Last month I spent a few days in Taiwan, participating in a conference examining the human rights situation in China in the leadup to the Beijing Olympics. This was held just after Steven Spielberg announced he was withdrawing as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics in protest at the Chinese government’s links to the regime conducting the ongoing atrocities in Sudan, but before the latest government crackdown in Tibet.
It was attended by a range of human rights advocates, as well as politicians from Canada, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. There were some very good speeches and contributions amongst the large number of speakers. Among them was Dr Sev Ozdowski, the previous Australian Human Rights Commissioner – his speech is here – and David Kilgour, former Canadian Secretary of State for the Asia-Pacific, whose speech is here.
As with many conferences, I found networking with people in between times as valuable as the speeches. It was fascinating to talk with various local people about their views on the local political scene and on relations with mainland China.
It was an interesting time to be in Taipei. It was in the middle of the Lantern Festival, held in conjunction with Chinese New Year, and also in the lead up to their Presidential election, which was held today.
I wrote here about Taiwan’s Parliamentary elections in January. The ruling party, the DPP, got soundly clobbered at that election by its main competitor, the KMT. Term limits means the incumbent President, Chen Shui-bian, can’t recontest and it had been expected that the KMT’s candidate, Ma Jing-jeou, would win comfortably over the DPP’s Frank Hsieh. Despite suggestions that the controversy over the latest crackdown by the Chinese government in Tibet might hurt the KMT, due to their policy of pursuing more formal contact with the Chinese government, Ma did win quite easily.
Regardless of the result, relations with mainland China will continue to be a central part of political debate in Taiwan. For example, even though Ma Jing-jeou and the KMT is seen to favour closer ties with mainland China than the DPP, Ma made stronger statements about the potential for an Olympic boycott by Taiwanese athletes if the violence in Tibet continues.
There were some Tibetans amongst those who spoke at the human rights conference, linking their experiences of oppression with those of many others inside China. While many speakers referred with approval to Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal as an artistic adviser to the Olympic Games, they also noted the many serious human rights abuses continuing to occur inside China itself. Plenty of evidence was presented showing Falun Gong practitioners are consistently targeted for serious persecution, as are many civil rights and pro-democracy activists, along with Tibetans, Uighurs and others. The case of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was one that was regularly referred to.
I was interested to hear Honk Kong politician Kwok-Hung Leung speak, as I thought being a strongly pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong would give some specific insights into the attitudes of the Chinese government. He had long black hair and wore a Che Guevara t-shirt, (which I discovered later is something of a trademark for him). The picture below shows him in a delegation of us that met the Taiwanese President after the conference had concluded. Apparently he has vowed not to cut his hair until the Chinese government apologises for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. His speech was interesting and I can’t doubt his commitment, although I must say I’m not Che Guevara mixes terribly well with either democracy or human rights.
One other interesting speaker at the conference was a woman from Canada named Nazanin Afshin-Jan. Unlike most of us at the conference, she was not a politician, a lawyer or an academic (although she is a graduate in international relations), which probably explains why her speech seem more focused on practicalities than some of the others. She is Iranian born, trained in the Canadian Air Force, and has used her profile as a former runner-up in Miss World and a singer and songwriter to campaign on human rights issues. One of her main campaigns is to stop child executions, although the main offender on that issue is Iran, not China, so she didn’t focus on that so much in her speech at this conference. She was also able to end her speech by showing a video of one of her songs, which was rather hard for the rest of us speakers to compete against.