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Economics 'masking China rights record'

A man demonstrates in London against China's violent crackdown on protests in Tibet (2008)
There were many international protests over China's crackdown in Tibet
Ahead of the UN Human Rights Council recommendations to China, the BBC's Michael Bristow examines whether the country's growing economic power is forcing world leaders to mute their criticism of human rights violations.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Europe recently, it was the global economic crisis that topped the agenda.

European leaders seemed keen to hear how the world's third-largest economy could help them recover from the economic slowdown.

Once, China's human rights record might have been the main talking point, but that issue does not now seem as important.

Some believe China's growing economic might has forced world leaders to soften their criticism on this issue.

Hong Kong political commentator Frank Ching said: "I think a lot of the criticism aimed at China is superficial.

"Foreign leaders want to show their public that they are raising this issue, but they do not want to provoke China."

Strong allegations

Beijing has for some time drawn criticism because of what many perceive to be a lack of respect for human rights.

Even the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has concerns about China's record in this area.

Human rights remain a big concern for many governments, even though they are not ready to press China
Nicholas Bequelin
Human Rights Watch

In a report prepared for the UN review of China's human rights situation this week, the commissioner's office makes several damning points.

The report says there are concerns about allegations of torture, ill-treatment and the disappearance of numerous people.

Ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs - many of whom question Chinese rule over their regions - are particularly vulnerable groups, the report says.

This kind of human rights record has in the past led to harsh words and the threat of action from Western countries.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games last August following unrest in Tibet.

In the end the French president - along with leaders from most of the world's major countries - attended the Olympic opening.

Less audible

But the apparent lack of public criticism of China's human rights record does not mean foreign leaders are not putting on pressure behind the scenes.

Gordon Brown meeting Wen Jiabao in London (1 February)
Analysts say Britain sees China as a powerful ally
Nicholas Bequelin, of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "Does trade trump human rights issues? Yes, of course."

But he added: "Human rights remain a big concern for many governments, even though they are not ready to press China."

Despite that, Mr Bequelin said he was disappointed China did not do more to advance human rights in the run-up to the Olympics.

And he said not all countries take up the issue with the same level of enthusiasm.

"We are concerned with the evolution of the UK in respect to human rights issues, Tibet in particular," he said.

"The voice of the UK is getting less and less audible."

He could have been referring to Britain's recent decision to clarify its position on Tibet's legal status.

For many years the UK used the word "suzerainty" when it described its position on China's control over the Himalayan region.

This could suggest that China's rule over Tibet is like that of a dominant state over a less powerful one.

Proud achievements

China says Tibet is a part of the Chinese nation and bristled at the use of the word. It put pressure on the British government to amend its view.

In a written statement at the end of last year, Britain's Foreign Minister David Miliband did just that.

A Chinese woman shops at a clothes store in Beijing (BBC)
China says it is proud that it has improved its people's material lives
He made it clear the UK had dropped the "outdated concept of suzerainty".

"Like every other [European Union] member state, and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China," he said.

Less vocal criticism of China's human rights record could also be a result of improvements in this area. That is certainly China's view.

It made that point in its submission to the UN's human rights review.

"There has been a significant advancement in the level and extent of Chinese people's enjoyment of all human rights," the document says.

China is particularly proud that it has improved its people's material lives since it began a series of economic reforms 30 years ago.

It often argues that food, clothing and shelter are the most basic rights of all.

And perhaps outside pressure has only a limited effect on China, whose officials constantly say the country will choose its own development path.

"Putting pressure on China is not a very effective," said Hong Kong commentator Frank Ching.

"China is a big county and is not going to change just because others want it to."

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