China Hails “Tremendous” Human Rights Progress

The State Council Information Office today released a white paper titled “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2014,” the twelfth such report since its 45,000 word tome in 1991. The paper’s introduction hails “tremendous achievements” made under the guidance of the CCP last year, demonstrating the country’s progress on the “correct path of human rights development that suits its national conditions.” The following nine chapters each cover a different realm of human rights, illustrated with a dizzying selection of government statistics.

Both the emphasis on “national conditions” and the immediate focus on the “right to development” in chapter one continue China’s sustained efforts to elevate its successes in poverty reduction and economic development above individual and political rights. From a Xinhua report on the white paper:

China has also made notable progress in improving the right to development, which is a fundamental human right for people of the world’s largest developing country.

According to the report, the country’s annual per capita disposable income reached 20,167 yuan (3,290 U.S. dollars) in 2014, up 8 percent over the previous year and faster than the economic growth rate last year.

Substantial efforts were made to alleviate poverty, including more government funds for infrastructure in the least-developed rural areas and relocation of people in uninhabitable regions.

[…] Unfortunately, some countries have always turned a blind eye to Chinese progress in human rights or even slung mud over its record in this regard.

The concept of human rights varies in different countries and will be updated according to the changing reality. The rest of the world should respect China’s unique conditions and traditions. [Source]

Over the past year, China’s opposition to universal human rights has been particularly noticeable in a spirited Party campaign against “Western values” throughout society.

A definition of human rights that places economic development and subsistence first and foremost has featured in these reports since 1991, and is also a hallmark of Beijing’s annual criticisms of the human rights record of the U.S. Breakthroughs in China’s cultural industries are another unconventional rights benchmark employed by the report. From The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin:

In the report’s first section, titled “Right to Development,” this year’s white paper backed up Beijing’s claim to have better protected the Chinese people’s cultural rights by pointing to, among other things, China’s burgeoning television, cartoon and film production.

In 2014, the paper noted, China produced 429 TV series, accounting for 15,983 episodes, and cartoon programs amounting to 138,496 minutes. The report also flagged growth on the silver screen, saying the country produced a total of 618 feature films — 36 of which earned more than 100 million yuan each — and racked up total box office revenues of 26.9 billion yuan ($4.3 billion) last year.

The latter figure represented a 36% increase over 2013, the white paper said. It wasn’t clear from the report how that growth related to human rights. The State Council Information Office, which produced the report, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

[…] The report said that 90% of the economic and social development goals set out in the country’s most recent five-year plan had either been exceeded, nearly fulfilled or made smooth progress. It also said China had achieved most of the targets set out in a four-year national human rights action plan set to end this year. It did not identify in either case which targets had been missed. [Source]

This year’s paper has unsurprisingly met criticism from rights activists and lawyers who argue that 2014 actually saw substantial erosion of human rights on many fronts. Joanna Chiu reports for dpa:

“The human rights record last year was particularly appalling, even compared to China’s poor human rights records in previous years,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“In 2014 the government detained a large number of activists, tightened or passed new regulations to restrict freedom of the press and freedom of speech on the internet and in universities, and made significant moves to push people to adhere strictly to Party ideology, as exemplified by Document No. 9,” Wang told dpa. [For further context on Document No. 9, or the related 2014 detention and recent sentencing of journalist Gao Yu, see prior coverage via CDT.]

[…] Monday’s white paper also said China’s legal reforms gained momentum last year, citing the October adoption by the leadership of a blueprint to promote the rule of law.

[…] However, Chinese say not much has changed, while working conditions for some have worsened.

“Authorities have done a lot of work on paper, but at this point, very little has changed in actual practice,” human rights lawyer told dpa. […] [Source]

Lily Kuo at Quartz provides more on dissonance between China’s interpretation of human rights and that of its critics:

The report, released without warning by the State Council today, is also an illustration of the disconnect between China’s definition of human rights and that of its critics. Specifically, China equates economic development with human rights—as opposed to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights which includes statements such as “No one shall be subjected to or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”

[…] A recent Human Rights Watch Report criticizes China’s penal system for torturing arrested suspects by beating them, shackling them to chairs, or hanging them by their hand cuffs. Other groups have criticized the increase in arrests of moderate activists, human , and regular citizens.

Chinese officials, in contrast, view arrests as a sign of better policing. The white paper says that over the past year it has prosecuted 712 people for crimes of terrorism and “inciting separatism,” a charge often given to activists in  or . The report also says that 168,900 people were arrested last year for drug-related crimes. [Source]

The white paper’s chapter on “Democratic Rights” lauds developments in the protection of free speech. From another Xinhua report:

The freedom of speech is being better protected in China, as the country is working to promote citizens’ democratic rights, a white paper on China’s human rights said Monday.

[…] The public can air opinions, and raise criticisms and suggestions freely through the news media, and discuss problems of this country and society, it said.

The government encourages enterprises to provide various Internet services to the public in accordance with the law so as to create a good environment for the public to acquire and exchange information, the white paper said, adding that a cleaner cyber space is becoming an ever important place for the public to get information and make their voices heard. [Source]

While the year did indeed see the further sanitization of cyberspace, the case that online speech became “better protected” in China last year is harder to make. 2014 saw the first public trials to follow a 2013 campaign against Internet rumors and the introduction of a legal mechanism to punish online “rumor-mongers” that met criticism from rights lawyers. As the once lively dialogue on Sina Weibo began to cool amid that campaign, new regulations on relatively private instant messaging applications shut down scores of public WeChat accounts by March 2014. A crackdown on Internet pornography launched in April was criticized as simply another means of ensuring that Party propaganda sounded louder than opposition online. In August, the State Internet Information Office released further regulations for instant messaging services. In October, a Supreme People’s Court ruling expanded government jurisdiction over ISPs’ data, granting the Party yet another lever on online public opinion. As 2014 came to a close, China’s leading Internet companies signed a pledge to assist the government in “cleaning up” the Internet by “self-managing” comments on their sites.

Chapter five of the white paper focuses on the “Rights of Ethnic Minorities.” Looking mainly to Xinjiang and Tibet, this section also dwells heavily on the right to development, highlighting the fruits of economic growth enjoyed by ethnic minorities living there. A report from Michelle FlorCruz at the International Business Times summarizes Free Tibet’s argument that development should not qualify as a rights victory for Tibetans:

On the same day as the release of the white paper, British activist group Free Tibet released a statement saying that ongoing construction efforts put forth by Beijing have polluted the only water source in the Tibetan village of Shadrang. The report says that various infrastructure and mining projects have disrupted the natural habitat and have had a profound effect on resources for local residents.

“Infrastructure projects in Tibet are motivated by China’s focus on resource exploitation, not the interests of ,” Alistair Currie, campaigns and media manager for Free Tibet, said in a statement. “Roads and highways facilitate the movement of equipment and workers in, and extricated resources out. Pollution, destruction of the environment and land-grabbing are part and parcel of the economic exploitation of Tibet, and of little concern to China’s government. This is a deep source of grievance to and increasingly a flashpoint for protest.” [Source]

The white paper lauds the provision of “solid and convenient houses” for Tibetan farmers and herdsmen, but a 2013 Human Rights Watch report detailed severe social and economic damage from involuntary settlement policies in the region.

Yet another report from Xinhua cites the white paper’s assurance that “the religious belief freedom of ethnic minorities” was “fully guaranteed” in 2014:

Taking Tibet as an example, currently there are 1,787 venues for various religious worship activities there, with 46,000 resident monks and nuns, said the white paper released by the Information Office of the State Council.

Living Buddha reincarnation, a special succession system of Tibetan Buddhism, is respected by the state, it said, adding that there are 358 living Buddhas in Tibet.

[…] The Chinese Islamic Association has compiled and published Islamic scriptures in Arabic. The Association has also set up a website in the Uygur language, providing introduction of religious knowledge and online explanation of the scriptures.

In 2014, a total of 14,466 Chinese Muslims made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Relevant government departments have sent accompanying medical staff to guarantee the pilgrims’ health and safety, the paper said. [Source]

Developments reported elsewhere in 2014, however, again offer a different picture. In Tibet, where Xinhua posits that the “Living Buddha reincarnation” system is respected, the Dalai Lama’s 2014 suggestions that his current incarnation may be his last was greeted with official castigation. In Xinjiang, a “people’s war on terror” was launched in May 2014 in response to rising violence in the region, amid further regulation of religious practice among the predominately Muslim Uyghur population of the region.