China’s slowdown raises human rights hazards

Posted on October 18, 2012

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Several occasions can be counted on during the year to provoke righteous indignation in China at criticism levied against its domestic and international practices. One such occasion is the annual release of the report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on human-rights practices. Upon the release of these reports, China’s state media quickly dispute the findings, and typically point out America’s own rights problems.

This year, Xinhua quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying the US was making “groundless remarks” about China’s human-rights practices in the report released last week.

Usually, China’s pushback against criticism of its rights policies emphasizes two points: the country’s lack of development, which it believes should provide it with latitude not afforded more politically sophisticated countries, and the emphasis it must place on stability given its revolutionary history.

A photo of Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng and his family is on display as Chinese dissident and president of ChinaAid Bob Fu prepares his testmony during a hearing before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Chen May 3, 2012 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The commission held a hearing to focus on the latest development of the escape of Chen from his house detention by local authorities and his controversial departure from the protection of U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
(May 2, 2012 – Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America)

Both ideas have carried weight for much of the past 40 years, providing China with an important narrative that while it may come up short of the Western ideal currently, as the country matures it will be able to liberalize its practices. The events of the past three years, however, have led many in Washington and elsewhere to question this premise, largely given China’s apparent willingness to clamp down even further at the same time as its economic gains have continued.

The CECC report notes that the commission “observed a deepening disconnect between the growing demands of the Chinese people and the Chinese government’s ability and desire to meet such demands. In a year marked by a major internal political scandal and leadership transition, Chinese officials appeared more concerned with ‘maintaining stability’ and preserving the status quo than with addressing the grassroots calls for reform taking place all over China.”

In a year that saw more than 90,000 civil disturbances and well over 180,000 mass protests, the CECC’s reference to a “deepening disconnect” is a diplomatic way of emphasizing the growing frustration Chinese have toward the practices of their government.

These protests carry with them the hope for ultimate change, providing China’s leaders do not over-react and militantly stifle dissent.

The question appears to be less whether the average Chinese citizen agrees with many of the criticisms made by the CECC than what the leadership is willing to do to address these frustrations. Will Xi Jinping’s incoming leadership reflect a willingness to embrace further reforms that will get to the root cause of the CECC’s and Chinese citizens’ criticisms, or will the fear of the unknown or even fear of the Communist Party losing its monopoly on power prevent more meaningful structural changes?

The CECC acknowledges that this tension remains unresolved, noting that it “observed the Chinese people, often at great risk, exercising the basic freedoms to which they are entitled and demanding recognition of these rights from their leaders”.

Perhaps surprisingly for some, economic matters are driving many of the Chinese people’s frustrations. The CECC writes: “China’s beleaguered workers continue to strike and organize for higher wages and better working conditions in reportedly the most significant series of demonstrations since the summer of 2010.”

The late-September protests in Taiyuan against a Foxconn-owned factory required 5,000 police to control an estimated 2,000 workers. The China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization that tracks labor unrest in China, notes that its September tracking showed the service sector to have the highest incidence of strikes as workers in this area push back against increased workloads and what they believe to be unfair compensation.

In a country that many outsiders have hoped would ultimately develop its own version of Western democracy, the CECC report made a hopeful nod toward similar political reforms. It added: “Chinese citizens also sought to engage with and strengthen China’s weak political and legal institutions. Officials continued to wield heavy control over local people’s-congress elections, but that did not prevent large numbers of independent candidates from attempting to run in this past year’s elections held across the country.”

The report also notes that pressure by citizens to require additional transparency on China’s “opaque institutions” has led many in government to make proposed changes to laws and regulations available for review before becoming law.

This is not to say the trends are all positive. The CECC reports: “On the much-discussed PRC Criminal Procedure Law, the government passed major amendments in March that, while including some improvements, legalized forms of secret detention that put Chinese citizens at risk of torture and abuse and have been used against dissidents in the past.” Such practices are obviously serious deviations from what Western governments hoped would be willingness on the part of Beijing to broaden rule of law and ensure that the legal system is not used as a clever ruse for stifling internal dissent.

In this spirit, the CECC report is cutting in its criticism of China’s “arbitrary detention” practices. “Arbitrary detention of activists remained commonplace as authorities handed down harsh sentences for political writings, pro-democracy activity, and petitioning. In the case of prominent human-rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had been missing for years, Chinese officials claimed he violated the conditions of his parole less than a week before his five-year suspended sentence was set to expire, meaning he would have to serve out his original three-year sentence.”

China’s careful use of oppressive laws may provide it with an internal justification for its actions, but these practices do little to make it seem the maturing global power it so frequently wishes to be presented as.

To its criticisms in a report earlier this year about Beijing’s repatriation policies toward North Koreans, the CECC added last week that China continued this practice “despite the severe punishments refugees face once returned”. Nowhere in the report is the tension between fundamental human-rights issues and geopolitics more obvious than when the reader is forced to reflect on China’s willingness to sacrifice North Korean political dissidents in the interests of not further destabilizing Pyongyang.

Among the positive changes the CECC reports are those to national health laws that would “contain provisions that could constrain officials from abusing psychiatric detention”. In addition, the report notes that China is attempting to halt organ harvesting from death-row prisoners.

The CECC makes mention of China’s efforts not to discriminate “against political and human-rights groups wishing to register for legal status”. The commission notes Premier Wen Jiabao’s “support for political reform”, leaving open the question of what direction his successor will take, especially if the new leadership is beset by questions of legitimacy and a weakening economy. Given China’s most recent past, the government’s view on economic and political reform has been to tighten when it feels threatened. If that still holds, the Xi Jinping leadership may be found sorely wanting when the 2013 CECC report reflects back on the past year.

The CECC offers five main recommendations designed to improve China’s human-rights practices. First, it should “ratify and implement in law the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. This agreement requires governments to guarantee rights that China has thus far tightly restricted and, in some cases, even refused to provide.

Second, Washington should continue to force the issue of how political prisoners and rights advocates are being treated. The report notes the cases of Liu Xiaobo, Ni Yulan, Gao Zhisheng, Ronggye Adrag, Su Zhimin, Gheyret Niyas, Chen Wei, Yao Lifa and Ai Weiwei specifically.

Third, Washington needs to push China to embrace further a rule of law that reflects a more enlightened view on dissent and individual liberty.

Fourth, China must review its policies toward its domestic ethnic minorities. The CECC makes mention of the multiple fatal self-immolations by Tibetans, a practice it says highlights the great injustice Tibet continues to endure.

Fifth, the early efforts by China’s government to become more transparent must increase. The Beijing Twitter feed on the city’s pollution is a good example of the small ways China could become more transparent in the challenges it must face.

Cumulatively, China’s challenges appear to be reaching critical mass. In the past, its amazing economic gains made it difficult for its people to be overly critical of their government. But against the possibility of a protracted economic slowdown, the average Chinese may not be so easily distracted now.

This time, social stability and meaningful political reform may have to take the front seat to an economy that is being forced to take a breather. In the short term, this might make for increased tensions; yet if properly dealt with, a more robust Chinese society and a more secure national government could emerge.

Benjamin A Shobert

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