At a ceremony in March in flower-bedecked Tiananmen Square, Vice President Xi Jinping suggested the Beijing Olympics would lead China and people the world over to join hands in creating “a more harmonious and better future.”
The event underscored China’s hope that 19 years after its violent suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square, it could present a new face to the world. China’s nationalistic pride in its rise as a global power is palpable, and the country is clearly anxious to showcase its hypersonic economic growth and its embrace of what communist officials call the “rule of law.”
But human-rights advocates say that while some facets of Chinese society have indeed improved in recent years, repression and inequity still affect millions of people. The critics say that behind the sheen of progress and prosperity – the ubiquitous construction cranes and thousands of new factories – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still stifles dissent and tramples basic freedoms of speech, religion and assembly at home and abets human-rights abuses in places like Sudan’s Darfur region.
“When you come to the Olympic Games in Beijing, you will see skyscrapers, spacious streets, modern stadiums and enthusiastic people,” Teng Biao and Hu Jia, two of China’s most prominent human-rights activists, wrote last year. “You will see the truth, but not the whole truth. . . . You may not know that the flowers, smiles, harmony and prosperity are built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood.”
In April Hu was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. A month before his arrest, he had deplored the “human-rights disaster” in China during testimony via the Internet to the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights.
In many ways, China’s rigid societal control is at odds with its economic revolution and the accompanying rapidly expanding middle class, dynamic new urban architecture and thousands of new laws and regulations. By 2006 the nation boasted 11 million private entrepreneurs and 4.3 million private firms, banned until the early 1980s. China’s middle class, barely evident in the early 1990s, had exploded to 80 million people by 2002, and by 2025 is expected to number an astonishing 520 million.
Yet a litany of serious abuses by the Chinese government persists, according to the U.S. advocacy group Freedom House and others, including:
* Imprisoning more journalists than any other country;
* Maintaining one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of blocking Web-site access and monitoring e-mail;
* Prescribing the death penalty for scores of non-violent crimes, including tax fraud and “the vague offense of ‘undermining national unity.’ “ Amnesty International estimated 470 people were executed death last year, based on public reports, but said the true figure is thought to be far higher;
* Maintaining a one-child policy that sometimes leads to forced abortions and human trafficking; and
* Repressing religious freedom of Falun Gong adherents, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and others.
Security threats related to the Olympics have led China to take the kind of actions that have outraged the West and sparked internal unrest. In July, an execution squad publicly shot three young men in the public square of the city of Yengishahar. They had been convicted of having ties to terrorist plots, which authorities said were part of an effort to disrupt the Games by a separatist group seeking independence on behalf of Muslim Uyghurs. The executions did not quell fears of terrorism as the Olympics drew nearer, however. At least two died and 14 were injured in a pair of bus bombings in the city of Kunming as authorities tightened security for the Games.
Meanwhile, a scramble this summer to clear Beijing’s air and regatta waters in preparation for the Olympics highlighted China’s colossal environmental woes, which have sparked thousands of mass protests throughout the country over health and safety issues.
Reconciling the two faces of China – repressive yet forward-looking – is not easy. Many experts note that Beijing’s overriding goal is to develop the country as a world power and push its economy into the 21st century while keeping a lid on internal dissent that could weaken the Communist Party – a difficult balancing act given the country’s unprecedented speed of change.
Chinese embassy officials in Washington declined to discuss the status of human rights in their country. But in April, Luo Haocai, director of the China Society for Human Rights Studies, said that after three decades of rapid economic development, China is on a path to developing human rights with Chinese characteristics.
“ China believes human rights like other rights are not ‘absolute’ and the rights enjoyed should conform to obligations fulfilled,” he said. “The country deems human rights not only refer to civil rights and political rights but also include the economic, social and cultural rights. These rights are inter-related.”
The upcoming Olympics – and President George W. Bush’s decision to attend the opening ceremonies despite China’s human-rights record – has focused attention on the question of how far the West should go in pressing China to improve its human rights. Asked whether Bush’s attendance would induce China to concede on its human-rights issues, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang suggested that any changes would not be influenced by Western pressure.
“We have been committed to improving human rights not on the premise of the will of any nation, group, organization or individual, nor because of a certain activity to be held that makes us concede to the human-rights issue,” he said. Still, Qin said, a human-rights dialogue between China and the United States held in May – the first since 2002 – was “positive” and “constructive.”
Wu Jianmin, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University and former ambassador to France, said that in trying to modernize, China is “striking a delicate balance” among stability, development and reform. Stability is a “known condition for development,” and development is “the aim,” he said. “We are facing many problems. I believe that only development can provide solutions. Reform is a driving force. We can’t afford to go too fast. Too fast will disturb stability.”
Experts caution that China’s human-rights picture is highly complex and difficult to characterize without nuance and historical perspective. “Things are moving forward and backward at the same time at different paces at different places,” says John Kamm, executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights group in San Francisco and Hong Kong.
China ’s human rights present a “moving target,” adds Margaret Woo, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law and co-editor of the forthcoming book, Chinese Justice: Civil Dispute Resolution in China. “It really depends on what time you’re talking about, what particular topic, whether you’re looking at it in terms of its progress vs. where it is today. It’s not an easy, simple yes-or-no answer.”
The tension in China between progress and repression emerged in full force after the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province in May, killing nearly 70,000 Chinese. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao both toured the disaster zone, with Wen visiting an aid station and exhorting rescue workers not to give up on saving lives, and Hu clasping hands with survivors. But behind the scenes, local Chinese officials have tried to stifle complaints of parents whose children died in collapsed schools, reminding them that disturbing the social order is against the law.
Despite concern over China’s human-rights behavior, its rising prominence as an economic powerhouse and national-security ally has led U.S. policy makers to act in ways that satisfy neither Chinese officials nor Western human-rights advocates. In March, just as a massive pro-independence protest erupted in Tibet, leading to violent clashes with Chinese security forces, the State Department removed China from its list of the world’s 10 worst human-rights violators. Activists denounced the move, and The New York Times opined that removing China from the list “looked like a political payoff to a government whose help America desperately needs on difficult problems.” Yet the State Department’s annual report on global human rights called China an “authoritarian state” whose record remained “poor.” It cited:
* Extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners;
* Coercive birth-limitation policies sometimes resulting in forced abortions;
* Severe repression of minorities;
* Use of forced labor, and other violations;
* Judicial decision-making often influenced by bribery, abuse of power and other corruption and a criminal-justice system biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
In another report in May, the State Department charged that China “continued to deny its citizens basic democratic rights” and called for the government to bring its practices in line with international norms.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin called the May report “unreasonable.” “We remind the U.S. side to pay more attention to its own human-rights problems, stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries with such issues as democracy and human rights, and do more things that are conducive to the advancement of Sino-U.S. mutual trust and bilateral relations.”
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