Human Rights Watch recently released its 22nd annual World Report, whose 676 pages include a country-by-country overview of human rights developments around the world and a series of essays on themes including the Arab Spring and the aftermath of Soviet collapse. The chapter on China is a grim catalogue of detentions of political dissidents and proposed legal reforms to support them; controls on the Internet, press and religious activity; harsh treatment of domestic and foreign journalists; and failure to respect and protect the rights of women, migrants, minorities, the disabled and victims of industrial pollution. From the introduction:
Against a backdrop of rapid socio-economic change and modernization, China continues to be an authoritarian one-party state that imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association, and religion; openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom; and arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders and organizations, often through extra-judicial measures.
The government also censors the internet; maintains highly repressive policies in ethnic minority areas such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia; systematically condones—with rare exceptions—abuses of power in the name of “social stability” ; and rejects domestic and international scrutiny of its human rights record as attempts to destabilize and impose “Western values” on the country. The security apparatus—hostile to liberalization and legal reform—seems to have steadily increased its power since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China’s “social stability maintenance” expenses are now larger than its defense budget.
At the same time Chinese citizens are increasingly rights-conscious and challenging the authorities over livelihood issues, land seizures, forced evictions, abuses of power by corrupt cadres, discrimination, and economic inequalities. Official and scholarly statistics estimate that 250-500 protests occur per day; participants number from ten to tens of thousands. Internet users and reform-oriented media are aggressively pushing the boundaries of censorship, despite the risks of doing so, by advocating for the rule of law and transparency, exposing official wrong-doing, and calling for reforms.
China’s state media has responded to the report with a flurry of indignation, as HRW’s Nicholas Bequelin noted:
此地无银三百两： People’s Daily and China Daily have published a total of 10 (!) articles on Human Rights Watch (@hrw) in one week.
— Nicholas Bequelin 林伟 (@Bequelin) January 31, 2012
(“此地无银三百两”: “No 300 taels of silver here”; to draw attention to something by denying it.)
People’s Daily, for example, suggested that criticism of China’s rights record arose from Western insecurity:
It seems that some Western countries and NGOs have set out to attack China over its human rights issues. They first assume that human rights are being ignored, then seek evidence from rumors, and make speculations to blindly accuse China of violating human rights with the real purpose of distorting China’s international image ….
Why does the West still hold a prejudice against China’s human rights? The only reason is that the Cold War mentality and ideological hegemony still prevails. As long as China is a socialist country, the West will insist on distorting its image and see China as a threat to the Western system.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West has been too boastful of its political system, believing it is the only system that has universal value in the world.
China’s significant economic progress has stirred Western anxieties. Distorting China’s human rights becomes the only political choice.
The World Report “gave no word on the great progress in terms of China’s judicial reforms that have been demonstrated in the Criminal Procedural Law draft amendment,” the article said.
Legal experts say the draft amendment will help improve the protection of criminal suspects’ human rights, by preventing judges from accepting confessions from tortured suspects and giving these suspects more defense options.
In fact, the report does acknowledge the amendment, but reiterates concern at the prospect of legalised enforced disappearances:
In August 2011, in an effort to … improve the administration of justice, the government published new rules to eliminate unlawfully obtained evidence and strengthened the procedural rights of the defense in its draft revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law. It is likely it will be adopted in March 2012.
However, the draft revisions also introduced an alarming provision that would effectively legalize enforced disappearances by allowing police to secretly detain suspects for up to six months at a location of their choice in “state security, terrorism and major corruption cases.” The measure would put suspects at great risk of torture while giving the government justification for the “disappearance” of dissidents and activists in the future. Adoption of this measure—which is hotly criticized in Chinese media by human rights lawyers, activists, and part of the legal community—would significantly deviate from China’s previous stance of gradual convergence with international norms on administering justice, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1997 but has yet to ratify.
People’s Daily also objected to the report’s claim that “the government continues to build a ‘new socialist countryside’ [in Tibet] by relocating and rehousing up to 80 percent of the TAR population, including all pastoralists and nomads.” From Xinhua:
The People’s Daily article, jointly published by two Tibet experts, said the HRW’s conclusion was groundless and contradictory to basic facts.
The two authors, Zhang Ming, or Lorong Dramadul, with the China Tibetology Research Center, and Professor Yang Minghong with Sichuan University, hoped that their experiences and observations from over 20 years of field research in Tibet could help clarify the misunderstandings.
They cited official statistics and said that in 2011, 1.85 million Tibetans, or 61 percent of the total population, had settled in permanent residences.
“No more than 150,000 people, or less than 5 percent of the Tibetan population, had left their original residence,” the experts wrote.
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Pan Xizhe’s op-ed at China Daily accused Human Rights Watch of sloppy methodology and political motivations:
At first glance, Human Rights Watch appears to be keen on the protection of international human rights. But it actually carries out its work with double standards and bias. Its observations lack political neutrality and its research methods are questionable. The organization’s employment of unqualified workers has also hurt the credibility of its report. Human Rights Watch should reflect inward before passing on judgment to others.
The media and international observers have long criticized Human Rights Watch for passing judgment of human rights conditions of a country or region through tinted lens. It turns a blind eye to human rights issues in some countries while criticizing others vehemently. The Sunday Times quoted a human rights insider in the United States as saying that the organization caters its reports to the US government, which greatly affects its objectivity ….
In the China portion of its report, Human Rights Watch used expressions such as “estimate”, “possibly”, and “probably”. It criticized China’s judiciary system, religious institutions, regional autonomy by ethnic groups, family planning policy as well as foreign and economic policies.
The US section of the report, which criticises the Obama White House’s failure to pursue Bush administration officials for approving the use of torture and decries America’s “abusive” counterterrorism policies, growing poverty and world-leading prison population, can be read here.
While the World Report looked back at 2011, at The Diplomat, HRW’s Phelim Kine looks ahead to 2012:
These cases represent more than the Chinese government’s well-documented contempt for freedom of expression explicitly guaranteed in Article 35 of the Constitution. They are also clear efforts to breed fear and sow silence among China’s beleaguered community of human rights defenders and civil society activists. The aim: to ensure that the 12-month senior Communist Party leadership transition this year proceeds without public challenges to the Party’s 61-year monopoly on power. China’s President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are preparing to step aside for a new generation of leaders, widely touted to be Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, in a secretive political succession that won’t be complete until in March 2013 ….
The government’s overriding obsession with maintaining its monopoly on power make it likely that these abuses will continue under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Foreign governments could help reverse this trend and give support to Chinese who want a more accountable government by more vigorously engaging the government on such violations. Thirty years since the launch of China’s economic reform and opening, a decade after China entered the World Trade Organization, and five years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the deterioration in respect for human rights and rule of law in China should be of serious concern for all countries seeking long-term, sustainable and mutually-beneficial bilateral relations with China.