Reuters reports that Spanish judge Ismael Moreno has issued arrest orders for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, former premier Li Peng, and other officials. It’s the latest move in high-profile case brought by Tibetan rights groups, including Thubten Wangchen, a Tibetan monk who holds Spanish citizenship. Spanish law allows for suspects to be tried for alleged human rights abuses that occurred abroad provided there is a Spanish victim. In November of last year, Spain’s National Court also indicted former president Hu Jintao on similar charges.
In his order, Moreno wrote that Jiang Zemin was “responsible for acts of torture and other major abuses of human rights perpetrated by his subordinates against the people of Tibet” due to his position of authority at the time. Jiang was president from 1993 – 2003, although experts believe he continued to exert behind-the-scenes influence throughout much of Hu’s tenure (and even played a role in determining who was named to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012). The order called for Jiang’s detention on charges of “genocide, torture and crimes against humanity.”
The case could cause a rift in Spain’s relationship with China. Just last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told the press that China hoped Spain could prevent the case from moving forward. He reiterated that “the Tibet issue is a core interest for China and the feelings of the people, and is extremely sensitive.” Hong specifically said that Spain should “not send a wrong message to Tibetan separatist forces” and should “prevent such incidents [referring to the court case] from happening again.” In November, when the ruling initially came down, China expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition.” Zhu Weiqun, director of the Committee for Ethnic and Religious Affairs of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told state media that the case could only bring “enormous embarrassment” to Spain.
The Spanish government itself seems reluctant to continue with the case. Spain’s public prosecutor appealed against the issuing of the arrest warrants, but the appeal was overturned by the judge. The Financial Times, citing unnamed Spanish diplomats, wrote in November that the Spanish government was very concerned the case could potentially damage its trading relationship with China.
Spain’s government may have in mind the example of Norway. In 2010, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by a Norwegian committee. China strongly protested the award, because Liu was (and remains) in prison for “undermining the state authorities.” Over three years later, China-Norway ties remain frosty, especially economically — China has embargoed imports of Norwegian salmon and refused to hold trade talks. Clearly, Beijing sees economic coercion as a powerful tool in punishing nations that are perceived as interfering in China’s internal affairs.
The Spanish case is unlikely to have any real world consequences for Jiang, Li, and the other Chinese leaders. Former Chinese officials rarely travel abroad, meaning there is virtually no chance that Jiang or the others would find themselves in a country willing to honor Spain’s arrest order (by contrast, a similar case did result in the arrest of Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet when he traveled to London in 1998). As a court victory, it’s an entirely symbolic one for Tibetan activist groups.
However, the case could indeed have practical implications if China decides to retaliate diplomatically or economically. In the past, Beijing has sought to punish leaders merely for meeting with the Dalai Lama, with the UK being the most recent example. In fact, in 2010 CNN cited a German study that revealed countries whose leaders meet with the Dalai Lama can expect to lose over 8 percent in exports to China. If meeting with the exiled Tibetan leaders sparks this reaction, then actively accusing China’s ex-leaders of genocide could provoke an even more drastic response. Spain’s exports to China were worth $6.3 billion in 2012, and the countries had agreed to increase bilateral trade and investment in May 2012. The Tibet case could jeopardize this, and continue a negative trend for Spain’s exports to China.