Chapter 14 - Human rights
In large measure, the growth in trading activity
and China stems
from the highly complementary nature of this relationship. In a speech
delivered in 2004, the Chinese Ambassador to Australia
described the Australian and Chinese economies as similar to 'gears meshing
into each other'.
A number of witnesses have remarked on the growing
places on China
as a major export market to maintain its prosperity. Some have noted that 'China
matters more to Australia
in terms of trade than the other way around'.
It is important then for Australia
to ensure that nothing interferes with the smooth meshing of these gears. Some
witnesses fear, however, that intent on maintaining good trading links with
China, Australia may compromise on matters of principle so as not to upset the
Some of these sensitive matters, as mentioned in
chapter 2, involve Taiwan
and the one China
policy, the potential for US–China conflict, and the tension between China
These political aspects of the Australia–China relationship will be examined in
detail in the committee's second report to be tabled separately.
This chapter explores points of likely friction between
China and Australia
where broader national interests may impinge on purely economic considerations.
As noted above, it does not explore the broader geo-political aspects that
involve a third country such as Taiwan,
Japan or the US.
This chapter focuses, in particular, on the political and humanitarian issues
likely to bring Australia
and China into
disagreement and which may adversely influence the trading environment.
Points of agreement
Recently, in an address to the Asia Society, the Prime
Minister stated that 'Australia's
relationship with China
further illustrates what can be achieved when countries focus on the substance
of common interests'. He told the audience that Australia
seeks to build on shared goals and not 'become obsessed by those things that
make us different'. This statement
raises the issue about Australia's
approach to matters on which the countries disagree.
Harris referred to economic coercion, which
could include the withdrawal of economic relationships, as an important
potential weapon itself and 'a factor in Chinese thinking'. Professor
Fitzgerald made a similar observation:
Generally speaking it is reasonable to say that in the
contemporary world order countries get their way by pushing people around. It
is not unusual for—how shall I put it?—cultural representatives of one country
to intimate to business leaders of another that they would lose a contract
unless something was done about some other totally unrelated issue; like you
might go to wage war in order to win a trade concession. This linkage of trade
with other issues is now quite widespread. China
does not hesitate to use that kind of intimidation with anyone in relation to
business. There is nothing that is unique to Australia
about that. It is unfortunate, but it strikes me as fairly commonplace. 
Director, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, suggested that Australia
and China have
'sought to secure their economic relationship by tacitly agreeing not to stress
the issues that either party finds difficult to handle'. Professor
Jacobs was of the view that Australia
chooses to play down or ignore troubling aspects of China's
development because of China's
influence. He produced a long list of matters that he regarded as noteworthy
including the environmental and ecological damage occurring in China,
the wastage of water, the plight of poor peasants, the riots over the selling
of agricultural land for industrialisation purposes, and projects geared to
rich government and party cadres. He asked:
How many foreign entrepreneurs really make money in China?
Some do, but many more lose their shirts. How long does one stay in China
on the promise of earning money in the future? Why, in view of these economic
difficulties, do we feel a need to appease China?
Why do we feel a need to kowtow to China’s
leadership even before they say anything? Is it because in the past the Chinese
have thrown a few hissy fits?
In order to understand better and evaluate Australia's
approach to matters on which Australia
and China are
likely to clash, the committee looks at the protection of human rights.
Human rights in China
Chinese leaders are aware that they have come under
harsh criticism from some sectors of the international community for failing to
adequately protect human rights in their country. In 2004, it inserted in its
constitution the principle that 'the state respects and safeguards human
rights'. More recently, it has also produced a white paper on human rights that
was promoted as a document providing 'a plethora of facts and figures detailing
the past year's efforts and achievements in safeguarding the basic human rights
of the Chinese people and providing legal guarantees of these rights'.
Without doubt, China
has made progress toward reform in some areas of human rights. The committee
outlined in chapter 2 the steps taken by the Chinese to alleviate poverty in their
country. Organisations such as Amnesty International, however, argue that
serious and widespread human rights violations are still perpetrated across the
country. In its 2005 report, it
Tens of thousands of people continued to be detained or
imprisoned in violation of their fundamental human rights and were at high risk
of torture or ill-treatment. Thousands of people were sentenced to death or
executed, many after unfair trials. Public protests increased against forcible
evictions and land requisition without adequate compensation. China
continued to use the global 'war on terrorism' to justify its crackdown on the
Uighur community in Xinjiang. Freedom of expression and religion continued to
be severely restricted in Tibet
and other Tibetan areas of China
Concerns were raised with the committee that the
Australian government places too much weight on the trading relationship and
economic aspects of Australia's
relationship with China
and ignores human rights abuses occurring in China.
suspected that Australia
had watered down its stand on the protection of human rights in China
because of other considerations. In referring to Australia's
decision to withdraw from condemning China
in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, he told the committee:
I do not know whether a whole of government approach was taken
in which the economic implications of this and the implications in regard to
security cooperation across the board—that is, not only defence but
Attorney-General’s—with China were all examined. Sending the right signal is
really important, I think, and I am not sure that the decision that we took on
human rights in 1997 did send the right signals to China.
I believe that before that they took us very seriously on this human rights
matter. This was an issue on which we had healthy differences. Those healthy
differences should always exist. We may have obscured our image somewhat.
In a similar vein, Dr
Morgan was of the view that the Australian
people and the Australian government have certain principles related to democracy
and economic institutions. He stated that Australia
should not let short–term developments get in the way of Australia
preserving and maintaining those.  He explained further:
...we should make it clear to them [Chinese] that we respect
people’s rights and that we would like to see China
moving towards a more democratic type of environment. Not that I think we can
actually make them do it, but we should emphasise that that is important. We do
not just want to sell iron ore or educate their kids; we would also like to see
improvements in welfare and political freedom.
was equally concerned that Australia
may give 'a high priority to economic relationships and not enough attention to
issues such as human rights, labour rights and environmental concerns'. Professor
Jacobs cited the case of Mr
a former diplomat who sought political asylum in Australia,
as an example of where he believed Australia
acted out of concern for maintaining a good relationship rather than respect
for individual rights. He stated:
Why was his request for asylum duckshoved back and forth between
the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Immigration
and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs? Why did each department insist that
the other department had responsibility? Why could the problem not be solved
quickly? Why was Mr Chen
left hanging for at least three weeks before the Prime Minister intervened and
stated that Mr Chen
would not be sent back to China?
What did this series of events do for our relationship with China,
the United States
and the rest of the world?
I believe the answers to these three sets of questions relate to
economic strength and a perception that we in Australia
can gain wealth, provided that we have good links with China’s
rulers. I believe, however, that such perceptions are flawed.
Kent placed a similar interpretation of the events
following Mr Chen's
request for political asylum. She said that the government's response to his
request must be considered in the wider contest of a dependent foreign policy
and a deterioration of Australia's
policy on domestic and international human rights.
Clearly, in the minds of some witnesses, the Australian
government has stepped back from criticising certain actions by China
because it does not want to offend the country. To their way of thinking, the
desire to maintain strong economic ties, sometimes at the cost of defending
international human rights principles, appears to be at the forefront of the government's
considerations when dealing with China.
The following section explores this perception by looking at the issue of Falun
The concern that Australia
may underplay its advocacy for the protection of human rights in China
in favour of economic considerations was expressed vigorously by witnesses
during the committee's inquiry into the Mr
During that inquiry, the committee heard allegations that the Chinese
government had violated the basic human rights of Falun Gong practitioners. The
alleged abuses for practicing their belief included harassment, torture and
assignment to 're–education through labour' or being forcibly institutionalised
in psychiatric hospitals.
According to the Falun
Dafa information centre, 'Falun Gong (or Falun
Dafa) is an ancient form of qigong, the
practice of refining the body and mind through special exercises and meditation'.
Since becoming public in 1992, Falun Gong has attracted tens of millions of devotees
in over 60 countries.
The Chinese government, however, does not see the Falun
Gong in the same light as its practitioners and has made clear that it regards
the organisation as an 'evil cult'.
During a visit to Australia
in March 2002, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr
indicated that the government believed that there had been a tendency within
the Falun Gong that merited 'attention and alert'. He was of the view that
Falun Gong was 'turning increasingly violent' and urged Australia
to contain its activities. During
a press conference, he stated:
As the Foreign Minister of China, I would like to appeal to the
relevant countries to heighten their vigilance against the evil cult of Falun
Gong and refrain from conniving at or supporting the activities of Falun Gong
or allow Falun Gong to use their territories in engaging in activities against
China, so as to preserve their social security and their stability and to preserve
their friendly and cooperative relations that they have had with China, and to
prevent the on-going friendly and co-operatives with China from being damaged
in any way.
The Australian government has issued statements on a
number of occasions raising concerns about China's
ban of Falun Gong and its treatment of Falun Gong practitioners, which Australia
regards as breaches of fundamental standards of human rights.
A number of witnesses to this committee are of the
view, however, that Australia
has failed to take a stronger stand because of political and economic
considerations. Their criticism relates particularly to allegations of spying on
Falun Gong practitioners in Australia.
In response to a question about the supposed surveillance
of Falun Gong practitioners in Australia
by Chinese operatives, Professor Fitzgerald
noted that it was commonplace for Australian citizens of Chinese descent under
surveillance having to change their email addresses and their phone numbers.
This action applied, in particular, to those who have relations and friends
back in China. He stated:
In conversation with fellow Australians who happen to be of
Chinese background, I have come to sense that they do not feel adequately
protected by or recognised as equal citizens under Australian law when it comes
to protection from surveillance by a foreign power, even though they are full
and equal Australian citizens.
...There is no doubt that this [surveillance] is taking place on a
very wide scale. In my view, the Chinese government needs to understand that in
the long term this could have a very detrimental impact on people-to-people
relations between our two countries, because Australians do not like foreigners
spying on their private lives—and Chinese-Australians like it no more than
other Australians do.
He stated further:
It is largely Chinese-Australians who are under surveillance...Why
do I say ‘largely Chinese-Australians’? It is not exclusively. When it comes to
the Falun Gong it is clear that any member is subject to surveillance, but it
is particularly Chinese–Australian members of Falun Gong who are reported on,
because they are the ones who can be threatened by reference to family or other
connections in China.
Australians of European descent are not in a position to be threatened. I do
not know enough about it, but my suspicion is that it is not as widespread.
He suggested that this was not necessarily a matter for
DFAT or DIMIA but more likely for the Attorney General’s Department or for
those who speak on behalf of Australian law, justice, rights and citizenship. He
told the committee that in his view a message needs to be driven home to China's
representatives in Australia
that surveillance of Australian citizens will not be tolerated. He noted:
It is an opportunity to make a number of very public gestures
which would send a message home that, leaving aside trade, leaving aside
diplomacy and all the constraints and protocols that apply in those areas, when
it comes to Australian sovereignty and citizenship and what happens here, there
is no mucking around—it has to stop.
Liang, a member of the Federation for a
Democratic China (FDC), said that the government must take action to
investigate the spy and informer network claims. Mr
Chin Jin from
the FDC told the committee 'it is my point of view that governments should take
action to stop the wrong doing of the Chinese communist government's
infiltration and manipulation of the ethnic Chinese community'. The Falun Dafa Association in Australia
has also called upon the Australian Government to examine fully allegations of
Chinese spies operating in Australia.
The committee accepts that Australia
differ significantly with regard to their policies toward the treatment of those
perceived to be political dissidents. Australia
fully advocates freedom of speech, of association and of religion. China
takes a far less tolerant approach. When it comes to Chinese actions against
people resident in Australia,
such as the surveillance of Falun Gong practitioners, the committee believes
that the government is duty bound to take an unequivocal stand in defence of
individual rights. The committee was not inquiring into Falun Gong and did not
thoroughly investigate the allegations about spying. Even so, the claims were
raised and are now on the public record.
The committee believes that the airing of these matters
requires the government to offer assurances that any such allegations are or
will be investigated and the findings of those investigations made public. The
committee also believes that in light of these allegations, it would be timely
for the government to make a public statement to the effect that all people
residing in Australia
are entitled to enjoy their fundamental freedoms without interference from any
individual, organisation or government.
The committee recommends that the Australian government
place on the public record a statement making clear that all people resident in
Australia are entitled to the protection of its laws and to exercise their
fundamental freedoms without interference from any individual, organisation or
In regard to human rights violations in China,
the committee believes that the government has an important role in encouraging
China to abide
by international principles. The committee accepts that the matter of human
rights in China
is a most sensitive one. It is important for Australia
to manage any disagreement with China
in a way that allows it the opportunity to raise objections or concerns about
human rights abuses but at the same time ensures that the substance of the
relationship remains sound. This means that a balance has to be reached in the
relationship whereby Australia
does not feel as though it must compromise its values in order to gain economic
Australia's human rights dialogue with China
The government's approach to managing the human rights relationship
and China has
been to engage China
on these issues in a cooperative manner that eschews a confrontational
approach. They have agreed to deal with their differences through dialogue and
consultation. The following section considers the human rights dialogue process
set up between Australia
recognises that it has a very different political system from China,
with a different set of social and cultural values. In evidence to the
committee, DFAT said:
In developing a political relationship with China,
we are often made acutely aware of these differences. But China
is important to Australia,
and we seek to develop the relationship through constructive dialogue and
engagement. We do not ignore our differences, but we deal with them in a
Mackerras accepted that there are generally
different cultural approaches between China
and western countries to the concept of individual 'rights':
Chinese favour the communitarian approach to human rights,
emphasizing the history and experience and community welfare of specific
peoples, while Australians tend far more strongly to support the
individualistic approach, which stresses the universality of individual human
He observed that:
Australian governments have generally much preferred the path of
dialogue to the economic sanctions frequently imposed by such countries as the United
States. Under the Howard
government, there has been a rather passive human rights dialogue between the
two countries, but one that has resulted in Australian assistance to China
in matters affecting human rights, such as the law system.
In his opinion, the reasons for Australia
adopting a passive approach are:
closer economic and political relations between
the two countries;
the view that improvements in China's living
standards will be accompanied by improvements in its human rights; and
increasing international criticism of Australia
on human rights grounds.
As noted above, the Australian government places emphasis
on achieving realistic outcomes by adopting an approach to human rights in China
that is 'constructive and based on dialogue rather than public confrontation'. Consistent with this approach, China
initiated a high level dialogue on human rights in August 1997. During that
dialogue, they agreed to undertake a program of technical cooperation aimed at
strengthening the administration, promotion and protection of human rights in
China. Since then, annual rounds of human rights dialogue, which provide an
opportunity for both countries to converse on human rights issues of mutual
concern, have been held. The key issues raised by Australia over recent years
include civil and political rights, the legal system, women's and children's
rights, rights of HIV/AIDS suffers, ethnic minorities and the treatment of
groups such as Falun Gong.
Issued in October 2004, a Joint Press Statement for the
8th China–Australia Human Rights Dialogue defended the effectiveness
of the dialogue in promoting and protecting human rights. It stated:
Both sides held that Sino-Australian relationship is maintaining
sound momentum of development with ever expanding exchanges and cooperation in
various areas. Further development of friendly cooperation served the interests
of both peoples and the peace and prosperity of the Asia–Pacific region. The
commitment of both sides to dialogue gave expression to the strong bilateral
ties existed between China
Both sides reiterated their recognition of and respect for the
universal nature of human rights, holding all human rights are inseparable,
interdependent and interlinked.
Both sides held that since social system, cultural tradition and
development level varies among members of the international community, the
existence of different opinions on human rights was only normal. Human rights
dialogue on the basis of equality and mutual respect facilitated more mutual
exchange, better mutual understanding and common progress.
Both sides held that, all countries, developing or developed,
shared the responsibility of further promoting and protecting human rights, but
the difficulties they might come up against were different.
Following the most recent meeting in June 2005, Mr
Deputy Secretary, DFAT, indicated that the dialogue was not the forum for
addressing the claims of Chinese spying and harassment of citizens by Chinese
authorities in Australia. Although the allegations had been
aired in the media and attracted much publicity, he offered no further
As noted earlier, the Australian government believes
that this human rights dialogue 'is the best way to engage' the Chinese on the
issue of the protection of human rights—that it is a 'more constructive and
practical way to achieve results'.
DFAT accepted that while progress is slow, this approach is preferable to the
alternative, which is no progress and public condemnation of China. It argued that improvements were
We believe our dialogue does sensitise the Chinese and they have
become more aware that their international image is at stake. We believe they
are responding better; when we raise cases, they are responding more frequently
than they did in the past.
We realistically do not expect them to suddenly leap up and say,
‘That’s a terrific idea; we’ll implement that right away.’ But we do notice
that from dialogue to dialogue they will come back and talk about improvements
in their systems. We are helping them, especially through the technical
cooperation program, to get a practical understanding of how the general
criticisms about human rights in China
could be addressed in a very practical way within China.
Criticism of the effectiveness of
the human rights dialogue between Australia
The committee received a number of submissions suggesting
that the human rights dialogue was inadequate and advocating that Australia
adopt a more forceful approach to confronting China
on its apparent human rights failures. Some witnesses to the Mr
Chen inquiry, in particular, were highly
critical of the government's response to the matter of the protection of human
rights in China.
Mr Chin Jin,
from the Federation for a Democratic China, told the committee that 'China's
human rights abuses receive no harsh criticism'. In his view, the Australia–China
human rights dialogue is actually ineffective and fruitless in persuading the
Chinese government to follow well accepted international standards. According
to the former Chinese diplomat, Mr Chen
Yonglin, the ongoing Australia–China human
rights dialogue is a show:
Looking back at the past decade of multi–round non–confrontational
and constructive dialogues, has there been any progress? In my opinion, no.
From my point of view, it is time for the Australian government to review the
multiround Australia–China human rights dialogue.
Some submitters to this inquiry were equally critical
of the dialogue on human rights between the two countries. Dr
Ranald believed that the China–Australia
human rights dialogues have not been 'very effective' and that both countries
'find it convenient' to keep trade discussions and the human rights dialogue
apart. In her view, those issues
should be given 'a high priority and that they should be criticised where they
need to be criticised'.
also questioned the effectiveness of Australia's
Do we really believe that such kowtowing will bring more
economic benefits in the future? What is the evidence that such kowtowing does
work? I strongly believe that one of our strengths is our democratic system. It
is something about which we are, and should be, very proud. The feedback loops
of periodic elections and a free media enable us to give our leaders feedback
and to change our leaders if we are dissatisfied. Part of this strength is
human rights. Why are we afraid to make it clear that we very strongly support
human rights and democracy?
was of the view that the dialogue attracts little attention either here or in China.
He noted that, although he was looking for reference to the dialogue, he could
not find it in any official media. In his view the results from dialogue are
...we should do them, because, although you are not going to
achieve anything then and there, they are part of a slow process which
convinces people that there may be other ideas to learn from. So you have to do
it. But there is no point in doing it unless you are actually impacting on
somebody other than the people who attend the meeting, and I do not know that
observation about the lack of publicity given to the dialogue was telling. The
human rights dialogue held in June 2005 was conducted behind closed doors and produced
only a short bland statement about the meeting. As explained by Ms
We do not publish the outcomes or the exchanges at these meetings.
These are government-to-government exchanges and, while we do have a press conference
at the end of them and the leaders of the delegations answer questions, we
consider that keeping this dialogue on a government to government basis and not
publishing the full details allows us to be more frank and to have a freer
exchange than if we were doing it in a very public environment.
On the other hand, the Human Rights Council of
Australia argued that 'there needs to be an open exchange on matters of
substance as the basis for future dialogue, both with the Chinese government
and with representatives of Chinese civil society.'
The committee draws attention to the findings of the
Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs,
Defence and Trade in its report following an inquiry into Australia's
Human Rights Dialogues. That committee noted that there is no formal reporting
requirement for the dialogues and recommended that the Minister for Foreign
Affairs table an annual statement on the dialogues in Parliament. It also recommended that DFAT,
Ausaid and HREOC make more effective use of their websites to convey up–to–date
information on the dialogues.
The committee found it difficult to assess the
effectiveness of the human rights dialogue with China
because of the lack of information available on the outcomes achieved as a
result of the dialogue. The committee believes that the dialogue provides an
opportunity for Australia
and China to
demonstrate to the peoples of both countries and more broadly to the
international community that they are strong advocates of the protection of
human rights. Such demonstration cannot take place behind closed doors and be further
masked by bland statements about progress. It endorses the recommendations made
by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign
Affairs and Trade as outlined above but believes that additional measures
should be taken to improve transparency in the dialogue process.
The committee would like to see an informative agenda
issued before the dialogue takes place. It would also like to see a joint
statement released by both parties immediately following the talks that provides
a detailed assessment of the progress made since the last meeting, a discussion
of the topics considered during the dialogue, and the agreements reached for future
action. The committee believes that such a measure, while still taking account
of the need for both parties to be able to talk frankly about sensitive issues,
would add greatly to the value of the talks.
The committee recommends that Australia
as part of the human rights dialogue, to reach an agreement that both countries:
an informative agenda on the human rights dialogue before the dialogue
public a joint statement immediately following the talks that provides a
detailed assessment of the progress made since the last meeting, a discussion
of the topics considered during the dialogue, and the agreements reached for
future action; and
with non-government organisations (NGOs) working in the area of human rights
before each dialogue, or at the very least find a more effective way to engage
them in the process.
A stronger approach
As noted earlier, many witnesses believed that Australia
could do more to encourage China
to improve its human rights record. In particular, some emphasised that a timid
approach could do more damage than good to Australia's
relationship with China.
Most urged the government to participate in strong and vigorous debate. Dr
Morgan was of the view that Australia
needs to strengthen its relationship with China
and will not do so by appearing weak. He stated that China
and the Chinese respect strength and opinion.
He highlighted the contribution that Australia could make to influencing China:
I get the impression
that China does take some note of what we think and what we say. As a country that
does not represent a strategic threat to China but which could be a
collaborative partner, as well as being a gateway or a vehicle for access to
the USA and so on, we are in a unique position to make sure that the values
that we think are important are effectively conveyed.
also stated that Australia
should not be afraid to raise issues of human rights. He was conscious that by
publicly defending the rights of others, the Australian government may well
give heart to those in China
advocating greater protection of such rights in their country. He stated:
I would hate to see us be in a situation where we are looked at
as a sort of Chinese tributary.
He elaborated on his argument:
I think we need to stand up and speak about things. I made the
point before, and I think it is a critical one...that there are people in China
who want us to say those sorts of things, and they are exactly the sorts of
people we should be happy to help. Ultimately, we have to be aware that the
system in China
could change, and it is very important for us not to become too tied in to
being identified with the current regime. As I said, being tied in to Suharto
did not help our relations with Indonesia
in the slightest. It is important to have links with a variety of peoples.
Jin also stated:
I want to emphasise here that adherence to the value of
democracy and the moral principle of a fully fledged democratic country will
not necessarily damage economic and trade ties with China.
I implore the Australian government to push forward Australia's
value of democracy and freedom to help and induce China
to get on the road towards democracy and consider it as important as economic
benefits in dealing with communist China.
This should not contradict the long-term national interests of Australia
but make a good contribution to the security and stability of the Asia–Pacific
region and the whole world.
shared the view that Australia
should not make excuses for China
and should challenge China
on the issues that need reform. He noted, however, that:
...one thing I do believe is that we do not give them enough
credit for what they have achieved. Chinese young people are actually very
proud of what they have achieved. Sometimes we focus very strongly on the
negative stories in this country. We are good mates with them, to use the
Australian expression, and that gives us a chance to engage on the harder
This observation supports the committee's findings that
Australia and China
are not taking advantage of the human rights dialogue to promote the protection
of human rights. There are people not only in Australia
but in China
who want confirmation that both countries are committed to advancing the rights
of individuals. Both countries should welcome the opportunity to present an
accurate assessment of the work they are doing to improve their human rights
record. They should not shy away from showing the world their short comings and
achievements in protecting human rights.
The Human Rights Council of Australia praised Australia's
history as a champion for the protection of human rights. It stated that
throughout the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s Australia stood out as one
of the most influential nations, taking a major role in areas such as 'standard
setting, domestic remedies, strengthening international mechanisms, using
bilateral influence and providing refuge for those fleeing human rights
violations'. It submitted:
That role was built on a strong, consistent and uncompromised
Government commitment to human rights in Australia
and internationally. That commitment crossed party lines.
The Council pointed to Australia's
advocacy of the abolition of the death penalty as an example of Australia's
commitment to upholding human rights. It claimed, however, that over recent
has compromised this commitment citing the following actions:
the passing of legislation, in the context of
the 'war against terror', which ignores basic human rights;
the ill-treatment of asylum-seekers in detention
indications by some Australian political leaders
that they do not consider it appropriate to seek to prevent executions of people
in other countries (unless they are Australian citizens);
the government's endorsement of the long-term
detention without trial of Australian citizens by the US Government.
The Council argued that in light of these actions, the
Australian government has made it more difficult for Australia
to be a credible voice raising concerns about human rights violations in China.
The universality and inalienability of international human
rights standards have been significantly damaged by Australia
in recent years and this impairs its ability to use its influence to change the
unacceptably high level of human rights violations in China.
The committee notes the number of witnesses who
underlined the importance of Australia
speaking out against human rights violations. They spoke of the need for Australia
to send the 'right signal' to China
and the international community. The committee endorses their view and believes
that the Australian government must take a public stand on the protection of
human rights. It also accepts that strong words are not enough and if Australia
is to influence the behaviour of other countries in respect of human rights, it
must ensure that it is providing an example that other countries should follow.
Australians must be aware of how other countries perceive its record on the
protection of human rights and work to ensure that the country is a positive
force in leading others to adhere to the principles underpinning
internationally recognised human rights.
In the following section, the committee considers
another matter likely to give rise to disagreement between Australia
Labour standards in China
Respect for religious freedom and associated human
rights is not the only area where Australia
is concerned with developments in China.
The issue of labour standards is another matter on which Australia
and China may
find that trade considerations clash with differing expectations of what is
is a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Even so,
organisations such as Amnesty International have criticised China
for not adhering to international labour standards. The discrimination against
women in the workplace and the frequency of serious accidents, which points to
occupational health and safety failings, were of particular concern. It also
for curtailing the right to freedom of expression and association including the
right to form independent trade unions and to hold peaceful protests. This restriction means that the
majority of workers in China
are not represented by an independent trade union and are unable to bargain
collectively for better terms and conditions of employment.
Views put to the committee by a number of witnesses
supported the contention that China
falls short in meeting the standards set by the ILO. Dr Ranald, AFTINET, told
the committee that her organisation was very concerned about 'the lack of
labour rights in China, including China’s failure to implement its own labour
laws and its failure to abide by certain basic labour standards as defined by
the UN and the International Labour Organisation'. The AFTINET submission made
several criticisms of China's
current human rights record. It noted that:
China has ratified only three of the eight ILO Conventions on Fundamental Principles
and Rights at Work.
workers in China's 'export processing zones'
(centred in Guangdong Province) are forced to work excessive hours to meet
transnational corporations' sub-contract orders. Real wages in these zones have
fallen over the past 12 years, despite the enormous wealth created from
manufacturing exports. 
there have been 'numerous reports of labour
rights abuses...in export-oriented industries'.
It cites the example of an October 2003 strike of more than 5,000 women from
Nanchong city textile mill in Sichuan province: 'more than 1,000 police were
called in and many arrests followed'.
Chinese workers are not free to form or join the
trade union of their choice. They can only join through the All-China
Federation of Trade Unions, which is closely associated with the Communist
Party. Attempts to start independent workers' organisations are repressed.
there is a 'systemic preference for single
women' in factory production, reflecting lower rates of pay for these workers
than for married women.
China has a poor record in workplace safety with
roughly one million industrial accidents a year since 2001. In 2004, 6,000
miners died in industrial accidents.
Dr Ranald cited the work of Anita Chan that shows that real
wages have actually been falling in the 'export processing zones' because a 'bidding
down process' goes on to secure contracts.
She elaborated that because there is a lack of effective rights to organise and
There is discrimination and victimisation of migrant workers,
who are in an even more vulnerable position than other workers in China—especially
young women—and there are very bad health and safety conditions. There is also
a lack of effective environmental protection and a failure to implement
...trade agreements should be consistent with human rights, labour
rights and environmental protections and should take account of the particular
needs of developing countries. We also want to have a more open, democratic and
transparent process before decisions are made to undertake trade negotiations
and before the decision making about actual trade agreements.
The Australian trade union movement also identified
problems with labour standards in China.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) accepted that a developing
country may 'enjoy an advantage in labour costs because of the operation of
market forces, a lower overall share of wages as a proportion of GDP, fewer on-costs,
higher unemployment, and labour oversupply due to population shifts from rural
to urban areas'. It argued,
however, that in the case of China:
...there is an additional cost advantage that is not legitimate,
namely the reduction in wages and conditions as a result of the denial of the
right to organise and bargain collectively in independent trade unions, and the
right to legally strike to achieve higher wages and conditions.
ACTU, told the committee:
From a labour rights perspective, there are a number of issues
around the very basis of workers being able to be represented genuinely in a
workplace or through their own independent organisation, to be able to actually
develop an organisation that can also represent their interests. You are probably
aware that there are a number of independent human rights and labour rights
groups in China, but they do not have official endorsement—they would be
considered ‘underground’ in that sense. Obviously, many of the very basic, core
labour standards that the ILO is built on are not possible in China.
We would like to see progress on those issues. For example, very basic issues
of safety and fundamental concerns around HIV-AIDS education within workplaces,
and other issues of people being able to express basic civil and political rights
in China, are things that we consider pretty fundamental to the capacity for
workers to be represented effectively.
She indicated that there were probably weekly protests
currently about unpaid salaries and unpaid pensions. She argued that in this
area the Chinese trade union movement has not been able to effectively
intervene or represent people. She noted three areas where there is a lot of
social tension—unpaid salaries, unpaid pensions and labour disputes.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) was also
highly critical of the failure of the Chinese government to observe and
implement workers' rights. It identified 'very poor' occupational health and
safety standards and a ban on the formation of independent trade unions. Mr
National Secretary, AMWU, elaborated:
There is no genuine collective bargaining in China.
Its special economic zones are amongst the worst in the world, where
predominantly women’s labour is massively exploited and prison labour is used
to assist their competitiveness in the manufacture of goods. We are currently
trying to assess how much of the prison goods are coming into Australia
from China at
the moment. There is no national minimum wage; the wages are set at the local
level. Our information from the ICFTU coming out of both China
and Hong Kong is that the minimum wages are regularly
not paid. Over a two-year period from 2003 to 2004, there were 32,000 workplace
deaths in China.
Workers are used as a disposable commodity and as part of their competitive
In evidence given to the committee, Mr
Cameron mentioned the case of the Ferro
Alloy Factory at Liaoyang, which
sacked 10,000 workers without paying entitlements. Two workers, Mr Yao Fuxin
and Mr Xiao Yunliang, who opposed the sackings were given seven and four years'
jail respectively and are now 'seriously ill in Chinese prisons'. Mr
Cameron told the committee that the AMWU has
taken up this issue with the International Metalworkers Federation, but 'not at
this stage...with the federal government'. He claimed that Australia
must engage China
we should never engage on the basis of trying to pretend that
this country is some new, vibrant powerhouse of economic growth without
understanding what is driving that economic growth. That is the issue that is
missing in the debate in this country.
The AMWU's submission to the committee recommended that
the Australian government call for the release of workers in prison in China
'for seeking to exercise their internationally recognised core labour rights'.
In noting that China has ratified only three of the eight
ILO conventions containing core labour standards, the union recommended that
'Australia work through the International Labour Organization and other
international bodies to improve the observance of core labour standards of
The trade union movement would like to see the proposed
FTA include provisions governing labour standards. Mr
International Committee Member, ACTU, told the
committee that DFAT have indicated that current government policy does not
favour having labour standards in the agreement. He stated:
...to be fair to DFAT, on occasions when we have engaged with them
about labour standards there has been a suggestion that the government’s view
is that it is more appropriately dealt with in the ILO—that is true. That does
mean that it is important for us a trade union movement, particularly in the
absence of government support, to focus on non-government organisation networks
to put certain views to trade unions in China
and also to have considerable contact with groups in Hong Kong
which are focusing on labour standards and civil rights in China.
That is an obligation that we do accept.
Indeed, DFAT made clear that the government's position
was that the issue of labour standards was not to be addressed in free trade
agreements. It told the committee that Australia
has an established bilateral human rights dialogue with China
where the issue of labour standards is discussed. According to Ms
Morton, at the Human Rights Dialogue in
we encouraged China to guarantee the right to safe and healthy
working conditions and fair remuneration for workers; to enforce safety standards
to prevent industrial accidents such as in coalmines; to allow the formation of
genuinely independent trade unions to help guarantee workers’ rights—as an
institutional guarantor of human rights; and to allow workers the right to
peacefully advocate change and improvements and to protest against unfair
It also noted that China
is a participant in the ILO process so that the Australian government can
pursue the issue of labour standards in that context.
The committee believes that a trade agreement would not
be the most effective way to ensure that all enterprises in China
abide by international labour standards. The issue extends beyond Australian
businesses in China
and requires multinational cooperation. This does not mean that in
consultations with China
on the FTA that Australia
ignore the matter. The consultation process should indeed provide the
opportunity for Australia
to express its concerns and urge China
to adopt international standards. The committee believes that concerted
pressure applied through multilateral fora would be a more productive way of convincing
China of the
need to improve its record on labour standards. The committee suggests that Australia
continue to work through international organisations to persuade China
to adopt all of the ILO conventions and to ensure that they are observed.
Labour standards and Australian companies operating in China
The government should not be the only responsible body
advocating adherence to international labour standards in China.
Australian companies operating in the Chinese market also have obligations to
ensure that their practices accord with agreed international standards.
A number of witnesses considered that foreign companies
operating in China
had a responsibility to ensure that they abide by basic labour standards and
human rights and environmental protections. They noted, however, the temptation
for companies to concentrate on profits at the cost of maintaining recognised
labour and environmental standards. Dr Ranald
expressed strongly her opinion that at the moment companies are not observing international
standards in China.
She was of the view that, although some companies have considered these issues,
the subcontracting system militates against the observance of such standards
because 'it is basically a lowest bid system'. To her way of thinking, China
is 'becoming the focus of a race to the bottom on labour standards':
You have situations where there is no attention paid to health
and safety issues like the handling of chemicals and other dangerous
substances. Some responsibility for this has to be taken by the transnational corporations
that conduct this reverse bidding system. They take the lowest bid and then
they do not worry about how the factory fulfils that contract.
She went on to say:
There is a subcontracting system which encourages noncompliance
with labour standards so that market forces operate to drive down the price
they get for the contracts, and that pressure is put back on the workers to
fulfil the contract. The other issue is that many of these workers are migrant
workers: they come from other parts of China
into these special economic zones, so they are particularly vulnerable to
exploitation. They do not have families and communities to support them. Often
the factory also supplies their accommodation and meals, so they are completely
dependant on that employment in that particular area.
In turning to the responsibilities of Australian
companies operating in China,
That is something that obviously the Australian government and
the Australian trade unions need to be aware of and alert to. We do not have a
list of specific companies that we have concerns about at this point in
time—that is not something that we have had our attention brought to. But in
relation to the way in which standards can be promoted through investment by multinational
enterprises, and indeed Australian enterprises, we see that there could be opportunities
there. We would encourage Australian companies to look at being able to improve
conditions for workers in China
and respect basic fundamentals in the workplace. That is very important.
Davis told the committee that the Australian
Chamber of Commerce and Industry did not support the view of linking labour
standards issues with trade which in its opinion did not work. Even so, he
believed that Australian businesses have a role in promoting best practice. He stated
that the rule of thumb they use is to 'do abroad what you do at home'. He told
Business can best help by doing two things: practising abroad
what we do at home and just saying no to the worst examples and pointing them
out to the Australian government. If you see a bad practice, report it. Do not condone
it. Do not participate in it. We cannot say everyone will do that, but the
great majority of our members do practise abroad what they practise at home.
He explained further:
How do we go about lifting the human rights standards? As one of
my members said—and he was in Taiwan: ‘I just practise the Australian way in
Taiwan and, over time, just by that practice, everyone else has been lifted up.
I was paying a better than average salary to those who spoke English. There was
an incentive for the Taiwanese to learn English and I attracted the best employees,
so the local firms had to compete.’ That sort of leadership by practice really
worked well. He paid the best wages and he got the best employees and so on.
The Australia China Business Council stated that it
does its best to make Australian businesses in China
aware of appropriate labour standards. It gave the example:
Earlier this month our Brisbane
chapter and Queensland branch
held a seminar entitled ‘Managing risk in China’.
They did it in conjunction with Transparency International, a non-profit
organisation that looks at business integrity and corruption in other
countries. We have this type of collaboration with Transparency International
to provide a forum for discussion of business and ethical issues in China.
wanted stronger measures taken to guarantee that the rights of Chinese workers
would be protected. She stated that in the past AFTINET have:
supported the notion of an enforceable code of conduct bill for
Australian companies that invest overseas. In other words, if they do not abide
by certain minimum standards including labour, health and safety and
environmental standards, it should be possible for legal action to be taken
however, was sceptical about the effectiveness of a code of conduct in
enforcing labour standards. He regarded a code as 'the second-best option after
having proper implementation of core labour standards and ILO conventions'.
Corporate Code of Conduct
The OECD has formulated guidelines for multinational
enterprises that seek 'to encourage and reinforce the private initiatives for
corporate responsibility'. They
provide voluntary principles and standards. The guidelines take the form of
recommendations addressed by governments to multinational enterprises and
include, inter alia, the following
respect the human rights of those affected by
their activities consistent with the host government's international
obligations and commitments; and
refrain from discriminatory or disciplinary
action against employees who make bona
fide reports to management or, as appropriate, to the competent public
authorities, on practices that contravene the law, the guidelines or the
The governments from the 30 OECD members and 9
non-members have adhered to the guidelines. But as can be seen from the
principles cited above they are very general in nature and rely heavily for
their effectiveness on the laws of the host countries. As noted in chapter 2,
the Chinese legal system and culture do not provide a strong basis for compliance
with the laws. The legal system is not only complex, multilayered and
complicated by interference at the provincial level but Chinese culture in some
cases influences the application and enforcement of laws.
The Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, an Australian
community organisation that owns a company which imports optical frames from China
has explored ways to give effect to the ILO core labour standards and the OECD
Guidelines. It formed the view that the implementation of the OECD Guidelines
in non-adhering countries such as China
is problematic—'that there are real limitations to the extent to which a small
Australian importing company can achieve real change in its supply factories in
China'. It cited
the Chinese legal system and culture as major impediments and concluded:
Much of the work of attaining, for example, the ILO core labour
standards must fall to governments, though there is a role for experienced
enterprises and NGOs in advocating the appropriate action.
Dr Anita Chan, a research fellow in the Contemporary
China Centre at the Australian National University, was also of the view that
there is room for the international trade union movement to work with China to
bring about improvement in the working conditions of Chinese workers. In her
view, Australian trade unions, as part of the international movement, have
opportunities to become engaged with China.
Ms Tate noted that the ACTU had been actively promoting
the implementation of a corporate code of conduct over a number of years and mentioned
that it was to participate in a meeting to be held in China last December which
was cancelled. She explained:
It was organised through the OECD and was about the operation of
the OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises. Sadly, we feel that that is a
lost opportunity both for the Chinese government and for companies operating in
China. It was
something that both the investment community as well as the international trade
union movement was actively a part of. Those kinds of corporate social responsibility
discussions are something that we consider very important for progress in China
and we believe they cannot be separated from the impact of discussions around
trade and investment. We see that core labour standards are key to progress.
The committee believes that Australian NGOs, in
particular trade unions, have a vital role in promoting improved working
conditions for Chinese workers. The activities of Australian trade unions in China
are discussed in greater detail in chapter 18.
The Australian government, Australian companies and
NGOs have a place in encouraging Chinese firms to comply with international
labour standards. Their strong advocacy of international labour standards in
multilateral fora is important. The Australian government should also take
every opportunity, including the negotiations for a FTA, to raise Australia's
concerns about violations of human rights and labour standards in China.
Australian companies and NGOs likewise should be active
in promoting human rights and labour standards in China.
Through their associations with Chinese organisations and enterprises, they also
can influence the Chinese government to adopt and enforce international human
rights and labour standards.
The committee recommends that Australia
join with other countries that have ratified the International Labour
Organization (ILO) conventions to urge China
to adopt all the conventions and to improve their observance of core labour standards
of Chinese workers.
The committee recommends that the Australian government
consult with NGOs and businesses operating in China
with a view to formulating a policy on how they could jointly best promote the observance
of core labour standards in China.
Developing broader political, cultural and social links
To this point the report has focused on trade and commercial
ties. Numerous witnesses urged the committee, however, to look at China
in a much broader light. Mr Richard
Tan, President of the Chung Wah Association,
told the committee:
With respect to culture and other
ties, in talking about the Chinese market we should take note that recent
exchanges between Australia
and China have
been predominantly trade and business related. Few are to do with culture and
sports and other things. Even education is now seen purely as an export earner,
which is rather alarming. This seems to be an inevitable development but I
think it is a situation that we should seek to remedy. Friendship in business
is built on mutual profit taking. That friendship is as lasting as the profit
margin. Real and genuine friendship can be developed through promoting mutual understanding
and appreciation of each other’s culture and traditions. Thus, while
emphasising economic gains, we should not lose sight of the long-term benefits
of exchanges in other areas. I would also like to appeal to the Commonwealth to
allocate appropriate funding to promote closer links in the other areas of the
arts, sport, and tourism.
Committee Hansard, 1 August 2005, p. 35.)
Part IV of this report goes beyond the economic relationship.
It considers China's
growing importance to Australia
in the political, cultural and social spheres. It explores the links being forged
through strategic approaches to education, cultural exchange, engagement with
the Chinese-Australian community, political interaction, and science and
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