In a huff about Hu
Human rights activists protest against the visiting Chinese PM more loudly than they do against Blair's erosion of civil liberties at home.
On 9 November, when Chinese head of state Hu Jintao arrived at Buckingham Palace in London for a two-day state visit, he was met by a mass of protesters for a plethora of causes: Free Tibet, the Uighur Muslim minority from Xinjiang, supporters of an independent Taiwan, and Falun Gong martial-arts practitioners. The raucous crowds were split into two camps along the Mall – pro-China supporters on one side of the road, waving state flags, and anti-China groups on the other.
Among the protesters, there seemed to be a fairly even split between those who had a personal stake in the cause – such as displaced Tibetans or Taiwanese living in the UK – and those who had no obvious connection, like the young British students I saw handing out Free Tibet leaflets.
Why were they there, I asked. ‘To raise public awareness’, said student Emma Silverthorn, 21, who had been involved in the campaign for the past three years. ‘The more I read about Tibet in books and on the internet, the more I was struck by the injustice and lack of personal and political freedom for people in Tibet.’
Emilie Hunter, press liaison officer for Students for a Free Tibet, said she had got involved while studying international and Chinese law four years ago. Meanwhile, Shaun Brown, 40, waving a red, yellow and blue Tibetan flag, was just ‘generally interested in human rights’ and was involved in ‘lots of other things, like the Uighurs in Xinjiang’, he said, pulling out another leaflet.
Protesters talked about the terrible enormities of China’s human rights record, and the need to stand up for what you believe in. Or indeed, as one put it: ‘Isn’t it important to stand up for other people’s rights when they haven’t any of their own?’
It’s certainly true that the situation is worse in China or Tibet than in the UK. Indeed, had protesters been in Beijing rather than London, they would probably have been carted off and arrested. ‘It’s not that we don’t care about issues at home, but Tibet’s a lot worse off than we are’, Emma pointed out.
But these anti-China protests reflect something about the West as well. It’s much simpler for a Western individual to point an accusing finger and take the moral high ground about China, labelling it a political and economic ‘threat’, than to look inward and point out the failings of his or her own society. For instance, there have been no major public protests about the proposed Terrorism Bill, which permitted police to detain terror suspects for 90 days without charge; and included an amendment criminalising the ‘glorification’ of any terrorist act, which is so vague that academics or libraries may fall foul of the clause.
Perhaps people seek out such distant causes because they feel they have no control or impact on those at home. I asked Shaun about domestic civil-rights issues, such as the proposed Terrorism Bill. Had he protested? ‘Very ineffectually’, he quipped. His remark was telling. There’s something wrong with a society that doesn’t engage citizens in real, effective debate – we’re talking about the UK here, not China.
The anti-China protests, at least in the short run, are likely to be ineffective. Ultimately, any change that is going to happen has to come from within China itself – when the Chinese people protest, or when the government decides its current line of action isn’t going to be economically viable or beneficial for the country as a whole.
Public campaigns and protests may raise awareness of issues like Tibet in the eyes of the British public, and enable the public to press prime minister Tony Blair to put pressure on Beijing, but there’s no guarantee that will work. High-pressure tactics, such as trade sanctions on Myanmar (Burma), have only served to strengthen dictatorships and intensify the plight of the people living there. Change will come only when China decides that it wants it.
Yet when British citizens feel they have more of an impact on an issue a continent away than on issues staring them in the face, there’s got to be something rotten with the state of that.
Grace Chua is studying in America, and is currently working as an intern at spiked.
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