Despite substantial improvements China's civil and political rights remain stalled

Joshua Rosenzweig [Senior Manager of Research and Hong Kong Operations, The Dui Hua Foundation]: The past several years have been frustrating ones for those who hoped that growing international engagement with China would result in improvements in human rights in that country. While there is no question that economic and social development have brought substantial improvements in living standards for many Chinese, it is also clear that progress in the area of civil and political rights has not kept pace. In particular, earlier momentum in the area of legal reform and rule-of-law development has stalled, and there has been an ongoing and fierce crackdown against government critics, rights defenders, and members of ethnic minority groups.

When China issued its National Human Rights Action Plan for 2009-2010, I said I thought it represented an important step. Making concrete, public commitments would, in theory, make it possible to measure progress and hold the government accountable for any shortcomings. In light of this, I expressed disappointment that the plan offered so little in the way of establishing specific benchmarks -- particularly with respect to civil and political rights -- and stuck to language that was more vague aspiration than positive commitment.

This initial skepticism about the plan has unfortunately been borne out. These have not been good years for human rights in China, as the assessment by Human Rights Watch makes clear. The root of the problem is simple: China's leadership governs according to the principle of "stability above all else." Though it exudes confidence in its dealings with the outside world, the central government sees mounting signs of instability at home in the form of petitioners seeking redress for grievances, growing numbers of "mass incidents," eruption of long-simmering ethnic tensions in Tibet and Xinjiang, and the messy, hard-to-control Internet, with its channels for expression of critical opinion and transmission of uncensored news. In an atmosphere in which local authorities and security forces are given extensive leeway to enforce stability, protection and elaboration of individual rights are often pushed aside.

Under these circumstances, one cannot avoid questioning whether even some of the more positive steps China has taken to achieve some of the goals in the NHRAP will have much of an impact. New rules took effect in July 2010 promised to exclude illegally-obtained evidence -- including confessions obtained through use of torture -- from capital cases. The case of Fan Qihang, executed in September despite strong evidence suggesting that his confession had been coerced by police investigators, immediately cast doubt on courts' will to enforce these new rules aimed at combating torture and protecting defendants' procedural rights. A vaunted but largely symbolic revision to the Criminal Law that would limit use of the death penalty has faced strong opposition out of law-and-order concerns, despite the fact that it would likely do little to reduce China's staggering number of executions.

There is cause for some optimism, but this has less to do with steps taken by the government and more to do with the increasingly vocal force of domestic public opinion, as expressed through the media and on the Internet. After years of targeting by international human rights NGOs, there was a breakthrough in late 2009 when the illegal detention of petitioners in "black jails" suddenly began to be investigated by the Chinese press. Public opinion has also been exposing and pushing back against forced demolition, the deaths of police detainees, and the use of criminal defamation charges to silence critics of local government wrongdoing. If these public voices are given more space to exert oversight over government, there is hope that China will be pushed further to fulfill the commitments made in this and future human rights action plans.

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