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Asia

Straesser on China: 'Incorrect perception of reality'

After a Chinese court granted medical parole to former DW journalist Gao Yu, German Human Rights Commissioner Christoph Straesser speaks to DW about Gao's case and the human rights dialogue.

DW: Former DW journalist Gao Yu was recently allowed to serve the rest of her sentence outside of prison. Did Gao receive a fair trial?

Christoph Straesser: Based on our observations, this was not the case. We consistently tried to follow her trial via the German Embassy in Beijing. We heard of Gao's confession, which was subsequently revoked. And the appeals process over the past few weeks was never opened to the public. According to our standards - which are not only German, but also international standards - it was not a fair trial.

Former DW-Journalist Gao Yu

(Archive Photo) Former DW-Journalist Gao Yu was recently released on medical parole

Germany and other Western governments have repeatedly called for Gao's release, and DW reported extensively about the case. Do you think the international attention drawn by governments and independent media contributed to Gao being allowed to spend her sentence outside of prison?

Based on the results - yes - but it's difficult to concretely determine which circumstances led to her medical bail. We have repeatedly pointed out that it is important for humanitarian reasons that Gao receives adequate medical care given that she had another heart attack in October. I believe that this insistence - not only by the public, but also through diplomatic channels - ultimately helped her.

When you point to specific human rights violations to your partners in China, are you meddling in China's internal affairs?

No. In my opinion, this is an incorrect perception of reality. Whenever we address individual cases, we broach the topic solely on the basis of international rule of law agreements and compliance with these standards. So it's no interference in the internal affairs of another country when there is reason to believe, for example, that the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press are being violated.

We have to meet our international obligations, which the People's Republic of China has also largely ratified.

Given Beijing's position, does a human rights dialogue between China and Germany still make sense?

That's exactly why a dialogue makes sense right now - and we can make it clear in many points. We have made public statements in China. In Beijing, we also held a second press conference in connection with the human rights dialogue. German and Chinese journalists were made aware of these issues.

If one were to actually end this dialogue, I don't know of any other form of conversation which would make it clear to the Chinese side that we take human rights - including civil and political rights - very seriously.

Activists with the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China hold posters with the numbers of arrested or missing people in China

Protesters in Hong Kong decry the arrests of Chinese lawyers in July 2015

Wouldn't it be more effective if Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed these issues directly with her Chinese counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang?

I assume that it would be, but I do not attend these talks. As far as I know from the preparations of the Chancellor's and Foreign Minister's delegations, as well as from reports that I receive, this happens all the time. And that's why it makes sense to keep on doing this.

Germany and China are now strategic partners in many fields including trade and innovation. Are such close partners allowed to publicly criticize each other?

That is a basis for a good partnership. If you are such good friends that there are no problems, then you can have a conversation on an entirely different level. But the Chinese know this and say quite clearly that there are differences - especially regarding the universality of human rights - which are serious to some degree. This is why good partners must always address these issues. They are part of the dialogue with a good partner.

You have criticized the "deterioration" of the human rights situation in China. Why?

This year, a series of measures were taken for alleged "security and control" reasons. For example, in the summer of 2015, more than 300 lawyers and their staff working on human and civil rights issues were arrested. 30 of them are still imprisoned.

When asked what happened and why they were detained, they gave a terse answer: it's about a "criminal gang." And there was no response when asked about what had led to this assessment. This is a new dimension for us and all those who follow the situation in China.

You were also in Tibet. Do you believe Tibetans can practice their religion and speak their language freely, even though the photograph of their religious leader, the Dalai Lama, is forbidden in the region?

What we perceived was surely only a small part of reality in this region. But given the decades-long discussions held in Germany, there is also the impression that Dalai Lama supporters aren't allowed to freely practice their religion given that the Dalai Lama is seen in China as someone who is allegedly seeking state autonomy for Tibet. His supporters are in constant danger of having their rights infringed because of their affiliation. This also leads to more arrests and vey unpleasant situations for these people.

Isn't this a clear violation of the right to religious freedom?

That would be a realistic appraisal of the situation. However, we must take into account that only through persistent dialogue can we achieve that the Chinese government views the Dalai Lama as someone who is not seeking to divide the country. We also have to point to the fact that the Dalai Lama is also seen in our region - when he comes to Germany - as a religious leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who says he has no intention whatsoever of disentangling Tibet from the People's Republic of China.

The lawyer Christoph Straesser (64) has been the German government's Commissioner for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid since 2014. Before that, he chaired the German Social Democratic Party's parliamentary working group on human rights and was a member of the Bundestag's Human Rights Committee.