What I Told Obama About Beijing’s Human Rights Problem

Beijing protest.jpg

STR/AFP/Getty Images

A protest outside a police station, Beijing, December 22, 2010

On January 13, President Obama invited me and four other activists and scholars—the writer Zha Jianying, whose brother is a former political prisoner in China; Andrew Nathan, a Columbia professor; author Bette Bao Lord; and Paul Gewirtz, director of Yale’s China Law Center—to meet with him at the White House to discuss the current state of human rights and reform in China. The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, took place as the president prepares for this week’s meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao in Washington. He wanted to know whether we think his approach on these issues is working, and how that approach might be improved. For me, it was an opportunity to bring to the direct attention of the president some critical questions about China’s human rights record I hope he will take up in the summit. The following outlines some of the issues I raised with the president, including a series of specific recommendations concerning US policy toward China.

The human rights situation in China has not fundamentally improved after a generation of economic development, after many rounds of US-China human rights dialogues, and after millions of dollars of assistance to promote “rule of law” and other “reforms” in China.

Despite the country’s impressive GDP and growing prosperity, popular discontent in China is deep and widespread. Millions of people have been flooding to government offices to complain about injustices; there have been numerous workers’ strikes over lack of labor protection, violent clashes over land and housing rights, and demonstrations organized by teachers, veterans, bank employees, victims of pollution, and by parents whose children were poisoned by dairy products or died in school buildings that collapsed during the Szechuan earthquake in 2008. There have been protests by ethnic and religious minorities about discrimination and cultural destruction. According to the government’s own statistics, in each of the past five years, about 90,000 “mass protests” have taken place. The actual numbers are undoubtedly higher than this.

Fearful of losing control, China’s rulers have developed the world’s most sophisticated Internet censorship system, which they use to block information, silence dissent, and conduct surreptitious monitoring of online activism. The security police have gained enormous power in recent years and use it against dissident writers like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Laureate who is now serving an 11-year jail sentence; or activists like Xu Zhiyong, whose NGO, the Open Constitution (gong meng), was shut down, and Hu Jia, who worked to raise awareness about AIDS and the environment, and who now also is in prison on charges of “inciting subversion against state power”; or the rural organizer and legal advocate Chen Guangcheng, who, recently released from prison, is now subjected to unlawful house arrest; or human rights lawyers like Gao Zhisheng, who was imprisoned, tortured, released, then taken away again, and now has disappeared without a trace. Today, there are unknown numbers of such prisoners of conscience in Chinese jails and extra-legal “re-education through labor camps” where hundreds of thousands of people are held without trial. In 2009 the Chinese authorities spent $75 billion on “internal security,” nearly as much as the $80 billion they spent on national defense.

Many Chinese activists view state-sponsored “political reform” in China as simply dead. Human rights lawyers and legal scholars have concluded that “rule of law” reform is regressing. Flagrant human rights violations—including torture, arbitrary detention, censorship, repression of religious and ethnic minorities—continue unabated. (These practices are well documented in annual US State Department reports and the Congressional Executive Commission on China, as well as by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.) Yet the major Western democracies have largely chosen to remain silent—as each competes, apparently, for a piece of China’s “miracle growth.” Such economic interests make multilateral efforts to address China’s human rights problems difficult. But the US could change this pattern by taking a strong stand now.

Looking beyond the upcoming summit, the US administration should also formulate a clear longer-range strategy toward the problems of human rights in China, bearing in mind that this issue profoundly undergirds virtually all of the other issues that the US and the world face with China. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Support civil society, and in particular activists and lawyers who are taking great personal risks to promote human rights and democracy. The good news is that Chinese citizens are learning to speak up, to organize, and to demand that their rights be respected. For nearly a decade now, a civil rights movement known as the “rights defense movement” has spread among citizens of many backgrounds. Victims of forced eviction or migrant laborers are transformed into rights activists when they see their efforts to remedy injustices answered with censorship, police brutality, and corruption in legal institutions. Most of the 12,000 signers of Charter 08 —farmers, workers, AIDS activists, environmentalists, and others—are citizens who decided to endorse the charter even after police had suppressed it and imprisoned one of its authors, Liu Xiaobo.

Some practical ideas for supporting civil society:

(a) Make strong and clear public statements in support of human rights activists and that speak directly to the Chinese people: Rhetoric is important. The Norwegian Nobel Committee did a great service by speaking past the Chinese government and directly to the Chinese people, saying, in effect, “we see you, too, and we honor you.” The most significant and sensitive divide in China today is between the Chinese state and its citizens. People in the democratic governments of the world should bear in mind that the Chinese state still dominates the Chinese press and rules without popular consent. It is insensitive to lump rulers and ruled together as if they were the same thing and as if only the rulers can speak for the whole.


(b) Facilitate Internet freedom: Today the Internet is the most important way, in China as much as in other repressive societies, for ordinary citizens to access information, express their views, organize themselves, and engage in activism. The US government should do what it can to provide Chinese Internet users with technical support to get around the “Great Firewall” that the Chinese government has erected to block political dissent and prevent access to information. At a minimum, the US government should work to discourage American IT companies from the sordid practice of supplying the Chinese government with technology that facilitates censorship and surveillance.

(c) Strengthen direct contacts with activists and provide them support: US officials should publicly raise concerns about individual cases at high-level meetings; US leaders visiting China should meet Chinese civil-society activists personally; the State Department international visitor program should invite civil society actors only; the current practice of sending the US ambassador or someone from his embassy staff to attend the trials of dissidents, or their talks at civic forums, should continue and increase; small grants from the embassy for public civil-society activities should increase.

  1. Focus on holding the Chinese government to its own rhetorical commitments to its citizens. Such an emphasis is effective in its own right and will also help avoid stirring up “nationalist,” anti-Western sentiment. The Chinese government, although it constantly abuses human rights, continually claims to observe them. “Human rights” no longer is a taboo phrase in official discourse. Such rhetoric creates opportunities to push the authorities to deliver. Western democracies can answer the Chinese government’s accusations about “interference in China’s internal affairs” by citing its own rhetoric. If the Chinese government is called upon to observe the constitutional and legal commitments that it has made to its own citizens—some of which are inscribed in international protocols—it can hardly claim “interference.”
  2. Strengthen US involvement in multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. The Chinese government participates actively in the UN Human Rights Council. If it is eager to be a global player in this forum for promoting human rights around the world, then of course it should observe international standards for human rights. The US should use the UN HRC more effectively, to press the Chinese government to adhere to the international human-rights conventions that it has signed and/or ratified. Such a policy would require the US to take a leadership role in forums such as the UN HRC and to build multilateral coalitions to hold the Chinese government accountable for its failure to respect international conventions. This kind of international scrutiny will undercut the Chinese government’s exceptionalist claims about “human rights views with Chinese characteristics” and will render vacuous its reflexive accusation that discussion of its human rights record amounts to “interference in internal affairs.” It will also limit the Chinese government’s ability to fan nationalist sentiment at home into opposition to “Western” human rights.
  3. US programs to assist “Rule of law” reforms and to facilitate exchanges of “legal experts” should be designed to address the particular administrative and legal problems in China that have led to human rights abuses. Current US legal assistance to China is misconceived insofar as it assists the existing legal system in becoming more efficient. Instead, US assistance would be better directed toward problems such as widespread torture. The Chinese government ratified the Convention against Torture in 1988. On paper, “torture to force confession” is no longer legal in China, and in legal circles torture is no longer a taboo topic. The US might use its legal-aid resources to address issues such as how to prevent deaths in detention and how, in court trials, to reject evidence that was extracted by forced confession. US legal aid could also be used to strengthen protections for criminal defense lawyers to help them avoid arbitrary prosecution or disbarment. Such lawyers —especially those who defend human rights activists, Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, Uighurs, and underground Christians—are already in very short supply.

  4. The proposed US-China talk of “open government” must address China’s draconian “state secret” law. In January 2007, the Chinese State Council adopted the “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information” that was supposed to take effect in May 2008. But the government has ignored these regulations wherever it relates to human rights. For example the number of death sentences and executions remain “state secrets,” and authorities continue to use vaguely-defined “state secret” provisions of the criminal law code to prosecute many people for “leaking,” “stealing,” or “possessing” state secrets. Victims of such abuses have included not only Chinese human rights activists and protesters in ethnic minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but also American businessmen and a scientific researcher. Any talk about “open government” with the government of China must address this area of law and practice. Since Americans are among those who have been ensnared—and might again be in the future—this is not an “internal matter.”

  5. Resume the “US-China Human Rights Dialogue” only if transparency and participation by representatives of civil society in China are guaranteed. Previous “dialogues” brought no real change and were even counterproductive because they allowed the Chinese government to claim an “achievement” on human rights when in fact no progress was being made. The dialogue should not only address abuses of social and economic rights but also sensitive issues concerning serious violations of civil and political rights. Any future dialogues should be open—i.e., publicly reported in full. The lack of free press and free association (genuine NGOs devoted to human rights) in China has allowed the government to distort earlier dialogues in the state-run media and prevented them from having any broader educational impact for Chinese citizens. Maintaining secrecy diminishes the opportunity to authenticate and follow up with what the Chinese officials provided as “information” or promised to do behind doors. Each round of the dialogues should be followed by an honest and public assessment of impact, and talks should be resumed only if it can be shown that real progress has resulted from the previous round. Non-government human rights organizations in both countries should be invited to participate, or to engage in parallel dialogues, or they should at least be consulted and heard well in advance and afterward.

Finally, I conveyed this message to the President: The US should lead by example. The US will have an impact on positive changes in China and elsewhere by respecting human rights and strengthening democracy at home and taking a global leadership in upholding human rights as the guiding principle of its foreign policy. When the US ends torture, protects free press, or makes healthcare affordable to everyone, those who promote human rights and speak out against abuses in hostile environments can hold their heads high and carry on their arduous struggle, often at great personal risk.


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