Written by Jackie Sheehan.

When China specialists are called upon to brief companies making their first foray into the market, the presentation will always include the advice: “don’t confront your Chinese partners. Never use ultimatums, because backing down means losing face.” There is a sound cultural basis for this advice, and it’s nearly always worth following. China, despite its current economic strength and growing presence in international affairs, still takes criticism from overseas very badly, and has not wavered from its insistence that human rights are a country’s internal affair and are not up for debate internationally.

The upshot of this has been a predominant approach by Western governments over the past 20 years, since the shock of Tienanmen Square and the wish to distance themselves from the “butchers of Beijing” gradually wore off in the mid-90s, of preferring “quiet diplomacy” with China over human rights, rather than overt criticism. Before high-level meetings such as this week’s between Xi Jinping and David Cameron, we are always assured that human rights will not be off the agenda, and that various individual cases (Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng, Gao Zhisheng, Cao Shunli, Pu Zhiqiang, Gao Yu – there is never a shortage of names) will be raised.

It is in the nature of quiet diplomacy that any successes it achieves will not be broadcast from the rooftops. But after giving it a couple of decades to take effect, the unconvinced are by now entitled to ask what it has achieved. No-one expects miracles, but if this behind-the-scenes, low-key, non-confrontational approach works, shouldn’t things have improved a bit by now, or at least not got worse?

And things have got worse; much worse. The deterioration has been sharply visible since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, but is also clearly detectable going back at least to 2008. The ability of a whole range of Chinese citizens to exercise in practice the rights they have on paper has been further curtailed, and lawyers have been singled out for particularly harsh treatment as they are the key to holding the CCP government to account when it blithely violates articles of China’s constitution, for example by legalizing the indefinite “disappearing” of citizens who have not been arrested or charged, never mind convicted of any offence.

Things have got worse in Tibet, where self-immolations continue, in Xinjiang, where further restrictions are piled onto the religious and cultural life of Uyghurs while the Chinese government only talks about “terrorist” incidents, and in Inner Mongolia, where herders trying to defend their land are beaten and detained, while Mongolian-rights activist Hada and his family continue to be persecuted lest they offer inspiration and leadership to the rural dispossessed.

Things have got worse also for house-church Christians, with a campaign of church demolitions and cross removals accompanied by government threats that the CCP will develop its own version of Christianity, removed from any overseas influence, as the only permitted one. Investigative journalists, anti-corruption activists, protesters against land confiscation and house demolitions, and petitioners of all kinds suffer as much as ever, whether in police detention, prison, or “black jails”, with the latter more heavily used now that Re-education through Labour (RETL) camps have been abolished.

As for RETL abolition itself, the evidence around that decision does not provide support for the effectiveness of “quiet diplomacy”. The RETL system was highlighted in three successive Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports by the US State Department as a form of state-sponsored trafficking. The lobbying efforts by Thailand and Malaysia which delayed the publication of this year’s report by more than a month showed that the TIP verdict and rankings do matter to governments in Asia, where nobody wants to join North Korea down on the third tier, not least because to do so can have consequences such as exclusion from multilateral trade deals with the US.

There had been calls to abolish RETL, including from within China, for years, and I can’t prove that including it in a series of TIP reports as China struggled to avoid automatic demotion to Tier 3 was the final straw. I do know, however, that the Chinese authorities put considerable effort and resources specifically into crossing off items of criticism in TIP reports. So the end of RETL can probably be attributed to regular criticism of China in a forum that matters to Beijing and which might have had practical consequences, rather than to any behind-the-scenes influence.

The other major rights breakthrough of the last ten years in China was the introduction of audio and video recording in police detention and interrogation facilities, which was a direct result of the 2005 report of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak. This is a necessary condition for getting torture and forced confessions under control in the PRC, although how far it is from being a sufficient one will be highlighted next month when China’s performance against its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture is formally reviewed. Again, this was the outcome of a process involving outside monitoring and public criticism of China’s performance on a human-rights issue.

I am not opposed to engagement with China, obviously: for international criticism of China’s human-rights record to have credibility, critics need to be able to show that they know whereof they speak, and thus universities’ training of students in Chinese language and the understanding of China is the best way to ensure a steady supply of people able to engage with China in a way which can aid the PRC’s own human-rights defenders.

But governments have the opportunity to speak directly to China’s leaders, and know that what they say during and after a visit will receive the world’s attention. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is hard to see the UK government’s current approach to China as anything other than voluntary self-censorship in the hope of economic gain. And on top of its moral squalor, such self-censorship isn’t even necessary – Xi Jinping wouldn’t be coming if China didn’t want those deals just as much as Britain does.

Professor Jackie Sheehan is Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image Credit: CC by DaiLuo/Flickr.