Human Rights Concerns in China: Balancing Development with Individual Freedoms

1. Introduction

More than half a century ago, the Communist Party of China came to power. After several years of political instability, the new government, led by Chairman Mao Zedong, started a campaign for rapid industrialization. But ordinary people suffered under policies which emphasized collective welfare. Political control started expanding into nearly all social and economic activities. By the end of the 1980s, the Chinese government began to encourage market-style reforms. They promoted foreign investment and trade, especially in coastal cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In the past 30 years, China’s economy has been one of the fastest growing and has become the largest in the world. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Nevertheless, human rights conditions are still poor by most measures. It’s reported that “China remains an authoritarian state, one that systematically curtails a wide range of fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule.” This has led to widespread discontent among the people who seek an alternative polity that can genuinely realize democracy and the rule of law. The significance of the human rights issue in China is not only a current matter in China. It represents itself as an all-embracing question. However, the Chinese state shows no tolerance towards any form of opposition movement, whether it is within the country or abroad. There have been numerous incidents of harassment against Chinese dissidents overseas, as well as their families in China. Domestically, suppression measures are also unwavering. For example, China has already prosecuted and charged numbers of human rights lawyers and activists with vague national security charges, such as subversion of state power and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The reality is, however, under investigative reports unfold how Chinese authorities engage in systematic torture and ill-treatment in detention centers. Thus, looking from a broader perspective, China’s obsession with control over society by quashing any possible opposition against the government not only undermines the common aspiration shared by the whole humanity – freedom. By doing so, China overthrows the universality of human rights prescribed by different philosophical traditions and cultures and even irreparably devastates the current international order. In the next chapters, the essay will explore in detail how China reacts to the well-known international criticism on the human rights issue, as well as in what way those criticisms may affect and assist in the betterment of the human rights situation in China.

1.1 Historical background

You need to understand the historical background of the country to study more about human rights. China is a country with a very rich history. The first period of centralized rule began around 2000 BC. For many centuries, the Chinese civilization was the most advanced in the world. China was a feudal agricultural society with a traditional Confucian outlook. Some of the key features of Chinese philosophy and culture include respect for hierarchy, emphasis on the family, and sharing. However, China began to decline in the 1500s. It was at this time that Chinese rulers began to restrict their contact with foreigners. Some three hundred years later, China was defeated in a war with Britain and was forced to make a series of concessions. These concessions were followed by the Opium Wars. After the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-5, China was forced to make more concessions to Western powers. This eventually led to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912. However, the Republic was weak and marked by many years of civil war. The Communists took over in 1949 and the People’s Republic of China was born. Its leader, Mao Zedong, set out to quickly modernize China but also to return it to a central place in world affairs. In doing so, he led the country into the bloody chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The period saw a wholesale attack on traditional systems, values and culture. Mao died in 1976 and a new leader, Deng Xiaoping took over. Deng set out to modernize the country and improve its economy. Today, China is the world’s most populous country and is undergoing tremendous changes as it moves to become the world’s latest economic superpower. Human rights are an increasingly significant and controversial issue. Because of its economic development and its growth, China has become a major player in the world – both economically and politically. This is leading to an increasing focus on China’s humanitarian record, both within its borders and internationally.

1.2 Significance of the topic

It should be noted that many countries, including the United States, have made strong policies towards China by using human rights as a diplomatic tool. Human rights concerns in China are not just an ordinary issue; it is an international issue that requires the cooperation of other countries to voice out the importance of human rights in China in order to help in the effort to improve the current human rights conditions in China. This is so called “multi-level diplomacy” which addresses the human rights concerns in China from different levels, may it be from the domestic level with the local civil society, from the international level with NGOs and other non-state actors, or even inter-government level with other countries and bilateral or multilateral organizations. Our concern on the violations of human rights in China is not just a matter for the academic scholars. When the world pays more attention to the violations of human rights in China, it can create a kind of sensitivity to the public so the public would consider that more pressure would need to be given to the government so that the violations would stop eventually. Also, with the society with an advance in information and communication technologies, strategies for enhancing public awareness have become increasingly innovative. For example, the international society can make use of internet technology to make a better linkage and exchange between the social organizations around the world. This is because information was widely spread and it enables civil society bodies from one part of the world to organize activities with the other part of the world more easily. By doing so, it will indirectly put more pressure on the government of China to respond to the human rights concerns. The last point being the significance of teaching human rights in China to the future generations. The stronger we reflect the awareness of human rights in the local lifestyle and culture, the more sufficient the ground support for the international society to voice out the human rights concern issues. Social movement and legal work can make a change in a relatively short period of time. It should always be noted that human rights education is a continuous, long-term, and sustained effort to build a universal human rights culture. By having a sound education on human rights in China nowadays, the next generation of the public and also the future political leaders in China will have sufficient knowledge on the concept of human rights and know how to make a protection on the rights and freedom of individuals. As Professor Rainer Hofmann, Director of the EUAP, mentioned, “The topic remains highly relevant and it requires a thorough analysis rooted in legal studies and practice.” We, as the researchers for human rights study, hope that our efforts can provide the foundation for real change in China.

2. Economic Development and Human Rights

Lately, the Chinese government has stepped up its rhetoric and efforts to portray its human rights record in a positive light. But the record over the past decade tells a different story: from internet censorship at home to casting vetoes at the UN Security Council, China has repeatedly acted to protect its image before the international community at the expense of human rights. By practically every measure of political and civil rights, China falls short of international norms, particularly on allowing freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. There is no doubt, however, that the past three decades of market reform and economic growth in China have led to a remarkable transformation of the country. China’s GDP has grown at an average annual rate of 9.65% from 1990 to 2018 – the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history. Over 850 million people have been brought out of extreme poverty and the country is now a global leader in a wide range of other development statistics, such as life expectancy, adult literacy, and access to mains electricity. With this explosion of wealth, China has been eager to require a place at the table in the international community and to shape the norms of the global order. However, the massive increase in economic productivity has also led to unprecedented environmental degradation and associated deterioration of social, cultural, and health rights in China. For example, heavy pollution has posed a threat to the right to health (especially in the case of vulnerable sectors of the population) and the adequate enjoyment of a suitable environment for several decades in some provinces. This will necessarily undermine the general progress that China’s environmental rights have made, nonetheless the country still has a very long way to go towards establishing an effective and enforceable environmental legal framework that is on an equal footing with its rapid economic expansion, even with the string of recent amendments and legislative reforms.

2.1 China’s economic growth

China has benefited immensely from the economic reform programs it has implemented over the last few decades. The country’s move from a largely agrarian society to one of the world’s leading industrial and technological powerhouses has been staggeringly successful. This can be seen from the fact that, in 2016, China’s GDP was estimated to be $11.2 trillion, making it the world’s top economy in terms of purchase power parity. However, it is important to note that the staggering wealth and development in China has not been evenly distributed. The coastal areas, such as Shanghai and Guangdong, have rocketed ahead in terms of development, while many in the western rural areas remain in relative poverty. As a result, various human rights issues such as the rights of rural migrant workers and ethnic minorities remain a concern in academic and policy discussion on China, and the government is increasingly under pressure to alleviate the stark disparities between the wealth of the western, central and eastern regions of the country. One widely discussed concept in the analysis of China’s development is the idea of “authoritarian resilience”. This refers to the ability of China’s authoritarian regime to maintain stability and suppress any perceived threats to its own rule, while at the same time channeling the benefits of economic development to buy off broad segments of its population and mitigate against potential discontent. Some scholars contend that with the Communist Party’s highly professional and nuanced public opinion monitoring and its significant resources for patronage, the governmental and political structures in China have shown that they are flexible enough to adapt to societal pressures without significant political change. It can also be argued that, as China’s economy continues to grow and people’s lives improve, the regime’s legitimacy and its control over political power will grow further. On the other hand, some scholars have suggested that the vast range of social, economic and environmental challenges brought about by rapid development in China are serving to undermine the centralized political structure. Domestic protests have risen substantially in number since the late 1990s, and some have even led to direct effects, such as the scrapping or halting of unpopular development projects. Many of these movements are linked to complaints over land usage, displacements, pollution, corruption and pensions; these are often seen as byproducts of capitalist-style development in the country. It can also be argued that as China becomes more integrated into the global economy and the international world, mechanisms of civil society, the rule of law and the rise of the middle classes, which often go hand in hand with successful and sustained economic development in the western world, will begin to emerge in China and place pressure on the current system.

2.2 Impact on human rights

The growing economic development in China has posed a serious challenge to the protection of human rights. Massive government investment and foreign trade have triggered a period of significant economic growth, resulting in the country becoming one of the largest economies in the world and a hub for foreign direct investment. As China’s economic development continues to flourish, its impact on human rights has attracted widespread global attention. Over the past few decades, many Chinese citizens have enjoyed an improved standard of living and greater personal freedoms – for example, there have been significant improvements in access to education and healthcare, and restrictions on domestic movement have been lifted. However, the boom in the economy and the introduction of the market philosophy have led to violations of human rights in various ways. For example, the state’s emphasis on economic modernization has been used as a justification for the widespread use of administrative detention and measures of social control. Agencies of state security are frequently using mental health legislation to detain individuals without any proper medical assessment. This is used as a means of ‘treating’ people who have been petitioning against government injustice and in doing so the state is avoiding the normal legal processes which include protection of the right to challenge unlawful detention. Such an action not only violates the individual’s most basic human rights and the fundamental principles of medical ethics, but also challenges the international efforts to end abuses by mental health. The growing political influence of China and its booming economy have resulted in a lack of visibility and plot development in terms of the protection of human rights standards. From an international human rights perspective, China’s attitude is worrying as it is compromising its international responsibilities in order to maintain the economic growth that its political leaders see as vital for their one-party state to remain in power. And the present Chinese leadership do face a serious problem – having initiated economic development on the back of globalization and a shift from a planned economy to a market economy, there is now fear that if further modernization, such as moves towards political reform, is undertaken, the economic development might stall and political power may end up being ceded.

2.3 Challenges in balancing development and freedoms

Since 1978, China has sustained an almost constantly high amount of economic growth and development. The unemployment rate and the inflation rate are both very low, and the Chinese government has taken over 600 million people out of poverty by the use of both economic and human rights policies. However, the Chinese government is “imposing increasingly harsh restrictions on the 1.4 billion people”, and those constraints are not just on basic human rights such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion; it also extends to the areas of China that are furthest behind in economic development. In the more developed urban areas of the country, such as Shanghai, there are more freedoms and the international community can access the area with greater ease than of the rural, less economically developed areas, like Tibet. The government justifies the restriction of human rights in these areas by arguing that the restrictions are necessary to maintain and uplift the standard of living. Clamp down on those who advocate for Tibetan independence, with limitations on freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. It is therefore evident that, regardless of the phenomenal economic success that China has seen in the last few decades, there is a clear division between the living standards and the amount of freedom accessible in different areas of China as a result of the Chinese government placing barriers and restrictions on human rights in the name of development.

3. Violations of Individual Freedoms

3.1 Freedom of expression

3.2 Freedom of assembly

3.3 Religious freedom

3.4 Internet censorship

4. International Response and Future Outlook

In recent years, the international community has increasingly criticized China on its human rights record. For example, the European Union (EU) imposed an arms embargo on China since 1989, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and has recently become more vocal in linking trade with human rights improvements. The United Nations has also been a forum for discussing China’s human rights situation. In 2008, several countries, such as Germany and France, proposed that a resolution be passed at the UN Human Rights Council to urge China to make improvements in its human rights record. Although the proposal did not get through, China made pledges and commitments on human rights issues, in order to gain international support for the Beijing Olympics. Meanwhile, some Western governments and human rights organizations have provided vocal support and funding to non-governmental organizations in China. Such support aims to strengthen the work of human rights defenders within China, as well as to help raise international awareness about human rights violations in China. Also, in countries outside of China, Chinese leaders have faced protests from the international community over its human rights record. For example, during the visits of the Chinese President in 1999 and 2005 in the UK and the US respectively, human rights issues were raised and publicized through protests by organizations such as Amnesty International and also some Parliament Members. Modern communication technologies and globalization have also made it easier for human rights organizations to collaborate and to pressure China on its human rights. For example, in recent years, as mobile phones and the internet became more popular in China, the Chinese authorities have faced growing difficulties in censoring the flow of information and news about China to the outside world. As a result, human rights organizations have been able to use the internet to spread information and awareness, bypassing the Chinese government’s control over domestic media and communication. Also, the international spotlight on China’s human rights record has been further intensified as a result of increased media coverage on China’s economic development and its impacts on human rights.

4.1 International criticism and pressure

It is observed that international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) are important in exerting pressure on the Chinese government. These organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, have been providing evidence, analysis, and policy advocacy on human rights issues in China. Most of these organisations focus on the freedom of expression, freedom of association, labour rights, and minority rights. It is argued that the international pressure has been effective in certain ways. For example, the cases of individual dissidents and human rights defenders may gain international attention, and this will have a direct impact on the protection of those individuals’ rights. Besides, the Chinese government may also feel pressured to concede to international critics. In some more extreme cases, the Chinese government may also use those critics to justify domestic human rights abuses, claiming that foreign powers are attempting to interfere with China’s sovereign matters. On the other hand, some positive developments were initiated by the international communities. For example, the European Union has achieved some progress in diplomatic dialogues about human rights issues with China. These dialogues were intensified and increased as the universal periodic review was introduced. Moreover, the European Union has put in place a comprehensive strategy that aims to achieve a more structured relationship with China, linking its efforts on human rights and providing alternatives for the Chinese government to engage on the relevant UN human rights treaties. This shows that the critical engagement by the international communities may help to drive positive changes in China in the long term. On the other hand, it is evident that many Western powers have been rather reluctant to confront China over rights abuses vigorously, especially in light of China’s growing economy and its strategic importance. This is particularly true given that the Chinese government has become increasingly assertive in responding to international criticisms. As such, some of the oppressive policies are being justified by the government in view that those measures are necessary to ensure stability and secure development in China. For example, in state media, national security and stability of the society are being put forward to explain the legitimacy of some censorship and surveillance measures. It is also suggested by some legal scholars that the Chinese government may find that ceding to international pressures may lead to even greater threats to the ruling authority. This is due to the concerns that any compromises with the Western powers on human rights matters would embolden and empower those opposition forces. As such, more repressive measures may have to be introduced to maintain the social and political status quo in China.

4.2 China’s response

China’s response to international criticism on the human rights situation has generally been consistent – that is, China refuses to be lectured to on a ‘one size fits all’ approach concerning human rights. One of the main points China raises is that the international human rights system is at risk of being undermined or delegitimized if it is treated in a politicized manner. China reminds the international community that ‘human rights’ as a concept should not be selectively applied or used as a tool for advancing geopolitical interests. It believes the international community should have a collaborative, dialogue-based approach to human rights, rather than a confrontational one. This would involve integrating the principle of human rights with local conditions and avoiding ‘naming and shaming’. Over recent years, China has sought to increase its capacity to ensure that criticism on human rights can be rebutted or deflected. There has been particular emphasis placed upon: increasing China’s role within the international human rights system – this would involve seeking dialogue and cooperation with other countries, especially through the UN and its relevant bodies. This is seen by the Chinese authorities as a pathway to greater ‘say’ in the development of international rules on human rights and a tool for deflecting criticism from other states. developing its human rights infrastructure. This means promoting awareness of human rights in China and ensuring that there is both expert knowledge of international human rights law and also the ability to influence curricula and thinking. In practice, this involves increasing the professionalization of lawyers, using politically trusted academic sources and ensuring that public statements on human rights have a basis in ‘officially recognized’ legal principles.

4.3 Prospects for change

First of all, the international community and human rights organizations have been praised for not giving up on China and continuing to exert pressure. For example, focusing on human rights in bilateral talks can be more frank and can lead to concrete improvement. However, the attitude of China’s leadership has a determining role in improving the human rights situation. In my opinion, it is unlikely that China’s political elites will voluntarily implement substantial human rights reforms, if this means a loss of power or control for the Communist Party. The leadership could initiate changes, instead of being forced to do so, in order to avoid opposition or resistance through a genuine process of China’s political and legal reforms. But such initiatives are not in sight when looking at the political agenda and attitude of current leaders. There are differing views as to the impact of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) and China’s growing economic dependence on the rest of the world in relation to the human rights change. These continuously changing dynamics may lead to the international community becoming more effective in pressurizing the Chinese government to improve human rights in the future, as the US ambassador to China has said, “the most fundamental question is whether the United States and other leading nations will recognize the potential they have to shape positive change in China by judging their policies, not by what is politically expedient, but by what is morally right.” The world is undoubtedly watching what solutions will be derived from the new links between economic development and human rights in China. In practice, concrete human rights enhancement appears to be possible only as a result of a long and complex transformation of the political and legal system. Oppressive measures and the increasing tightening of freedom rights in China suggest that the current elites are not going in that direction as yet. But looking at the growing internationalization and the quick development of information technology, the potentials could be created for more efficient and broader-based human rights movements. This may reverse the current argument that despite social and economic development, the human rights situation in China has not been largely influenced. But we must also bear in mind that the lack of a civil society and democratic traditions, the old thesis of residual imperialism, and the sheer geographical size and population, China is always a subject of heated debate about its potential to change its government and to resolve its human rights problems.

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