In recent weeks Japan has taken a stronger stance against the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. The Japanese government joined a G-7 statement strongly urging the Chinese government to “reconsider” imposing national security legislation on Hong Kong. And members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party said he should reconsider a scheduled visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Japan also joined 15 other countries opposed to a problematic Chinese government resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Japan’s recent diplomatic shift is noteworthy, considering it has a track record of being weak on human rights issues abroad. Part of its shift appears to be driven by a recent push by more than 100 opposition and ruling lawmakers who signed an international joint statement to express “grave concerns” about Beijing’s national security legislation.
The Japanese government’s recent actions have shown it can take a tougher stance on Beijing’s human rights violations if it wants to. Japan can be an important player on rights issues, and the government should use this momentum to continue speaking up for people whose rights are being violated not just by the Chinese government, but in other countries as well.
In June 2019, Hong Kongers took peacefully to the streets to protest proposed legal changes that would allow extradition to the mainland, where fair trial rights are rarely respected. Although the proposal was scrapped in September, Beijing has accelerated its efforts to suppress freedoms in the territory, marked by its recent decision to impose the national security legislation.
The people of Hong Kong and their elected representatives have had no opportunity to review and debate the law, in violation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s functional constitution. As early as July 1, people who have enjoyed rights to free speech, association, peaceful assembly, and fair trials may find that exercising these freedoms could be treated as subversion.
Civil society groups and the people of Hong Kong have made their objections to the law clear – many mobilizing through protests, strikes, and signature campaigns expected to continue in the coming weeks. Foreign governments, including the European Union, United Kingdom, and United States, have also voiced strong concerns about the national security legislation.
The Japanese government has contributed its own share of criticisms, though weakly. When the Chinese government announced it would impose the legislation, Japan’s vice-minister for foreign affairs, Takeo Akiba, summoned Chinese Ambassador Kong Xuanyou to express “serious concern.” Kong deflected the criticism, saying the issue was a matter of China’s “national security.”
Japan has also been modestly responsive to the Chinese government’s arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Turkic Muslims in “political education” camps in the northwest Xinjiang region. Japan was one of 22 countries at the UN Human Rights Council that issued an unprecedented joint statement last July urging the Chinese government to ends its mass arbitrary detentions and related violations in Xinjiang. It joined a similar effort at the United Nations Third Committee in October. Japan should now join countries calling on the UN secretary-general to appoint a special envoy for Hong Kong and other initiatives at the next Human Rights Council session.
Abe should go a step further and give serious consideration to placing sanctions – travel bans and asset freezes — on senior Beijing and Hong Kong officials responsible for recent rights violations in Hong Kong and future abuses under the national security legislation.
The Japanese government should also offer a safe haven to Hong Kongers who suffer retaliation for exercising their human rights. It should commit resources to monitoring Hong Kong’s human rights situation under the national security legislation. At the same time, the government should examine areas of freedom in Hong Kong under threat – for example, an open internet – and develop strategies to protect them.
All of this should be directly communicated to Xi should his visit to Japan materialize despite COVID-19 scheduling difficulties. Abe should seize this and future opportunities to speak up for other oppressed people in China, notably Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims and Tibetans.
Understandably, taking a tough, meaningful stand against Beijing’s repression is not easy, and Japan’s history further complicates matters. However, the Japanese government should demonstrate the depth of its commitments to human rights by speaking up for people oppressed by its powerful neighbor, in accordance with its 2019 human rights pledge that “the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate interest of the international community.”
Teppei Kasai is a Tokyo-based program officer at Human Rights Watch.