religion; the treatment of political activists; press freedoms; use of the death penalty; as well as Tibet and Xinjiang”.

China, meanwhile, reported that its delegation, led by a vice-minister of its foreign affairs ministry, “expressed concern on the issue of Australia’s treatment of refugees and the situation of Indigenous people”.

The opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, said dialogue was “always preferable to standoff” but this should not prevent the Australian government from “maintaining principled public positions” on human rights.

“It was counterproductive to all aspects of the Australia-China relationship for the Chinese government to cease engaging in dialogue for a period of time and resumptions of dialogue are welcome,” he said.

In the next sign of resumption of dialogue, the Australian trade minister, Don Farrell, is expected to meet virtually with China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, in coming weeks to push to remove tariffs and bans on a range of Australian products.


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