Wednesday, June 01, 2005

China, free trade and human rights

In case anybody had missed it, Helen Clark is in China at the moment, both to build political links and talk about a free trade deal. Last night, during an interview with CNN, she was asked why New Zealand was seeking free trade with China given their attitude towards human rights. The answer, as far as CNN's asian viewers were concerned, was several seconds of blank screen, as the Chinese government censored the feed.

Clark's "offensive" comments were that

"Obviously China is not a democracy, and it is governed in a way that would not be acceptable in a Western democracy"

But I think the Chinese government more or less said that for her.

As for the wider issue of whether we should be pursuing free trade with a totalitarian shithole like China, the rest of Clark's statement - that if were only to trade with countries with similar values, it would be a very short list - has some merit, but only some. Because what's at issue is not the full western liberal democratic package, but the bare minimum we should expect from any country - things like not torturing people, not detaining them arbitrarily, and not driving tanks over them whenever they criticise the government, all of which China wantonly violates. And while it does show some welcome signs of moving in the right direction, it is still far from meeting even those minimum standards.

That said, I do not think that a small country like New Zealand can make a tremendous difference to China's attitude to human rights - that's the sort of thing that will take strong and sustained pressure from the global community as a whole. But that is no reason to not even try. China wants something from us rather badly: our endorsement that they are an acceptable international trade partner. And while I don't think we're in that much of a position to refuse - or rather, given the money involved, a refusal on principle would be ineffective; China would simply negotiate with someone else (such as Australia) - it is still not something that we should give lightly. Free trade negotiations are an opportunity to press for progress on human rights, and we should use them as such and press the hardest bargain we can. Our best way of making a difference here is not by standing aside and refusing to sully our hands, but by trying to set a pattern of linking trade to human rights improvements, so that other, weightier nations will follow suit.


A few weeks ago in Auckland, I witnessed Mary Robinson's response to the NZ-China free-trade conundrum. She said that New Zealand can get respect from China on human rights issues. America can't get respect, the UK can't get respect, but tiny impotent countries and/or international institutions with absolutely nothing to gain either economically or from political-points-scoring, from raising human rights issues with China, will actually be heard. And that this could make a difference, especially in the detail of trade negotiations and labour standards. Overly optimistic? I hope not. It seems an accurate psychological reading of the PRC regime. Was Clark listening? I have no idea.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/01/2005 10:18:00 AM

One of the advantages of independence is that people take your statements of principle at face value, rather than being partisan axe-grinding.

My worry is that the government will decide we have too much to lose economically, and not use this opportunity. And while Clark at least is making the right noises, but its difficult to tell how hard she is pressing on this.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/01/2005 10:43:00 AM

I disagree - China's eagerness to sign a deal could have already gifted NZ the world stage it needs to make a principled stand on human rights/labour rights/environmental issues and refuse a 'free trade' deal with china if these issues are not dealt with seriously (cira 1985 I suspect some argued that NZ was to o small for its anti-nuclear policy to make a difference)

Despite having a policy of including labour and environmental rights in trade agreements Labour have consistently failed to insist on these being included (the political side agreements on the Thai deal are not part of the main agreement and thus are unenforceable). Of course agreements Labour have signed do 'protect' multinational investors from the effect of some government (ie democratic) actions - demonstrating that some 'rights' are enforceable in 'free trade' agreements while others are not.

Posted by Joe Hendren : 6/01/2005 09:53:00 PM

Joe: but would taking that stand have actually done anything to advance human rights in China?

I think that using trade as a carrot is a better approach. Clark says they're trying to get China to sign up to the ICCPR, which is fine, provided the Chinese stick to it. But I'd also like to see them push hard for some progress on labour rights as well. If we can get that sort of progress, then I don't mind giving them that international endorsement in exchange. Sure, it won't turn China into a decent country, but it would make it a more decent country, and that is worth something.

As for the anti-nuclear policy, I think that taking a stand and setting an example were definitely the right thing to do (in part because there simply was no possibility of "constructive engagement", the presence of nukes being an all-or-nothing proposition). But here, I'm not at all sure that that's the case. And if we can do real, positive good by engagement, then we should take that opportunity.

(I think "investment protection" clauses in FTAs are something I want to do my nut about some other time...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/02/2005 12:20:00 AM