What China’s Foreign Minister Should Expect in Europe

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the Novel Coronavirus in Vientiane, Laos, February 20, 2020.
© 2020 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the suspension of many high-profile international visits, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s appearance in Italy today – to be followed by visits to France, Germany, and the Netherlands – presents an opportunity for these governments to repudiate China’s growing repression.

In the months since Wang’s last international trip, the Chinese government has intensified its repressive laws, policies, and practices. In late June it imposed sweeping “national security” legislation on Hong Kong, robbing seven million people of basic human rights overnight. It then used that law to arrest key pro-democracy figures and raid the offices of a popular pro-democracy newspaper. Chinese authorities continue to persecute peaceful human rights defenders and their families. 

In Xinjiang, where an estimated one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims remain arbitrarily detained, authorities have imposed a near-total lockdown over the past few weeks, purportedly to combat the coronavirus. And the world still awaits credible answers from the government about silencing whistleblowers and citizen journalists who tried to report on Covid-19 in its early days.

Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong has prompted harsh criticism, the suspension of some bilateral agreements, sanctions, and greater recognition that the Chinese government presents a threat to human rights inside and outside the country. But a key element remains elusive: ensuring the Chinese government can no longer escape criticism from other states at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Fortunately, governments seeking to use the Human Rights Council to hold China accountable for serious human rights violations were handed a roadmap in June. Fifty current and former UN human rights experts published a searing condemnation of China’s rights record, and urged member states to pursue a special session on China, establish an independent UN mechanism focused on China, and commit to demanding China fulfill its human rights obligations.

France, Germany, and the Netherlands have all expressed concerns about the Chinese government’s rights violations, including at the Human Rights Council. But rhetoric devoid of consequential action will achieve little in stemming Beijing’s onslaught on human rights. These governments should match the courage and ambition of human rights defenders across China and these UN experts, and tell Foreign Minister Wang to expect clear demands for accountability at September’s council session.