An Overview of Controversies on Human Rights in China

Jacob Wang (PO ’21)

Since the Tiananmen Square student demonstration movement in 1989, the People’s Republic of China has been repeatedly accused of violating international human rights law. The international community condemns China’s practices on two fronts: China’s restrictions on freedom of speech, religion, and political participation are seen as abuses against civil and political rights; China’s inequitable education, welfare programs, labor, and various other systems constitute violations of social, economic, and cultural rights. In defense of its controversial human rights practices, China appeals to three justifications. These justifications have been questioned repeatedly, leaving China vulnerable to answer to its human rights law practices. Ultimately, while two of the reasons that China uses to defend its human rights practices contradict the international human rights law that it has consented to, the other justification cannot be legitimized without China’s allowance of freedom of expression.

First, China contends that it places the utmost importance on rights to subsistence, namely solving “the problem of feeding and clothing its 1.1 billion people.” Because of this high priority on subsistence, other human rights naturally have to be a lower priority. China’s human rights policy, then, reflects the government’s belief that subsistence rights are necessary before other human rights can be fully appreciated. However, some argue that this defense is not applicable to China anymore. Andrew J. Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University, notes that factors such as China’s wealth and literacy rates have reached levels that eliminate the legitimacy of this subsistence argument. Measures like the 13th Five-Year Plan, adopted in March 2016, aim to achieve subsistence for “all rural residents falling below China’s current poverty line” by 2020.

Yet, despite China’s efforts and purported success in lifting millions out of poverty each year, the expansion of democratic rights, recognized by the Chinese Constitution, seems unlikely at this point. For example, as the U.S. Department of State observes, democratic rights for citizens in China are far from robust. Though county-level delegates and lower level officials are subject to elections, the effect of citizens’ votes is questionable: “The CCP controls all elections and all appointments to positions of political power, and the party used various intimidation tactics…to block independent candidates from standing for local elections.” Thus, the democratic rights granted by the Chinese Constitution are not fully realized.

Second, China opposes the Western countries’ imposition of human rights values by asserting that human rights, far from being universal, shall be based on the developmental, cultural, social, and historical values of the particular country in question. Systematizing this argument, China, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia proposed a concept called “Asian Values” that prioritize “family over individual, harmony over conflict, discipline and deference to authority over self-assertion, and welfare over freedom.” However, scholars including Andrew Nathan criticize such relativist approach to human rights, arguing that the deployment of “Asian Values” is used as an excuse to violate civil and political rights. China’s human rights practices may challenge Western concepts of individual freedom, but what they truly violate is the Chinese Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is significant because China signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, willingly subjecting itself to rule by international law. International human rights law does not acknowledge developmental stages as a pretext for human rights. Certain fundamental rights, such as the freedom of speech and freedom from torture, Nathan argues, should be respected at every level of development.

The last piece of China’s defense upholds the sovereignty of the state and the primacy of collective rights over individual rights. As the State Council Of PRC proclaimed in 1991, it is “a long-term, urgent task of the Chinese government to maintain national stability.” Therefore, the Chinese government can justify any violation of human rights, especially those pertaining to the detentions of human rights activists and suppression of freedom of expression, through its mission to preserve social harmony. However, based on the Constitution of PRC, “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people.” This is significant because China’s claimed protection of social harmony only has clout if the Chinese people actually value national stability over individual rights. However, what people in China truly desire cannot be determined by scholars. Chinese scholars such as Zhou Qi, from the Chinese Academy of Social Science, contends that “while many Chinese people affirm that the American system has numerous virtues, they do not want to live their lives under this system or any other Western country’s system.” On the other hand, some western scholars such as Andrew Nathan maintain that “citizens in China mostly agree that ‘democracy is the best form of government’” but people accept the lack of political rights so long as the economy performs.

The government’s increasingly deft ability to censor any subversive information and shape public opinions further complicates the problem of gauging the Chinese people’s true opinions about civil and political rights. According to “China’s Media Censorship: A Dynamic and Diversified Regime,” China has gradually shifted away from its previous practice of outright bans of negative news to a mixture of banning, reporting according to official tones, and not over-reporting in order to “strategically guide public opinions”. Therefore, it is difficult to scientifically ascertain the Chinese people’s unadulterated opinions on democracy, freedom of speech, and individual rights because their responses might not genuinely reflect the original thinking of the Chinese populace. Their views are likely to be highly influenced or even constructed by the government propaganda apparatus. Therefore, without the freedoms of press and expression, meaningful dialogues in these areas are impossible. The propaganda apparatus gives the Chinese government the power to arbitrarily determine which human rights are the most important to the Chinese people.

The future of social, economic, and cultural rights in China seems to be increasingly promising as the government pledges to alleviate poverty everywhere, “complete the establishment of a rule of law,” and “achieve a marked improvement in the credibility of the judiciary” by 2020. However, the prospect for a better protection of civil and political rights such as democratic participation and freedoms of speech and press remains bleak as the government continues to arrest human rights activists and tighten its control over the internet through newly passed Cyber Security laws. A lack of access to free information on the part of the Chinese people will enable the Chinese government to perpetuate its violations of human rights on the grounds that the Chinese people concede to the primacy of state strength over individual rights.

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