Is human rights observance in China evolving?

By Jonathan Power
Dateline: Beijing.
Date: March 18th 2014.

In 1913, following the overthrow of the last emperor, citizens walked, pedalled or rickshawed to the polling stations- although opium smokers, Buddhists and policemen were forbidden from voting. In the annals of the 2,500 years of Chinese civilization it is the one and only time the Chinese have voted in a national election.

Under Mao Zedong, the communist leader who overthrew this Nationalist government, any pretence of voting was given short shrift. Politics was outlawed and would-be dissidents severely punished. Only at the top level of Chinese politics – in the ruling politburo – were votes taken. Indeed, on some occasions, Mao was outvoted.

But once he was dead some of the leadership of the communist party did want to see a loosening up. There was what Bao Tong, personal aide of deposed Communist Party chief, Zhao Ziyang, called a “freedom faction”. For example, in 1995 politburo member, Tian Jiyun, called for direct elections for government officials. Politburo standing committee (the top organ of the party) member, Li Ruihuan, called for partial media privatization. There were others.

Deng Xiaoping, an outcast under Mao, who became the dominant leader shortly after Mao’s death, warned in 1980 of the dangers of “bureaucracy, over-concentration of power, patriarchal methods, life tenure in leading posts and various privileges”. Voting, albeit very tightly controlled, was introduced within the party. So were mandatory retirement ages, including that of the top leaders. Courts were revived as semi-independent bodies. Citizens were given the right to sue the government. Military members of the Politburo fell from half to 10%. In 1987, village elections were encouraged, albeit the local party representatives too often engineered their own election. Deng even foresaw that “general elections could be held in China half a century from now”. (That would be in around 2030.)

But in 1989 all the hopes for a democratic spring were dashed. Students who had gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest bad governance were crushed by tanks sent in by order of Deng. Deng, who held no formal position but nevertheless held the final say in all major decision making, overruled the Party’s General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who favoured listening to the students and pushing along with more openness. Shortly after he was made to step down.

Many observers believe that because of the “Colour Revolutions”, the Arab Spring and the tense situation in Xinjian the rules against political dissent have been tightened up in recent years. Despite that there have been ongoing reforms: educational institutions have more autonomy; and protests against misrule by local party officials and factory bosses have increased sharply and have often been listened to and demands met.

The legal world continues to be reformed. Last year the Supreme People’s Court sent a letter to a top Chinese leader with information laying out why the courts were not working as they should. They were being meddled with and not allowed to do their job. Sometimes people were being convicted for crimes they had not committed. In November the Party’s Central Committee announced that false confessions from torture were disallowed. So were so-called “re-education camps”. The number of crimes punishable by death was reduced and the courts have become more transparent.

Although the notion of human rights is a relative novelty to living Chinese it is quite surprising how much teaching of it is allowed. In over ten universities around the country Sweden’s prestigious Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights helps organise human rights courses. In Beijing University human rights can be the minor subject in a degree. Over five other universities have substantial human rights programs. Wallenberg even lays on programs for the police.

The Chinese professors Wallenberg work with are knowledgeable and also idealistic, accepting they will be unlikely to be promoted to the top of the academic tree, given their subject of interest.

“The government doesn’t care what you think. It only cares what you do” is the mantra of those concerned with human rights. Thinking inside a university is OK.

The government is prepared to pounce when that rule is broken. Xu Zhiyong has been incarcerated for organising the New Citizens’ Movement that demands that Chinese officials disclose their wealth. (This is despite the government mounting a major anti-corruption campaign.) Cao Shunli has just died after being denied medical treatment while in custody.

When it comes to human rights issues you can talk to your friends without fear of being listened to, travel abroad, sound off on social media or work quietly behind the scenes inside government and the legal system to advocate reform. But don’t protest publicly, don’t organise and don’t write that the government must go. The time has not come for that. We may have to wait, as Deng said, until 2030 for democracy and freedom of speech to arrive, and for human rights to be taken seriously.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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