Interview: China reform plea is ′a powerful signal′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 28.02.2013
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Interview: China reform plea is 'a powerful signal'

Prominent Chinese scholars, journalists and activists have called on the National People's Congress to ratify the UN pact on political rights. Beijing is under pressure, human rights expert, Wenzel Michalski, told DW.

Wenzel Michalski Copyright: DW/Nikita Jolkver, Berlin, 19.02.2013

Wenzel Michalski is the Director of the German office of Human Rights Watch

DW: In the view of your organization, Human Rights Watch, how much weight will this open letter signed by more than 100 Chinese citizens have on the National People's Congress, which convenes next week?

Wenzel Michalski: It is a powerful signal that there is this open letter. The signatories are risking a great deal. We know from experience that the Chinese government stops at nothing to prevent such letters. This is also a debacle for the secret police, whose job it is to nip actions like this in the bud. But the signatories managed to publish their letter. There are even some members of the [communist] party and the military among them, making it even more significant.

Is there any hope that the time for political reforms and respect for human rights in China has come?

No, it is much too soon. We have, at least, statements by the new government that they are considering doing away with the so-called re-education through work program. But, we have heard such statements quite often before. The labor camps have been around for some six decades, so we would really have to see action in order to say that something was actually changing. If something really does happen in that direction, then it would be a milestone for human rights. But we're a long way away from that.

What would the Chinese leadership have to do to improve the human and civil rights situation?

First of all, they would have to amend their own human rights reforms, which say, namely, that human rights are then acceptable when there is an advantage for the state. Secondly, they would have to end censorship, surveillance of the Internet and the repression of demonstrations and protest movements. Every day in China there are 250 to 500 protests with between 10 and 10,000 participants.

So, we are seeing a rise in civil protests but, at the same time, also a rise in the suppression of these protests. Protests are increasingly communicated via the Internet and that is why there are more and more of them because it is a new information platform. That is why there is also the increased censorship of the Internet and the brutal clampdown of the police and judiciary, which is sentencing these people to lengthy prison terms.

In addition, all political prisoners have to be freed. Let us not forget Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiabao, who was slapped with an 11.year prison sentence. Since 2010, his wife has also disappeared. She is probably under house arrest somewhere; we just don't know. No one has access to her. To talk about an improvement, or even "feelings of spring," is really not appropriate.

Of course, China is a big and very important trade partner of the West, and Germany in particular. At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly brought up the issue of human rights with China. But, have Western government really put enough pressure on China to actually achieve something?

We strongly believe that pressure from the outside - from the international community - has a big effect because a country, like China, does not want to be mentioned in the same breath as North Korea, or other oppressive countries. That is just not acceptable for them - and we have seen progress here and there when the pressure from outside is strong.

Angela Merkel has really always brought up the subject and applied pressure, except not as much as we had hoped for during her last visit. We can't afford to let go. Even if business interests are involved, we have to keep demanding. China is very dependent on cooperation with German business and industry and that is a tool for exerting pressure. Other states should follow Merkel's example.

How important is outside support for the forces inside China working for human rights and political freedom?

Pressure from the outside is, of course, an important and encouraging sign for the people exerting pressure domestically. Dissidents, environmentalists and civil rights activists need the solidarity of the democratic world. What's more, with our new Internet society, a platform has been created, despite censorship, which has catapulted protest movements into the public consciousness and given them unbelievable capabilities to expand. And from their initial reactions to the Arab Spring, we have seen how fearful China's Communist Party was that this kind of protest could spill over to China. Constant pressure from outside and inside will lead to change sometime. It is a long road, but the signs are encouraging.

Wenzel Michalski is the director of Human Rights Watch Germany.

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