Myth and Mistake of the “Chinese Model:” Promoting Social, Economic, Cultural Rights at the Expense of Civil-Political Rights?

At the conference “China: European and American Democracies Face the Challenge,” held on February 24 – 25, 2005, in Prague, Czech Republic (organized by the Czech Civic Center and the Project for New American Century), this author argues that “China’s economic growth has not been translated into meaningful protection of each and every Chinese citizens’ economic rights; and if there is any progress in protecting these rights, it has benefited from the somewhat loosened or lost political control and, as a result, increased personal freedom by default.”


Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, political commentators compared rapid democratic transition in Eastern Europe to a “Chinese model” – developing the economy without reforming the communist political system. The Chinese government, meanwhile, defended this model as a better alternative, claiming that giving priority to social-economic-cultural rights over civil-political rights would avoid social instability and disorder, allowing rapid economic development.

15 years later, China has made impressive progress in raising the standard of living. However, its economic growth has not been translated into meaningful protection of each and every Chinese citizens’ economic rights; and if there is any progress in protecting these rights, it has benefited from the somewhat loosened or lost political control and, as a result, increased personal freedom by default. The state may have lengthened the “leash” or it simply could no longer maintain totalitarian control of every aspect of people’s lives ever since it decided to regain political legitimacy through economic performance. But Chinese citizens are not guaranteed the right to the liberties they enjoy and the right to demand protection.

Today, the Chinese state remains highly repressive, though, over the years, it has become somewhat less intrusive. It has moved gingerly toward very limited political pluralism, which is demanded by any efforts to ensure economic, cultural, and social pluralism. Its rule is based increasingly on the rule by law (if not rule of law) and it occasionally tailoring its policies to public opinion. Lifetime position at top leadership was supposed to end with Deng Xiaoping. As the current generation of leadership took over without bloodshed in 2003, the Party’s new rule on term-limit of top leadership positions is put to test. There is hope that periodical leadership transition may become a routine, though power transfer remains limited within one party. In March 2004, China amended its constitution to include a promise to ensure human rights.

In recent years, many legal scholars and professionals in China have pushed for strengthening the legal system, the government has taken some steps to allow some independence of the courts, hold qualifying examinations for judges and indicate willingness to amend laws to protect suspects in detention. Rule of law reform and the role of local people’s congresses in policymaking gained some ground. There have also been experiments with elections of village councils and local People’s Congresses and election of local branch officials within the Party hierarchy.

Unfortunately, these efforts have shown little positive impact on protecting human rights because of widespread corruption and official unaccountability. It is also due to lack of law enforcement and judiciary independence, reliance of the criminal justice system on confessions for evidence through beatings and torture, and imprisonment of defense lawyers for vigorous advocating of clients’ rights. Still, one can argue that, without the circumscribed political loosening, the leadership would not have permitted nor have stayed the course of economic reforms.

One illustration is the paradox of expanding information freedom and intensifying censorship. The government now allows more independent reporting. Today, there are more than seven thousand newspapers or magazines, five hundred publishing companies, three thousand TV stations, 250 million cell phone users, and 87 million regular Internet users. However, harassment of journalists and Internet censorship continue. Independent journalists, editors, writers are constantly subjected to persecution and imprisonment. 43 journalists are now in prison. Internet users are affected by the state’s systematic censorship and periodic crackdown at politically sensitive times. In 2004, the state expanded the list of topics subject to Internet censorship. It employs increasingly sophisticated technology and tens of thousands of cyber-police to monitor and control use of the Internet, cellular phones, pagers, and instant messaging devices. It blocks many websites, and pressured Internet service provider companies to cave in to censorship.

It is the Communist Party’s continuing monopoly of key powers that has allowed it to adopt and enforce economic adjustment policies without public consultation, without adequately compensating victims of these policies’ negative and sometimes devastating impact on their lives. These victims tend to be society’s powerless and vulnerable social groups. The political leaders are largely at liberty to write off the interest and rights of these persons, suppress their voices and organized efforts to defend their rights and seek redress. Authorities face little accountability for the harmful consequences of their policies and management (such as environmental damages, failures to prevent public health crises, and workplace unsafety).

This fundamental reality contributes to complex changes in the area of socio-economic rights protection, which reflect the mixed effects of rising GDP and the collapse of the socialist welfare system. Aggregate growth rates themselves have failed to ensure equal and fair access to adequate food, shelter, medical care, education and work. Millions of workers have been laid off from state industries without social safety net. Unemployment rate is estimated as several times higher than the official 4%, possibly up to 20%. Employers routinely ignore minimum wage requirements and fail to implement required health and safety measures. Many former employees of state-owned enterprises lost their pensions when their companies were privatized or went bankrupt. Between 100 and 150 millions rural residents left the countryside to seek work in cities and face serious problems. Without official residence permits, these migrant laborers lack access to basic services provided by the government and are vulnerable to police abuse, mistreatment, and discrimination. Workers and migrant laborers are severely handicapped in their efforts to negotiate fair terms due government ban on independent trade unions.

Economic disparity between the poor and the rich in China has grown to be among the largest in the world. China’s Gini coefficient, according to the UN Human Development Report (2004), is 0. 447, which is larger that of the US (0. 408). The income disparity is partly explained by China’s urban-rural income gap. According to the Chinese government, urban per capita disposable income in 2003 was $1,028, while rural per capita cash income was $317. The Government estimated that 30 million persons lived in poverty; while the World Bank estimated 100 to 150 million people live on income lower than $1 per day. The UN estimates that 16.6% Chinese live below the $1 per day poverty line between 1990 and 2002, worse than before (the rate between1990 and 2001 was 16.1%). In 2001, China spends only 2% of GDP on public health (6.2% in the US, 6.7% in Czech, 4.4% in Poland, 3.7% in Russia). As of 2002, China’s combined primary, secondary, and tertiary school enrollment rate was 68%. (The same indicator for Czech is 78%, Hungary 86%, Russia 88%, and Poland 90%). It can be deceptive to compare changing standards of living in these countries with different bases; however, these statistics say something about government commitments to improving basic social-economic rights conditions.

Take for example the right to housing. Since China privatized housing properties, local authorities and developers have forcibly evicted hundreds of thousands of residents in order to sell the land for profit – without negotiating fair terms for compensation. With little legal recourse, those evicted have petitioned authorities and taken to the streets in protest, only to meet police brutality, detention, and imprisonment.

Another example is the right to health. According to official statistics, China now has 840,000 people living with HIV/AIDS. Many of them, particularly those in poor villages, lack basic information about AIDS and cannot afford treatment. The government has not investigated local officials’ role in the transmission of HIV to villagers in Henan and other provinces through unsanitary blood collection centers in the mid-1990s. Henan authorities regularly detain HIV-positive activists and harass NGOs that provide services to poor villagers affected with HIV-AIDS.
Meanwhile, the government has intensified repression of social, cultural, religious groups, including ethnic minorities and religious groups. China used its support for the U.S.-led “war against terrorism” to leverage support for its own crackdown on Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim population. The crackdown involves arbitrary arrests, closed trials, and expedited executions. The state continues to limit religious and cultural expression in Tibet. Authorities have tried to curb efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism and develop Tibetan social institutions. The ban on Falungong and persecution of its practitioners persisted since 1999. Authorities have imprisoned tens of thousands of Falungong practitioners, some groups estimated that as many as 2,000 practitioners have died in detention due to torture, abuse, and neglect.
The Chinese state remains effective in its infringement on social-economic-cultural rights, precise because it continues to be able to practice the excessive use of the death penalty, torture, police brutality, arbitrary detention without judicial review. In a worldwide survey, Amnesty International found that China has had the highest number of reported executions of any country in the world every year since 1993. People were executed for non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and pimping as well as drug offences and violent crimes. In 2002, China executed 2,468 people and sentenced 4,015 to death. In 2003, AI had recorded 1,639 death sentences and 726 executions, although the true figures were believed to be much higher. The government hides numbers of death sentences as state secret. A deputy of the National People’s Congress claimed that nearly 10,000 death sentences each year “result in immediate execution.” In 2003, approximately 300,000 people were serving detention in Reeducation Through Labor camps and other detention centers and psychiatric facilities for “crimes” ranging from “disturbing public order” to minor drug offenses, without trials or judicial review, for up to three years. The Chinese government puts that number at 250,000. Official source also disclosed more than 4,000 cases of abuse and forced confession to extract evidence through torture in the two years from 2001-2003.

The “Chinese model” is a myth rather than reality. It is a mistake to divide human rights into the two classes as if social-economic rights could be achieved at the expense of civil-political rights. The Chinese government has failed to deliver significant improvement of social, economic, cultural human rights by pursuing policies that prioritize stability and social order at the expense of civil-political rights and democratization. China’s economic growths and raising standard of living could not have been possible without some political loosening of control of efforts in the Chinese society, including efforts pushing for broad reforms. Meanwhile, today, democracy and respect for human rights in the former communist countries in E. Europe have become consolidated and the people enjoy social-political stability, descent standard of living, and steady economic growth. The broadcast of imminent collapse of the economic order and social chaos due to political liberalization in these countries has not come true.

Xiaorong Li

Feb. 25, 2005
Prague