Much of Europe and North America has become dependent on China for critical products, from rare earths to pharmaceuticals. Europe’s “green transition” is intimately linked to human rights atrocities in China, says human rights advocate Laura Harth.
How could the Chinese regime exploit these strategic dependencies? And if the lab leak theory turns out to be true, what will that mean for Beijing?
In this episode, we discuss how the Chinese regime has strangled freedom in Hong Kong, expanded its encroachments and censorship globally, and is working to rewrite the international corpus on human rights.
Laura Harth is the Campaign Director for Safeguard Defenders and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China’s regional liaison for Italy.
Jan Jekielek: Laura Hart, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Laura Harth: Thank you so much, Jan. It’s a great honor and great pleasure.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Laura, this has been certainly a long time coming. You and I have been looking at the Chinese Communist Party in general and repression in China. Also, something that caught my eye was an editorial that you wrote a few months ago, focused on how China or the Chinese Communist Party is extending that repression beyond its borders,Hong Kong being the prominent example right now.
Just very recently, we were looking at how China has changed the rules around even commemorating 1989’s Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong. Even two years ago, there were thousands upon thousands of people in Victoria Park and today the gates are closed. There’s almost nobody there. You can get up to five years in prison for even publicly commemorating it.
So, let’s start here. Let’s start talking about what the CCP is doing to extend its repression.
Ms. Harth: Well, Jan, if you allow me, I’ll go back even a bit further. Because I remember when I started this work, when I started getting interested in what China was doing not only within China, but also outside of boundaries, I remember this warning coming from the Tibetan community in exile, from the Uyghur community in exile, and other people in exile who actually partook in the demonstrations back in 1989.
They were always saying that you should be careful, because what has happened to us one day will happen to you if the West doesn’t stand up, if people don’t stand up. This is what is coming for you as well. I remember thinking that obviously these are great people. These are great activists. They’ve gone through so much. But I just felt that affirmation went a bit too far, like I didn’t think it was very credible or possible. And we’re talking about just over 10 years ago.
But I have to say when I look at what’s happening today and especially if we look at what’s happened to Hong Kong over these past few years, the evolution between 2014 and what we are witnessing today, exactly as you said, not even a Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration is possible. I think they were very, very right.
It’s good that you talked about what’s happened to Hong Kong because it tells us so much about what might happen to us. We’ve already seen the extraterritorial reach of China. It’s not just in Hong Kong, where obviously they’ve repressed any possibility of commemorating. We have to salute those brave Hong Kongers that tried anyway, that went to the gates of Victoria Park and put their cell phones up just to signal that.
But we’ve seen that the CCP tried to censor even foreign websites set up by exile Hong Kongers over the past few days, just writing letters. The Hong Kong Police wrote letters, for example, to the Israeli website provider, Wix, asking them to take them down under the National Security Law.
This is the extraterritorial application that we warned about from the beginning. It’s not even one year ago that this law was imposed and already we are seeing this extraterritorial reach being used against people in the West.
Wix is not even available in Hong Kong and in China, according to its own statements. So luckily it was reinstated, because I think people like Nathan Law, who are behind the website, obviously, they have some firepower in the West, some media reach and a global voice.
But just imagine how many people don’t have that voice and are already suffering under this extraterritorial reach, this extraterritorial censorship, which walks hand in hand with the individual sanctions that we’ve seen against members of European Parliament, members of national parliaments all over the world, against researchers, and against media..
You obviously know very well this is happening in Hong Kong, but it is also happening abroad. How many international journalists are no longer allowed to work or operate in China—this was their livelihood, to tell the story as it happens in China—just because that’s not what the CCP likes?
So what those people told me so many years ago, we can see today that it is actually coming true. We should learn from them and listen to them more often and much better. And very much look at the example of Hong Kong and how the CCP managed to overturn “one country, two systems” in such a short period of time, because it used strategic dependency, and economic dependency.
It is exactly what we seen the CCP doing when they move against Australia, and when they move against people in other countries. There’s a real clear warning sign in all of that. We should be able to understand better and make sure that people in the West and policymakers do understand it and are aware of it.
Mr. Jekielek: I saw that you posted a candle on June 4th on your Twitter account, a little video of a candle. But you said something that struck me as interesting and I want you to explain it to me. You said, “For the victims, old and new,” presumably of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. What did you mean?
Ms. Harth: I meant for the victims of this authoritarian regime, obviously, old and new. I mean this has been going on since 1949. It’s not even since 1989. We should remember all of the victims that have been there throughout the years.
That many people who are still suffering. That many people who are still not aware of where their family members might have ended up, both in 1989 at Tiananmen, but also today. So many people disappear under this regime every single day. We need to also think of the many activists in prison today who are no longer free to speak or who are in imposed exile.
This is not a choice that they really had. They were forced to move into exile or certainly forced to go to prison. So the list of victims is not just an old list. It is a list that is growing every single day.
As I said, not only in China, but also abroad. So we really need to keep that candle lit for them, especially for those that no longer have a voice.
I know I talk about Hong Kong a lot, but I think it’s so exemplary. Because through their demonstrations, they gave a global voice not just to Hong Kongers, but they put the issue of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and the repression within China on the global media map.
It was due to those millions of brave people walking the streets of Hong Kong for over a year. There was a lot more media attention globally for what was happening in China as a whole.
With their voice now being silenced, with them not being able to light a candle, it’s time that we take that up and continue doing that for them. Not only for them, but also for us, and to make sure that together we stop this regime.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve been working to support various Chinese dissidents and prisoners of conscience for well over a decade. You now work with Safeguard Defenders, one of these very interesting, but unfortunately, little known organizations. You were talking about how human rights activists are particularly targeted by the regime.
I wanted you to speak about the work of your current organization, just briefly, and why it’s so important to do that work.
Ms. Harth: Sometimes as activists abroad, for us it’s kind of easy, especially during this Coronavirus pandemic. It was kind of funny sometimes because you’re basically shouting against this regime or trying to work against this regime from your sofa, from the safe place of your home.
What Safeguard Defenders does is actually support people in China, the people that are on the front line and that are literally putting their lives and their freedom on the line every single day to stand up against this regime.
Many of them are activists, but many are also lawyers, people simply doing their job of making sure that their clients can get a fair trial, which obviously we know is quite impossible in China. They are being persecuted simply for doing what the law tells them they can do.
They are really the unsung heroes and very often unknown in this battle that has been going on for decades. And that unfortunately, over the past decade, we can say that have not been winning.
I hope that in providing them with a voice and making sure their stories are told, something can change. We can already see some change.
If you look at the parliaments around the world in Western democracies, attention has definitely been growing, awareness is growing, and parliaments are giving a voice to these people. Unfortunately, not many other governments so far have been following that. But maybe we can talk about that later.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. You just reminded me. There’s someone who is exemplary in this realm, a lawyer. I’m thinking about Gao Zhisheng. He is someone that I haven’t heard about in quite a while because, of course, he’s been locked away, and disappeared for a long time, because he was so active.
He was defending Falun Gong practitioners, basically people who you weren’t supposed to defend, and you weren’t really allowed to do that with. A brilliant man. Apparently, he had a photographic memory. He was able to win completely unwinnable cases. Now he’s basically almost been erased. Although from what I understand, he’s still alive. Do you have an update on Gao Zhisheng?
Ms. Harth: I wish I had one, but I have had no updates. Unfortunately, what we know and what we’ve been denouncing as Safeguard Defenders for so many years and what, luckily, some UN special procedures have also been recognizing is the system of enforced and involuntary disappearances that the Chinese Communist Party uses quite a lot.
Obviously, there’s a series of different systems to do this. Also it’s very difficult for family members for people within China to actually get updates. And obviously, these are systems that should be denounced at every single level. They are legalized in China.
Unfortunately, this is a fate that happens to a great many people, and again not only Chinese people, but also Westerners that are there. So it’s definitely something that needs more attention.
We need to keep asking the regime for transparency. In this, again, the UN special procedures are quite important and are quite useful.
But on the other side, we have a regime that does not want any transparency and does not feel like it needs to respect the international rules, even though it is signed on to them.
You did very well in remembering his name. Maybe we could fill a whole program just remembering the names of all those people that have disappeared over the years and of whom we have no news.
Mr. Jekielek: To your point, there are two Canadians that have been held for several years, and from what I understand, under the absolute worst conditions,in retaliation for the arrest of the Huawei CFO, with no recourse for the Canadian government or international organizations.
I want to talk about this. You mentioned these special procedures at the UN, which is something that I’m familiar with from work I did years ago. It was actually one of the few things that I found to be quite effective in the UN system.
What are you doing with that? How valuable is the UN in dealing with what we’re talking about, this extraterritorial reach of the CCP? From everything I’ve been seeing, things aren’t looking very good in this realm.
Ms. Harth: Let’s start from the positive note. As I said, the UN special procedures are quite useful in the sense that they provide— if they take up an issue—a recognition for this issue.
So they make it more feasible to do global awareness-raising and use the opinion of the UN Special Rapporteurs or independent experts or other working groups on a specific issue.
For example, the RSDL system, [Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location] which can hold people incommunicado for up to six months.
This is exactly what happened to the two Michaels before they were formally arrested and moved to trial— a trial, by the way, that we should remember. The same thing is going on for an Australian citizen at the moment, being held in complete disregard, once again, of the bilateral consular agreements between China and Canada, and between China and Australia.
So we have a pattern of China not respecting international rules. Obviously, this is nothing new, but it’s good to remind people of this, especially the European Union that maybe wants to stipulate some new agreements, thinking that this time China will keep its promises.
So it’s good having the UN special procedures denouncing this. We actually had 10 special procedures denouncing this practice of RSDL enforcing involuntary disappearances. So even having that recognition, obviously, there’s very little they can actually do because China does not allow any independent experts to visit. It has no standing invitations to any of these procedures.
The last time a special rapporteur on torture visited China is over a decade ago. They’ve been asking to be re-invited to be able to make some investigations on the ground, but as we know, China is not responding to this.
So obviously their reach is limited, but having that recognition and having them investigate the issue is very important in the global effort of campaigning and advocacy.
That’s the good note. Obviously, what we have on the other side is more difficult when we think about the more political bodies, which is basically everything. All these bodies are basically intergovernmental.
We had the example of WHO, which everybody got to know better over the past year. What shocked a lot of people and what they don’t really understand is that these are not just scientific bodies.
These are highly political bodies. So governments and authoritarian regimes that unfortunately are growing around the world have a far reaching impact within these bodies and are effectively controlling much of what can be done or said or investigated by these bodies.
When we criticize them, obviously we need to criticize the states. We need to criticize the main governing bodies, those executive leaders like the secretary general of WHO and the secretary general of the UN.
We also need to remember that inside there’s a lot of very good people that are just trying to do their job, but that are actually already suffering within their job from this extraterritorial reach of the CCP. They cannot speak freely or they cannot investigate freely. They’re bound by the rules that the CCP or other regimes are setting.
Besides the WHO, Jan, both you and I, the body we know best is the Human Rights Council, which we should remember was reformed by the commission exactly because they didn’t want it to have too much political impact.
These bodies were formed to ensure that human rights and the rule of law are universal principles that have to be respected. The very declaration of human rights [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] was written to say, “Every individual has these rights and there is no state power that can work against them and that cannot respect them.”
Obviously, we know this is a work in progress. No government and no state is perfect. But this is the principle on which it all is based. Again, this is why the extraterritorial reach is very worrying, and only now is the West trying to react.
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, China has actually been very active at the Human Rights Council. Before, they were just tagging along. They were not really participating a lot. Obviously, they would veto the usual stuff at the UN Security Council.
But over the past years, they’ve been really proposing things. They’re proposing this definition, this idea of human rights with Chinese characteristics, with socialist characteristics. They actually managed to get three resolutions, if I’m not mistaken, passed. The problem is that these are completely rewriting the very premise of what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wanted to do.
This kind of discourse of non-interference is that humans rights are internal state affairs. You’re not allowed to talk about what’s happening in Xinjiang. You’re not allowed to talk about what’s happening in Tibet. You’re not allowed to talk about anything. You’re not allowed to talk about Tiananmen, maybe next year, because these are internal affairs.
If this actually happens and is approved, as has been the case, that means that human rights activists all over the world are being deprived of the UN Human Rights Council as an essential means to advance human rights and the rule of law, and to protect and defend human rights defenders in any country.
That is what’s happening. They are rewriting the international corpus, or they’re trying to do so. So it’s about much more than just what is happening in China, which obviously is very important and we need to keep talking and working on that.
But the danger is much bigger, because they are impacting what anybody can do or might be able to do anywhere around the world.
Mr. Jekielek: At the Epoch Times, we’ve been charting the various different ways the Chinese Communist Party is exporting its ideology and exporting its systems of repression through technology, various trade relationships, and debt traps.
This is interesting. I hadn’t really thought about this angle. This is yet another way in which it is exporting its system. It’s horrifying.
Ms. Harth: Yes, it is very horrifying. And you do well to remember exactly the issue of technology. The West has adopted the kind of technology that China is exporting and too often looking at the price. The pricing is very good, if you just think about the way it was produced and what are the objectives, that should not be surprising.
But we’ve been very slow. When I say we, I mean the West in general. Obviously, there are great individuals that have been working on this for many years, much longer than I have, that have been warning. But unfortunately, their voices have not been heard so much.
If you look at the number of people who really are working on this, it’s surprisingly how few we are. I’m always quite surprised. Everybody knows everybody and it’s a very small community, yet we are talking about the biggest geopolitical challenge of our time.
We are really talking about a clash of civilizations. Obviously not the civilizations, not the people among them, but between the systems.
The most surprising thing is that the Chinese Communist Party has been very open about this. They keep stating it. They keep declaring it. Only last week, after the study session of the Politiburo, Xi Jinping was very clear where they want to go—how they want to increase their external propaganda, how they want to increase the way China’s story is told well and promote the socialist model with Chinese characteristics, and promote how Marxism is good.
They’re very open about it. It’s not hidden, really. But yet, somehow, this has been ignored or people do not want to see it. One of the things you often hear is, “Well, this is just for internal propaganda purposes.” So they’re talking to the world, but they’re really talking to their internal audience because they need to assert their power.
Certainly, that is true. But if we put next to it the list of things that they are actually doing abroad, it’s very clear they’re also talking about a plan for the world.
The Chinese Communist Party is very aware of how in a globalized world the survival of the power structure of their regime is also dependent on them being able to make sure that the competition, that ideological competition if you want to call it that, is diminished and goes away.
So they’ve been very upfront about their objective of changing the system and putting their model first. Especially, again, this is a problem under the COVID-19 crisis pandemic. We’ve all seen how they’ve been trying to push this message of how their system functions better and how the West has not been able to cope with it as well. We need to be very aware of all of this and really counter it.
A lot of people are still not fully knowledgeable. A lot of people, especially politicians, but also media researchers are definitely complicit in the system.
But too many people just don’t know. They do not know what they’re dealing with. They think they are dealing with a state apparatus that is more or less like any other state. But you’re not. You’re dealing with a single party state that has been oppressing its people for decades.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. You’re making me think of a few different things. Specifically, there is this approach described as borrowing a foreign vote in co-opting or influencing foreign media, ostensibly independent media, to carry your message.
We’ve had a number of shows recently on this topic. The Wuhan lab leak theory, this is something that has basically been verboten for the past year. If you talked about it, you were some sort of tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, or at least it was portrayed that way in many of the largest media in the United States.
I don’t know what it was like in Europe. I don’t even know what the current perception is. But over the last few weeks, for a variety of reasons which we’ve been charting, it’s suddenly become reasonable to talk about this plausible explanation. Of course, it was always plausible based on the evidence.
So, how is this viewed in Europe and by media in Europe, this Wuhan lab leak theory that has completely shifted in North America?
Ms. Harth: Well, In general, when you think about Europe and the European Union, in particular—obviously not the UK anymore, the UK is quite ahead of the European Union—but usually what we see is you have the US charting a new course and a new understanding, then you have the UK following shortly. And then the EU will finally catch up, but it takes a bit more time.
It’s been two weeks now that, for example, in Italy, it’s okay to talk about this and some media are talking about it and giving some attention. But exactly as you said, even a month ago, you were crazy if you talked about this.
I do agree. I think we’re all serious people. I don’t like conspiracy theories. We always have to be very prudent and follow the science and not come up with crazy theories. It wasn’t even allowed to be discussed, even within the scientific communities.
I’ve been following, for example, Jamie Metzl for quite a while since last year, just because he makes sense to me. This was not a crazy guy talking about conspiracy theories. This was just a guy saying, “Okay, there’s a scientific principle which is called “Occam’s razor.”
So we need to look at every single option, and probably what is the most simple explanation is that it actually accidentally leaked from this lab. That will be the most logical explanation.” So obviously, he said, and this is over a year ago, that doesn’t mean that’s what happened but it does mean it’s something that at least needs to be discussed and investigated.
We need to keep working, obviously, aware of the fact that the CCP is never going to give us the truth. They’re never going to give us the access necessary to really be sure.
And this is, if you want, in a way very similar to how they are dealing with the Uyghur issue, the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang. Their favorite course of defense is, “Well, you are not here. You are not able to verify. All your reports are based on hearsay or fake testimonies or presupposition.”
“On the other hand we have our friends, journalists and politicians that are here and there, and they’re painting a very rosy picture of what’s actually going on.”
So we see this double strategy which makes it very hard for people who tried to do a serious job. There’s so many researchers out there trying to do a serious job, whether it’s on Xinjiang, on Tibet, or on COVID, and their work is basically being made almost impossible.
The worst thing is when people from within the scientific community use the kind of strategies that the CCP has put in place to discredit those people as not being serious. Because hese people themselves are the first to say, “Look, these are the issues we have. These are the limitations being put on our research.” So obviously, there are some issues there.
But the fact that people are falling into the trap of what the CCP strategy is the most baffling of all. For over a year, many of us were scared to even utter the theory.
Because as soon as you would have uttered it, even as, “This is a possible thing. Can we discuss it, please? What are the issues?” You will be discredited and that meant that a lot of the rest of what you were doing would be discredited as well. So that’s a very effective show of censorship by the Chinese Communist Party and their foreign votes.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. It’s really astounding. COVID is just one example. The CCP really hates serious consideration of the idea that it could have escaped from the Wuhan lab, because it wants to paint itself as some kind of benevolent success case in the whole COVID-19 pandemic debacle, or whatever you want to call it.
There’s so many other areas where it’s employing exactly the same strategy that it seems to have employed with Coronavirus.
Ms. Harth: Yes, exactly. The censorship is complete, and the allergy of the Chinese Communist Party to any kind of criticism, any kind of critical question is huge.
Going back to where we started, you see that they are asking providers to shut down websites that are not even accessible in China. I don’t know how much reach these kinds of websites really have. They are going after researchers and insulting them, maybe because they expressed an opinion that the CCP does not like.
I find it hallucinating at times, because it shows how scared they really are of any possible criticism abroad, but it also shows how scared they are inside. Because obviously, one of the things that we have seen that has moved the Chinese people—let’s say the majority, well, not the majority but this happy few that do actually live a pretty good life as long as they respect the rules of the Chinese Communist Party—one of the things that has moved them in the past are social issues, health issues, and environmental issues. If the thesis of the lab leak would be confirmed, that might potentially be disastrous for Beijing.
It’s unfortunate actually, because over the past year, none of us had ever learned anything about these gain of function experiments that have been going on in China and in the U.S. They’ve been going on for quite a long time. There were some investigations. There were some questions being raised.
It’s very interesting. I compare it a lot to the right to know as well, as a new human right that we need to affirm. Actually I’ve been learning about what these labs have been doing all over the world and what the dangers are, because these kinds of leaks have happened in the U.S. as well.
They’ve happened in other countries. It’s about anywhere, but the worst thing you can do is try and cover it up. It’s been an interesting exercise, but unfortunately, I think it also shows how SARS… when was the SARS pandemic?
Mr. Jekielek: 2003. Does that sound right?
Ms. Harth: Yes, 2003. That sounds right. It also shows you how the regime has actually worsened. Because obviously, at the time of SARS, they did not deal with it in an ideal way, but there was more openness. Whereas some 15 years later, we see that it’s closed down even more.
They’re very afraid of what might come out. If it would come out that it was a lab leak, how was his lab operating? Why were the international agreements with France, for example, not respected? Why were the reports from the U.S. on the security issues not followed up better?
It opens a Pandora’s Box, really. What are the links with the People’s Liberation Army? It goes in depth into what this regime is, what is it doing, and how it operates. There are people saying, “Oh, maybe they did it on purpose.” I don’t believe they would do such a thing. I can’t fathom they would do such thing on purpose.
But it shows the danger of such a regime to the whole world. Sometimes it’s weird because people find it so easy to accept that the North Korean regime, if they had access to certain weapons, would be a danger to the world.
People usually recognize that if Iran had access to nuclear weapons, it would be a danger to the world. Yet, how is it that the CCP is somehow an exception and that it is acceptable for this regime to have access to a whole range of technologiesand to be developing this whole range of technologies without anyone being allowed to ask questions? That’s a fundamental thing that we need to clarify.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a very, very, good point. Actually, in this piece that we were talking about earlier, the op-ed, you talked about the Red Capital, so to speak, and how a lot of businesses or large corporations that are working in China have a kind of Stockholm Syndrome approach to the few people campaigning for human rights. They blame the people campaigning for human rights for creating problems for their business.
Now, I was thinking about that in the context of Europe, because in Europe, we’ve been stunned to see this comprehensive agreement on investment coming through in the European Parliament. Of course, there’s now also been a bit of criticism of it.
It was just astounding to see this kind of prospective legislation that was completely divorced from any human rights considerations of any sort, and just go for it and do trade and let’s not talk about those uncomfortable realities. So, is this kind of a similar situation to the Red Capital? Why is the European Parliament even considering this?
Ms. Harth: From our perspective, and again, this shows how it’s not only a human rights perspective. Just this weekend, I had people telling me that they are businessmen and they were telling me, “You’re a human rights activist. You guys seem to live on, I don’t know, on a cloud.”
Somehow if you say you’re a human rights activist, people tend to think that you’re a hippie, and that you don’t think anyone should do business at all, which is obviously not the case. I always try to explain that, actually, human rights activists may be the most pro- business.
We are just not so happy with people having exported jobs and opportunities to a country where you can’t compete. You can’t compete with slavery. You can’t compete with forced labor. You can’t compete with endless subsidies by the state when you are living in a free market democracy where we have the European Commission, the same one that negotiated the deal.
That tells you that all those things cannot be done. Obviously, it makes sense. So it’s about much more actually than human rights, and the Red Capital story comes in. This was a report done by Hong Kong Watch—an excellent report explaining showing how Beijing, after the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 in Hong Kong, started investing heavily in Hong Kong—creating this kind of strategic interdependence between enterprises in Hong Kong and the mainland, and vice versa. And how this actually changed and overturned a very important part of the opinion makers in Hong Kong those holding the power, especially in business.
So obviously this, again, is a warning sign coming, if you also create these kinds of strategic dependencies in Europe. We already have them. Especially if we think about what is coming now with this kind of green revolution, we all know that we are so heavily dependent on China for the rare-earths and all these materials coming in.
I think 90 percent of the solar panel market in Europe is coming from China. We know that those are linked to forced labor and slavery in Xinjiang. But it also means that you give China a very heavy weapon to be used against you if you don’t respect them, if you don’t submit to their censorship efforts, or to their telling the China story well, or if you are critical in any way.
It’s a very dangerous game. Actually, we’ve already seen this if we talk about the CAI, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. The biggest promoters were Germany and France. Germany obviously has some of the biggest companies working in China.
I’m thinking particularly of Volkswagen, who actually has a plant in Xinjiang and who just said, “We cannot be 100 percent sure that we are not participating in this forced labor scheme, but we’ll just keep operating here as long as it’s economically viable.”
As a human rights activist and also as a European citizen, how are we in any way benefiting from this, other than being linked to the horrors happening in China? I’m thinking especially of the green economy industry. Because under the recovery plan after COVID, we are going to be spending so much public money, tax money.
So, we’ve all contributed to that with this green transition. But that goes hand in hand with massively importing stuff from China that’s been made with forced labor, with oppression. That’s horrible because that’s the worst appeasement possible. So promoting this kind of thing under the CAI was very blind.
I do understand. One of the things that was agreed upon when the mandate was given to negotiate this deal over seven years ago, was that it would be better to have one European deal, European-wide deal, than having the 26 bilateral deals in place at national level. We should not forget, there are actually 26 out of the 27 member states of European Union that do have bilateral investment deals at this very moment. And they are not strong on human rights, either.
So the European Parliament gave this mandate to the commission together with the council, and it was actually also the European Parliament that asked for an impact assessment on human rights, because the commission was not doing this. The issue is that when the commission and the council, the European Council—this is a bit of European politics.
It’s quite complicated, maybe for an American audience. It’s complicated for us as well—the council being pushed by Chancellor Merkel and President Michel, they kind of rushed it through at a certain point. Everybody will remember this happened between Christmas and New Year’s. So it was very undemocratic, untransparent, and details only came out later.
But once those details came out, it was very clear right from the outset that the European Parliament was going to be very critical, because there were no human rights safeguards in there in any way.
The commission was selling this as a huge deal, “We’ve never gotten this much transparency out of China.” Supposedly, now they are supposed to publish the state subsidies they’re giving to certain sectors that were not included under the WTO deal.
But in 20 years, they’ve never actually held up those commitments under the WTO. So why are you thinking that they’re going to do it because you’re the European Union? It was clear from the outset that this was BS, basically.
And the commission actually had difficulty selling it. Civil society came out very strongly. We had 49 civil society organizations coming out right away with a statement and with an appeal to the European institutions. We had discussions with European Commission and with the European Council.
The European Parliament, actually, took up our appeal within their discussions back when they still had them. So it was very clear that the commission was going to have a very hard time selling this.
Obviously China, the CCP, actually helped us because then they came out with the sanctions against members of European Parliament, and that led to just basically freezing any possible discussion on it.
So I have to say, thank God for the European Parliament. They’ve been very strong. There’s not been one plenary session over the past month since late autumn last year, in which they have not highlighted with very strong words some of the human rights issues either in Tibet, in Xinjiang, or in Hong Kong.
They’ve been very outspoken and very strong. We just need to keep that up, but we need to make sure that governments start following through because there’s a huge divergence, still, between members of European Parliament and other governments. That is something that is very different from what we’ve seen in the U.S. over the past few years.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, and just to clarify for our viewers, it was the European Parliament that gave the mandate to the European Commission to figure out this deal. The deal didn’t have any provisions about human rights or real transparency in this area. Then it came back, and then the European Parliament said. Hey wait a second, we can’t do it that way.” As you’re saying, then everything else transpired.
So, that’s a little bit of insider European politics that few of us over here really fully understand. So Laura, as I said earlier, you’ve been working on these issues directly for over 10 years. What has been the trajectory of Communist China and how it interfaces the world, and how it treats its people over these last 10 years?
Ms. Harth: It’s very evident that repression has gone up significantly. It’s just rampant within China, especially since Xi Jinping came to power. So any hopes we had for further opening up for greater transparency, for respect for human rights, and for maybe one day making that step towards democracy, can we use the word?—these are very long-term hopes. These are very long term hopes.
Everything has gone in the very opposite direction. Repression has gone up. And those areas, those spaces where there was actually a glimmer of democracy, a glimmer of freedom of speech, especially in Hong Kong, they’ve just been taken over. It seems like we’re settling in for quite a long night, if we may say so. Unfortunately, this is also happening more and more across the world.
Actually, what made me really focused on China was not the human rights issues per se. I was working on human rights issues everywhere at the time. But I realized the reach that China had where I was, when I was campaigning on human rights in China in Italy. And how the CCP managed to actually interfere directly not only in my work, not only in the work of media, but in the work of members of parliament, and actually censoring them and making it impossible for them to do what they’re allowed to do according to their parliamentary prerogatives.
Things have been getting worse. We’ve talked about it. China is picking up the pace to set the tone of the debate, set the topic on the debate, change discourse, change human rights itself, change the understanding of human rights, and the definition of human rights. And so we have a lot more work ahead of us.
Luckily, I think that the front line of people aware of this and campaigning actively on this is also growing, especially so many human rights organizations that are increasingly working together, coordinating, and cooperating. Also, many minorities from China in exile are increasingly cooperating.
Obviously, initiatives like the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, or the Alliance of Democracies are all great initiatives bringing people together. They are really aware of the biggest challenge of our times, and trying to stop that move towards appeasement that still too many governments around the world and especially in Europe are pursuing.
Mr. Jekielek: Laura Harth, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Ms. Harth: Thank you so much for having me on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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