Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: (In China) the Appearance of Human Rights Laws Must be Upheld, Especially When they are Being Broken

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This is a picture of William “Boss” Tweed, one of the most notoriously corrupt politicians in American history. His character, in the critically acclaimed movie “Gangs of New York”, has a particularly memorable line; “the appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it is being broken”.

The Chinese government does not supporting human rights, as exposed in a recent government white paper on the subject. According to the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, “China’s white paper is oblivious to the indivisible and universal nature of human rights, and that guaranteeing human rights requires action and not just mere hollow proclamations.”  While Tibetan’s are admittedly not unbiased observers, this does not change that fact that this statement is 100% correct.

International human rights law is not only about economic development; this is just one element of the human rights based approach to development. Human rights consist of economic rights, as well as social, cultural, political and civil rights. These rights are understood as universal (must be granted indiscriminately), interdependent, indivisible, and mutually reinforcing. One right begets other rights (leading to empowerment and sustainable human development), while one violation enables another (leading to undesirable ends such as “extreme poverty”). This broader definition of [sustainable] human development is about far more than GDP per capita – that tells us remarkably little about the state of a society, particularly where gross inequity prevails, according to Helen Clark, UNDP administrator.

It seems the Chinese government believes in the economic rights portion of human rights, but not the other essential components. It may pay lip-service to these other rights, but this is simply a facade to appease the international community and it’s own civil society. However, neither of these parties seem fooled. Microblogs have become a popular outlet for Chinese citizens to voice grievances against the government, prompting stricter monitoring / regulations. The international community also recognizes a deterioration of human rights in China, according to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council:

“We’re concerned that China suppresses freedoms of assembly, association, religion and expression…, harasses, detains and punishes activists…, targets rights defenders’ family members and friends and implements policies that undermine the human rights of ethnic minorities,” Zeya said.

“I think that there wasn’t really an openness to criticism,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told a news briefing. “It was clear from the Chinese delegation’s responses that ‘objective and frank’ meant no criticism, or at least no criticism that they didn’t control.”

Some experts had thought the administration of Xi would be less hardline than his predecessors. Instead, critics say Xi has presided over a clamp down that has moved beyond the targeting of dissidents calling for political change.

For example, authorities have detained at least 16 activists who have demanded officials publicly disclose their wealth as well as scores of people accused of online “rumor-mongering”.

“Xi Jinping has definitely taken the country backwards on human rights,” prominent rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters.

Three specific examples support the theory that China does not uphold international human rights standards, but rather pays lip service to them: 1) the governments reaction to smog in China, 2) the corruption trials of Bo Xilai, and 3) the treatment of Tibetan monks.

1) Smog in China:

Schools, major roads and an airport remained closed Tuesday, as a thick cloud of filthy smog smothered the northeastern city of Harbin.

Pollution levels remained far above international standards, as the city’s monitoring stations on Tuesday showed that concentrations of PM2.5 — the tiny airborne particles considered most harmful to health — were more than 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended standard, the state-run China Daily reported.

However, the government has responded with token measures. To the extent the government cares about pollution, it is arguably for economic reasons (reduced tourism, stopped economic activity), as opposed to the health aspect (premature deaths due to dangerous smog)

China said on Monday it would give rewards amounting to 5 billion yuan ($816.91 million) for curbing air pollution in six regions where the problem is serious, underscoring government concern about a source of public anger.

Protests over pollution in China are becoming common, to the government’s alarm. Authorities have invested in various projects to fight pollution and even empowered courts to mete out the death penalty in serious pollution cases.

But the results have been mixed. Enforcement of rules has been patchy at the local level, where district authorities often rely on taxes from polluting industries.

State media said in July the government planned to invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) to fight air pollution over the next five years.

Despite new enforcement rules, without empowering people with civil and political rights, top down measures never become ground level realities; a prime example of the interdependence of different aspects of human rights.The Communist party can be seen taking a tough stand on pollution, without adequately addressing the problem.

Such a response will not result in better air quality; which is bad news for the vast majority of Chinese people who cannot afford a purifier; top of the line airs purifiers run between $2000 and $3000, and basic standard models range from $320 to $480 a piece. Meanwhile, the average annual family income of the 712 million urban Chinese is $2100. Do the math!

2) Bo Xilai Trial

The sentencing of former Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai to life in prison on bribery charges over the weekend effectively brought to a close China’s biggest political crisis since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.  Bo’s exit is significant in that it leaves the neo-Maoist “New Left” without a star. But the trial was also noteworthy for the many questions it raised about the future of China’s much-scrutinized legal system.

The trial of Bo, presided over by the Jinan Intermediate People’s Court in eastern China’s Shandong province, caught many off guard with its apparent openness. While politically sensitive trials have typically been cloaked in secrecy, the proceedings in the Bo trial were broadcast online in unusual detail through the court’s official feed on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

This “apparent openness” was by design, as is everything done by the Communist Party in China. The purpose was to show Chinese citizens, and the world, that leadership has gotten “serious” about corruption. Here’s the problem, China has over 10 million civil servants, it is impossible to stamp out corruption on an ad-hoc basis. In effective democracies, corruption is kept at bay by the democratic process; if a civil servant is proven unfit for service, he is dismissed. Absent these political rights, the Chinese people must rely on the benevolence of the parties internal auditing.

The Chinese judicial system is controlled by the government (and therefore not independent or transparent)  and is highly reliant on confessions as opposed to evidence. Confessions can be forced, especially when people lack the civil rights to challenge the interrogation / judicial processes. The Chinese judicial system allows government leaders to push out strategic foes under the guise of fighting corruption. Again, the Communist party appears to be upholding peoples rights, without making any meaningful reforms.

3) Tibetan Monks:

One of the most important sites in Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang presents an idyllic picture of sacred devotion that is carefully curated by the Chinese government, which hopes to convince visitors that Tibetan religion and culture are swaddled in the Communist Party’s benevolent embrace.

But behind closed doors, many of the monastery’s resident monks complain about intrusive government policies, invisible to tourists, that they say are strangling their culture and identity.

“Even if we’re just praying, the government treats us as criminals,” said a young monk, who like others interviewed recently asked for anonymity to avoid government repercussions.

Such frustrations, many monks say, are what has driven more than 120 Tibetans to set fire to themselves since 2009, including 13 in the Labrang area, in a wave of protests that has gone largely unreported in the Chinese media.

International human rights advocates say that rather than address the underlying grievances — including Beijing’s deeply unpopular campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader — Chinese authorities have responded with even harsher policies that punish the relatives of those who self-immolate and imprison those who disseminate news of the protests to the outside world.

Monks here describe a largely unseen web of controls that keep potential troublemakers in line: ubiquitous surveillance cameras, paid informers and plainclothes security agents who mingle among the busloads of tourists. Hidden from the throngs are the political education sessions during which monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama. Stiff jail sentences await those who step out of line. “If we don’t obey, it will be terrible for us,” the monk said. 

With an eye on the lucrative prestige of a Unesco World Heritage listing, the central government is giving the monastery a $26 million face-lift. Around 1,000 monks and 65,000 volumes of Buddhist scripture are housed in the sprawling complex, which local officials say is in dire need of structural improvements.

Yet locals complain that much of the construction is aimed at increasing tourism, rather than benefiting Tibetans. “It looks fancy, but in reality all the improvements are for Chinese people,” one said.

Such complaints appear to be falling on deaf ears. During a tour of the region in July, China’s top official in charge of ethnic minorities, Yu Zhengsheng, insisted that economic development was the panacea for what ailed Tibetans. In the same breath, he condemned the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” which calls for genuine autonomy in Tibet but not independence, saying it conflicts with China’s political system.

“Only when people’s lives have been improved can they be better united with the Chinese Communist Party and become a reliable basis for maintaining stability,” he said, according to Xinhua.

Notice a common thread? You should. In each of these cases, the Chinese government is going to great lengths to paint the picture of a society which respects the human rights of it’s citizens. At the same time, it continues to crack down on dissenters with relative impunity. It is no secret that people do not have political freedom in China’s one party system, but apparently there is also no respect for civil or rights, religious freedom, or concern for health-related socioeconomic rights. By denying political and social rights, as well as media independence, the Communist party can appear to be making reforms while in reality it roles back China’s human rights record by cracking down on dissenters.

It would appear that the only rights the Communist Party of China truly cares about are economic rights. Am I being too critical? Read Mr. Zhengsheng’s comment again and decide for yourself; it would appear the Chinese government is openly concerned only with economic rights. The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it is being broken–international human rights law is no exception. Perhaps this is all for the good of the Chinese people; if that is so, let them decide that for themselves.   

Can China perhaps uphold specific human rights, notably economic and educational, while denying others? There is certainly an element of Chinese exceptionalism; there is no parallel political structure in the world that compares the Communist Party of China–it’s experiences are unique. Even if China ultimately proves that sustainable human development can be achieved by picking strategic human rights and denying others (which I do not think will happen, I try not to make predictions but growing unrest in China’s future is more of a hypothesis anyhow), this would be the exception (albeit an incredibly large exception), not the rule.

The political organization and homogeneous society present in China simply does not exist in the vast majority of the developing world. Furthermore, without the “production engine” that over a billion Chinese workers represent, other developing countries will need to rely on less labor intensive, more diversified / entrepreneurial growth; which are cultivated by upholding all human rights and allowing them to realize their full potential. 

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