Sophie Richardson is China Director at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter at @SophieHRW.
IBM and Ai Weiwei, L'Oreal and Liu Xiaobo, Daimler and the Dalai Lama. In many senses these aren't likely pairings, but suddenly it seems major international corporations and critics of the Chinese government have more in common than previously thought.
In recent weeks, the American Chamber of Commerce, the European Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S.-China Business Council have publicly expressed frustrations over the Chinese government's targeting of particular firms, denying access to legal counsel, a lack of due process and transparency, and the seemingly arbitrary imposition of fines and other punishments. The companies suggest that laws in China are being misused or distorted in ways that burden them more than domestic firms, and that they have been subject to "intimidation tactics" and denied "full hearings."
In effect, the government's tactics against human rights activists have now migrated to the private sector. The government's propensity for punishing voices it finds problematic is hardly news to human rights activists in China – they have long paid a high price to promote justice, transparency, and accountability. In recent weeks, Gao Zhisheng, long known for his legal activism, was finally released from another Kafka-esque prison stint, and he appears to have been badly tortured and remains under constant surveillance.
Dozens of members of the New Citizens Movement, a group dedicated to promoting civic values, have been detained and nine were given harsh prison terms on vague charges of disturbing public order. Cao Shunli died in prison after being baselessly detained for her efforts to engage a United Nations human rights mechanism – the human rights community's closest analogue to the World Trade Organization. Guo Feixiong was tried this week and will likely be given a harsh sentence for peacefully promoting the idea that officials should publicly disclose their assets.
Often international companies and human rights defenders faced similar problems. A number of journalists, including Gao Yu and Shi Tao, were prosecuted on the grounds of violating China's notoriously opaque state secrets laws. Fears of violating those same laws have led to penalties against the Chinese subsidiaries of major international accounting firms, who cite them in refusing to open their books to audits.
Firms ranging from Microsoft to Mercedes – like the Chinese legal aid organizations Gongmeng and Yirenping – have been raided on questionable grounds, and the January, 2013, blocking of GitHub, a major Web-based hosting service, affected wholly commercial coders and on-line government critics alike. A well-known lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, and Peter Humphrey, a British corporate investigator working for GlaxoSmithKline, both face vague charges of "illegally obtaining personal information."
While foreign investment has surged into China, the business community has for the most part remained publicly bullish, even while grumbling privately about corruption and the difficulties of doing business. They didn't see the parallels between the treatment of activists and their own treatment and, in some circumstances, they criticized activists when they called for greater freedoms. In other instances, companies such as Apple and Foxconn have themselves been accused by watchdog groups of labor abuses in China.
It's hard to deny the common interests of both communities. An independent, professional legal system in China should be able to both enforce contracts and protect peaceful speech; a truly free press can report accurate, timely information to hold diverse interests accountable. The ability of people to share their ideas freely is essential for a competitive business environment and a less abusive, opaque political system.
As some of the world's biggest, best-known firms – with far greater leverage against the government than individual activists – begin to voice their concerns, there are opportunities for change. Companies should adopt sound business practices in China, including on human rights, and report on them regularly. Firms should reach out to human rights groups to compare government tactics and to understand common problems with the Chinese legal system so they can push for the types of reforms that would benefit both groups.
When problems that affect companies and activists alike arise, companies should speak up about the negative consequences for both communities. These activists continue to do the toughest work pressing for long-term change, and in that sense supporting them is a wise investment for companies.
Simply speaking publicly about legal abuses against someone being persecuted can have an impact on how laws are applied and for people at risk. If the roughly 3,000 businesses represented by these American and European associations each spoke up about such cases – and there are plenty to go around – it might open up an important new front to curtail the problematic practices that hurt business and human rights.