Keep the arms embargo against China

Tony Blair's claims to a moral arms policy are being drowned out by sad, cynical laughter
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to the Labour government's lofty words on arms policy? Tony Blair declared unequivocally a few years ago: "We don't sell arms that could be used in human rights abuses. We have one of the strictest regulatory frameworks in the world." Although they might sell to dictatorial regimes, the Government would ensure they were used only for "legitimate purposes" and "not internal repression".

Whatever happened to the Labour government's lofty words on arms policy? Tony Blair declared unequivocally a few years ago: "We don't sell arms that could be used in human rights abuses. We have one of the strictest regulatory frameworks in the world." Although they might sell to dictatorial regimes, the Government would ensure they were used only for "legitimate purposes" and "not internal repression".

Tell that to the people of Aceh, a South-east Asian province that washed to the world's attention on Boxing Day and is now ebbing from our minds again. Three years ago, the heroic Indonesian human rights group Tapol took photographs of British-supplied tanks and weaponry being used by the Indonesian military to incinerate Acinese civilians, including children. Their crime? They had declared they want independence from an Indonesian government that has plundered, tortured and trashed their home-province for decades. And the British government's response? We kept on arming Indonesia to the hilt. So much for our "regulatory framework" and "strict rules".

It seems that our government has a neat policy for this battered chunk of South-east Asia. Cry for the people of Aceh when they are massacred by a tsunami - and arm their murderers when they are massacred by the Indonesian government.

And Britain's arms policy is just about to get worse. Since the gunning down of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the European Union has maintained a strict arms embargo against the Chinese government - until now.

The French and German governments are eager for better access to Chinese markets, and Tony Blair and Jack Straw - after a brief period of wobbling - are now backing them with full-frontal force. The crude Dick Cheney-style xenophobia against the French over the past few years has been disgusting - but that shouldn't inhibit us from criticising the role of the French government in this deal. Jacques Chirac argues in practice for the hardcore realpolitik of arming any tyrant, any time, anyhow - and Tony Blair is now backing his stance. Chirac has vandalised even the pitifully mild proposal that countries should have to declare what they are selling to the Chinese dictatorship.

Ah yes, the defenders of lifting the ban reply, but China is not what it was in 1989. It would be one thing to arm Deng Xiaoping straight after the massacre - but today, China is a modernising, prosperous country that will cave in to democracy sooner or later.

The people forced to mourn in secret for Zhao Ziyang last week would not agree. In 1989, he was head of China's ruling Communist Party - but he appreciated a democratic revolution when he saw one. He headed straight to Tiananmen Square to address the students and explain that their calls for democracy represented "the future of China". He was seized by the police and taken to Deng Xiaoping. Deng demanded to know why he was supporting the "counter-revolutionary" principle of democracy. "I have the people on my side," Zhao replied. Deng sneered: "Then you have nothing."

Zhao was never seen in public again. He died under house arrest in this supposedly "new" China. The country's dictators remain so terrified of the lure of democracy and its defenders that they ordered a total blackout on the news. Readers of Chinese newspapers and viewers of their TV bulletins know nothing of his demise - which gives you some idea of quite how free their press is.

Nobody should kid themselves: China remains a dictatorship. The political structures of Maoism remain, even as the policies they enact have (thankfully) changed drastically. Today, an incredible proportion of China's state resources is dedicated to persecuting the eccentric but harmless Falun Gong spiritual sect. Nobody knows for sure how many pro-democracy protesters remain held without trial, but most human rights groups believe it runs into thousands - and a crackdown is expected ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Some Western apologists for the Chinese government (and lifting the arms ban) argue that the country's growing openness to Western corporations is evidence of greater freedom. This only shows how debased the idea of freedom has become, even in Europe. In fact, Chinese workers - forbidden to vote, join trade unions or defy their employers - are somewhat wealthier today, but scarcely more free.

The shock capitalism imposed on China by its dictators and by Western corporations - with none of the protections and restraints taken for granted in democracies - is provoking growing unrest even in the repressive climate of that country. Over 2 million Chinese people will be on illegal strike or demonstrations this month alone, even though they risk being jailed or beaten by the police. The cheap Chinese goods we all devour are so inexpensive precisely because their workers have a police state suppressing their demands.

But the biggest victims of the European Union's renewed arms sales will be the people of Taiwan, who might hear the crack and boom of European weapons attacking their homes very soon. Over the past decade, Taiwan has become a fairly sophisticated democracy, with all that involves: elections, a free press, trade unions and a gay rights movement.

The Chinese dictators find this unbearable. They claim that Taiwan is a "renegade province" that "belongs" to China, even though it broke away over 50 years ago and opinion polls show fat majorities of Taiwanese people do not want reunification.The real reason for the Chinese rulers' hatred of Taiwan is not just crude nationalism. No; the island just off their coast exposes the Chinese government's rationale for remaining in power to be a lie. Hu Jintao, China's current dictator, says that democracy is a "Western idea" not suited to "Asian values."

Taiwan shows that this is a self-serving fiction. If the people of Taiwan can choose their own government and exercise free speech, why can't China's? And their argument that China's economic development will be held back by democracy is also proven to be false: Taiwan is more prosperous than China. Enraged by these truths, the Chinese government announced last month might invade Taiwan if the country's elections produced a result they did not like.

So the loudest protests against the lifting of the embargo have come from Taiwan - but the Bush administration comes a close second. Of course, this US policy is not motivated by some benign desire to support democracy; if it was, they would not have supported an anti-democratic coup attempt in Venezuela just two years ago.

No - the Bush administration's concern is to diminish China's power and influence by any means possible. But the new European policy - backed by Blair - is motivated by motives just as base: greed. The divisions between Europe and America on this issue are those of raw geopolitical influence; neither side cares much for the people of Taiwan and China and their basic human rights. It's a startling reminder of how statecraft is detached from basic human morality.

Are we really happy to drag the European dream - a dream which should inspire the world, and offer a social democratic alternative to America - down to this? To arming men who jail democrats? Next time Tony Blair or the EU claims to have a moral arms policy, they should be drowned out by sad, cynical laughter.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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