Opinion | Failing the democratic stress test

Over the past year or so, banks across Europe have been given stress tests to determine how well they would fare should the continent’s economic woes worsen. Last week, it was Denmark’s democratic institutions that were put to the test during the visit of China’s president, Hu Jintao. Being put to the test was how a country that claims to be among the freest in the world, and which makes human rights among its most important foreign policy priorities, would deal with a state visit by the head of the world’s second-largest economy, but which is also an authoritarian one-party state that has carried out systematic human rights violations. This government has never been one to criticise China, and during the three day visit last week, its “pragmatic” approach to China’s human rights violations was evident.

But, it’s one thing to refrain from taking China to task about the way it treats its own citizens. Even though you could criticise the government for lacking the fortitude to criticise China, it in fact has no obligation to do so, and no Dane suffered because of the government failing to speak up. But, it’s another thing to implement restrictions that border on censorship, creating in essence a mild version of the situation faced every day by people in China. During the visit, while the Danish media were opting not to criticise China, other forms of public protest were being swept away from the view of the Chinese delegation. This meant that the independent broadcaster NTD TV was unable to get accreditation to cover the visit, and Jyllands-Posten newspaper reportedly has a recording of a Foreign Ministry employee stating that Chinese officials determined which Chinese media were given accreditation, even though NTD TV is based in New York. It’s understandable that the Chinese didn’t want a critical TV station to cover Hu’s visit, and denying its reporters accreditation was a favoured Chinese tactic. 

In the words of the US State Department in its most recent human rights report on China: “The government limited attendance at official government press briefings to domestic media; foreign media and diplomats were only allowed to attend briefings conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a handful of press briefings held around special events.”

But, the situation was to go from bad to worse. On Friday, an Ekstra Bladet journalist was arrested for trying to hang a placard criticising China’s Tibet policy around the neck of the Little Mermaid. It’s well possible that such an action would violate some city ordinance, but if that had been so, the police could just have removed the placard and told the reporter not to do it again or just to leave the area entirely. Arresting him was an utterly disproportional act, particularly if you argue that he was trying to exercise his right to free speech. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only instance of the police placing Chinese sensitivities above Danes’ right to exercise a constitutional right. According to Jyllands-Posten, a woman was arrested when she tried to unfurl a Tibetan flag as Hu sailed past on his tour of Copenhagen Harbour. The police, according to the woman, told her that she was being charged for possession of narcotics, since it was the only charge that would allow them to search and arrest her. The charges have since been dropped. If her version of the story is correct – and all indications are that it is – then it’s a horrible example of the police’s random use of their powers. Just like the failure to accredit NTD TV, and the arrests of the Ekstra Bladet reporter and the demonstrator are standard Chinese procedures. 

Again, according to the US State Department’s human rights report on China: “Authorities heightened restrictions on freedom of movement periodically, particularly to curtail the movement of individuals deemed politically sensitive before key anniversaries and visits of foreign dignitaries and to forestall demonstrations … The authorities increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and to control the press, the internet and internet access … Abuses peaked around high-profile events, such as the visit of foreign officials.”

Can it really be true that Denmark adopts Chinese tactics on its own territory out of fear of how the Chinese would react? Unfortunately, these examples are just the latest in a long line that bear witness to the consequences the new world order will have on values such as freedom of speech and political pluralism. 

This isn’t the first time you could question whether a Danish government is kowtowing to another country when there is something big at stake. Take, for example, the allegations that Copenhagen-based Kurdish TV station Roj TV supported terrorism. Despite being cleared numerous times by Radio og TV-Nævnet, the national broadcast watchdog, the trial against the station’s management began just as Turkey was using its growing economic prowess to put pressure on Denmark, and at a time when then-PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen was seeking to become NATO secretary general. 

Another example is the former government’s decision to reopen the case against Niels Holck, who had confessed to helping deliver weapons to Indian insurgents. Efforts to extradite him had been given up, but again, with India’s rapidly growing economy, the government decided to try again. 

These examples show that the West isn’t capable of dictating the terms in the same way it did before. It may be a good thing that the world no longer needs to do what the West says, but it’s a problem when it starts to limit the power of our democratic institutions and curtail our liberties. 

The Chinese stress test showed that even a staunchly liberal democracy like Denmark can be shaken, and that thanks to decades of increasing quality of life, we’re no longer so protective of our rights. Just like the bank stress tests led to slashed credit ratings, the way Denmark dealt with the Chinese visit should lead to a downgrade of the country’s ranking when it comes to respecting people’s civil and political rights. 

The author is the director of legal affairs for the Centre for Political Studies (CEPOS), an independent think-tank promoting a society based on freedom, responsibility, private initiative and limited government.