The business of human rights

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The business of human rights

Pope Francis was all over the news last week for his pivotal role in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba for the first time in 53 years. The pope sent letters last summer to both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro imploring them to “resolve humanitarian questions of common interest.”

So it was disappointing, if not particularly surprising, when news reports surfaced just a week earlier that Pope Francis had declined to meet the Dalai Lama, who was in Rome for a summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners.

The religious and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people has been in exile since the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, and he was awarded the Peace Prize 30 years later in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. At the time, the Norwegian Nobel Committee emphasized that he “consistently has opposed the use of violence. He has instead advocated peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect.”

So how do “humanitarian questions of common interest” involving Cubans differ from “peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect” for persecuted Tibetans?

China and money.

Cuba is a tiny, impoverished island; China is the world’s second-largest economy, with political ambitions as big as its gross domestic product. During 2014, Beijing has worked overtime to build its resume as the political and economic leader of Northeast Asia, as well as to avoid discussion of its handling of dissent within its borders. During the current period of pervasive economic malaise, no country has publicly broached the subject.

A Vatican spokesman told The Guardian newspaper that Pope Francis demurred from talking with the Dalai Lama for “obvious reasons concerning the delicate situation” with China. Another unidentified Vatican official said the decision was “not taken out of fear, but to avoid any suffering by those who have already suffered.” Catholicism in China is divided between an official church known as the Patriotic Association and those loyal to the pope.

While the Vatican has no diplomatic ties with Beijing, the church has been in decline in North America and Europe for years and clearly covets a foothold in economically up-and-coming Asia.

En route to South Korea in August, Pope Francis’s plane was allowed to traverse Chinese airspace - a first for pontiffs - and the pope sent a goodwill message to China from 30,000 feet.

The pope arrived on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in July and the South Korean government, business community and media genuflected for both, with one columnist opining, “We were intoxicated under a holy spell.”

In hindsight, the visits of Xi and Francis were little more than diversions during hard economic, moral and political times. In 2014, the world has been driven not so much by charity, tolerance and respect for basic human rights, as by relentless pursuit of profit.

China is the world’s second-largest economy, but as the standard of living and disposable income rises for many Chinese, multitudes outside the mainstream remain mired in poverty and isolation. The free flow of information is nonexistent. Those who speak out continue to be persecuted, and their stories go untold. The Beijing regime shut down chat services during Xi’s visit and was dismantling the last vestiges of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong at the same time the pope was evading the Dalai Lama in Rome.

The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics missed a crucial opportunity to demonstrate to Beijing - and the world - that economic muscle cannot silence dialogue on uncomfortable subjects. The Korean government must not make the same mistake.

If there is one overriding story of this year, it is our deepening economic dependence on China. In addition to the friendly relationship between Xi and President Park Geun-hye, 2014 has seen general agreement on free bilateral trade and the establishment of a won-yuan direct trade exchange. Chinese visitors are the lifeblood of the tourism and airline industries, and China is Korea’s largest trade partner.

At the same time, there are signs the relationship is becoming more one-sided. In assessing the global competitiveness of 10 major exports, the Federation of Korean Industries reported that Korea fell behind China this year in smartphones, automobiles, shipbuilding and petrochemicals.

For Korea, the proximity of China and size of its market make doing business inevitable. But the government must take care to diversify the nation’s economic portfolio - such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Park’s push to widen and strengthen economic ties in Southeast Asia - and be a staunch advocate for democracy and human rights.

*The author is the business news editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

by Bertil Peterson

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