Human Rights in China

Since the 1989 crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, human rights have bedeviled U.S.-Chinese relations. However, the past decade reveals nascent trends toward openness in China that may provide the foundation for stronger protection of rights. Without abandoning concern for the present state of human rights in China, the United States must reshape its policy to support these trends. Sanctions will have little success at this stage, and the annual renewal of most favored nation (MFN) status should be abandoned in favor of permanent MFN for China once it meets the requirements for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The official dialogue on human rights should add economic and social rights to the agenda to give the Chinese a greater stake in cooperation. Most important, assistance should be provided to support reforms in the government sector as well as in emerging Chinese civil society.


As the tenth anniversary of the crackdown on student protestors in Tiananmen Square approaches, Beijing’s nervousness is obvious. The government has quelled activity that appears to challenge the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), notably the attempts of a small group of activists to establish an opposition party. It has also tightened control on some social and religious groups whose broadening membership could metastasize into political movements. In response, the United States has redoubled its efforts to censure China in the international community. These initiatives, such as the unsuccessful sponsorship of a China resolution at the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), have symbolic value but little effect on Beijing’s human rights performance. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade increased bilateral tensions, and Beijing hastened to suspend the U.S.-Chinese dialogue on human rights. American policymakers should use this hiatus to reassess U.S. human rights policy toward China.

Since the Chinese government’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square movement, the United States and China have, with few exceptions, held opposing positions on human rights issues. The American policy community has been locked into a zero-sum debate on China, which is broadly (but inadequately) defined as engagement versus isolation and carrots versus sticks. Both these dynamics were at play in the attempt to link human rights with trade in 1993-94. This effort foundered equally because of Beijing’s refusal to yield to demands for improvements and American business opposition to the linkage.

China’s seeming intransigence is rooted in more than the regime’s determination to maintain political control. Washington and Beijing disagree on issues of both priority and proportion in human rights. American concerns about Chinese human rights include religious and reproductive rights, but the overwhelming focus remains on the right to political expression and activity. In contrast, Beijing gives highest priority to raising the living standards of its citizens, on which the party’s popular support now depends. Exacerbating the difference in priorities, some Americans believe China should follow the path of the Soviet bloc in the 1980s, when political change preceded economic reform and led to the collapse of communism. The Chinese government and many ordinary Chinese stress the negative outcomes of that transition: economic chaos in Russia and communal violence in the former Yugoslavia.

Some Chinese are also bewildered by the growing emphasis of human rights in U.S.-Chinese relations after the cold war. The U.S.-Chinese rapprochement took place during the last years of the Cultural Revolution, but Washington did not protest the widespread abuses of Maoist rule at that time. By U.S. count, approximately 2,000 political prisoners remain in China, 7 percent of whom were imprisoned during the Tiananmen crackdown. But during the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s, more than 800,000 Chinese were sentenced to “reform through labor” for political crimes. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, 400,000 people were jailed for political offenses, and one out of every three Chinese inmates was a political prisoner. This problem of proportion puzzles even ordinary Chinese. Although the shift in U.S. policy toward greater priority on rights is found in numerous countries, Beijing regards the heightened U.S. concern for rights as an attempt to undermine Chinese prestige and power in the international community.

Suspicions about the underlying motives of U.S. human rights policy are not confined to old-guard ideologues who waged anti-Western campaigns decades ago. They are evidence of a wide vein in the Chinese psyche which has been ambivalent about close relations with the West since the Opium Wars of the 1840s. Many Americans were startled when Peking University students, who had been the standard bearers in Tiananmen Square, probed for the “hidden agenda” behind U.S. human rights policy during President Clinton’s address there last year. More significantly, the anti-American demonstrations in the wake of the Belgrade embassy bombing were based in the Chinese university population. Because of the Tiananmen Square movement and the replica of the Statue of Liberty brandished at that time, the American public had been inclined–incorrectly–to view Chinese students as uniformly pro-American.

Ironically, Washington and Beijing have found themselves to be strange bedfellows on some international human rights issues. Last summer the United States and China were in a slim minority of governments opposing the draft treaty for an International Criminal Court, albeit for different reasons. Last month, the two countries attempted to block a resolution at the UNHRC calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Is Civil Society Emerging?

The polarization of human rights issues in U.S.-Chinese relations often obscures the fact that both the Chinese state and society are in a process of incremental but remarkable change, which has afforded ordinary citizens unprecedented personal freedom, although it doesn’t promise an immediate transition to democracy. Much of this change is unofficial and undeclared. It can be attributed to the effects of the economic reforms introduced in China in 1979, and more recently to rapid economic growth. During the past twenty years, an embryonic nongovernmental sector has emerged in China and become progressively more dense. To date, however, this phenomenon bears little resemblance to Western concepts of civil society, which stress assertive institutions that confront as well as cooperate with government authorities. Nor does it resemble civil society groups in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, which developed for the explicit purpose of challenging Leninist rule.

Instead, private citizens are forming voluntary organizations which seek to address social needs that are underfunded or ignored by the state. These include care of the disabled, environmental protection, help for battered women, and eradication of illiteracy. Some social service groups are cautiously acquiring advocacy functions and are even sought by government officials and legislators for their views on policy reform. In contrast to the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, many activists in China today take an instrumental rather than ideological approach, seeking to modify state-society relations to give citizens a more active role in social and economic policy.

The Chinese government’s response to this phenomenon is ambivalent. The government recognizes that national development goals cannot be met through official action alone, and even acknowledges that nongovernmental groups may be more efficient in some roles. During the floods along the Yangtze River last year, civil society organizations played a pivotal role in delivering assistance; raising relief funds; and coordinating government agencies, private donors, and volunteers. But the government is also mindful of the potential power of a strong civil society and seeks to regulate it. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) allowed the greatest autonomy are those which are perceived to be the least threatening to the regime. New regulations promulgated last year could impose further restrictions on NGOs, although some Chinese observers believe that the law aims to outlaw new political parties and will have little real impact on non-political groups.

A similar phenomenon has been observed in the Chinese media, particularly in the print sector, where rapid privatization has brought striking improvements in press freedom over the past two decades. As with NGOs, the press is subject to control, which can be (and often is) tightened in times of political tension. However, the growth and multiplicity of media in China raise doubts of whether the government could reestablish the degree of control it maintained in the Mao era–or even in the 1980s.

Accountability: The New Legitimacy

Just as Chinese society has been affected by economic reform, so too has the state been forced to rethink its role in national affairs and its relations to citizens. Market reform has laid bare the weakness of a state structure originally designed to support a command economy and totalitarian rule. While Americans focus on political freedoms for Chinese citizens, the Chinese focus on national and local corruption, which is perceived to be rising. In the judicial sector, the number of judges and staff members convicted of abusing power in China more than doubled from 1997 to 1998. Prosecutors censured police more than 70,000 times last year for detaining people beyond the legal time limit. In response to the apparent upsurge in corruption, “soft” checks on government are emerging. For example, the National People’s Congress (NPC) has established a committee to scrutinize the government’s draft budgets, which have heretofore been sent to the legislature for pro forma approval. To qualify under the changing definition of political legitimacy, which involves more transparent and accountable rule, the party itself has mounted an anti-corruption campaign.

Signs of positive change in the formal system are seen in both the legislative and legal sectors. The NPC is becoming more professional and more vocal, although it is not yet a counterweight to executive power. NPC deputies have never overturned a government bill outright, but their voting records indicate increasing independence. In 1992, after legislators voting against the Three Gorges Dam project were silenced by the chair, they resorted to handing out pamphlets in the corridor. In 1995, more than a third of the deputies voted against the government’s banking law. Changes in criminal procedure law have strengthened the rights of defendants. New administrative laws permit citizens to sue the state for abuse of authority, and from 1996 to 1997 citizen-state lawsuits rose by 48 percent. Two-thirds of the judgments in those cases were decided in favor of citizen-plaintiffs.

The introduction of elections in Chinese villages has drawn the greatest international attention. Villagers committees, which oversee local projects but are not official government bodies, are directly elected in the majority of China’s one million villages. Candidates need not be CCP members, and the percentage of nonparty committee members is growing. Although some Americans see village elections as a harbinger for broader democratic change in China, their value at present is in offering citizens more accountable local leadership, curbing corruption, and exercising the vote.

A Multi-Dimensional Policy

For most of this decade, debate on China policy in the United States has centered on whether human rights is an appropriate objective, rather than on the efficacy of the U.S. approach to rights improvement. Wearied by annual disputes over renewal of China’s MFN status, which is implicitly tied to human rights, policymakers have little time for more in-depth debate. However, an effective policy must match initiatives and responses with current trends and opportunities in China. The broad human rights agenda should:

1. Lengthen the time horizon in assessing human rights progress in China and in formulating policies to improve rights.

Human rights advocacy is inclined to take the pulse of societies under authoritarian rule on a daily basis. This may enable the international community to halt or prevent abuses when it has the leverage to do so. However, this approach skims the surface of political change, often missing significant developments, and leads to unwitting exaggeration of trends in either direction. Western observers are quick to declare a “Beijing spring” when repression seems to ease on small groups of vocal individuals, or to decry a return to totalitarianism when the government tightens control on these same groups.

Moreover, a policy which is limited to the short term fails to grasp the paradoxical nature of political change in countries experimenting with liberalization. For example, new regulations on nongovernmental groups are both an attempt to control China’s growing civil society and an acknowledgement that the NGO sector has become a permanent player in the Chinese system. And while village elections stoke the hopes of Americans for democratic change, they also further the Maoist goal of making China’s rural sector self-sufficient, to relieve the central government of administrative support. In this complex environment, daily attempts to make bottom-line determinations about the course of China’s political path are guaranteed to be at least half-wrong.

To capture and capitalize on trends which can only become apparent over time, U.S. assessments and policies on human rights in China should be cast in five- and ten-year timelines. The State Department’s annual report to Congress on human rights in China should chart progress over longer periods, comparing current conditions with key points in recent years. The U.S. embassy in Beijing should build five- and ten-year projections for human rights policy into its Mission Program Plans (MPPs).

2. Focus policy goals on the long-term, but tailor policy instruments to current conditions and opportunities.

The American debate on human rights in China confuses form with substance, and focuses on means with little attention to ends. For example, the question has seldom been raised of whether the gains that sanctions might optimally produce would contribute to lasting political change in China. President Clinton’s 1993 executive order, which formally linked renewal of China’s MFN to human rights improvements, imposed conditions which focused mainly on individual political prisoners: accounting for imprisoned dissidents, refraining from their use in prison labor, and allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to evaluate their condition. These were admirable humanitarian objectives, but it is doubtful whether they would have improved even the short-term political environment. Because sanctions are rarely effective in promoting internal political change, even the threat of human rights sanctions should be downplayed. To do so, the annual debate over MFN should be abandoned in favor of permanent status for China once it institutes reforms necessary for it to join the WTO. Such economic reforms will support greater political openness, although they are not sufficient in themselves to bring it about.

Conversely, many human rights groups and policymakers view assistance to China, even for reform efforts, as capitulation to Beijing. Administration initiatives on rule of law and civil society programs for China have consistently failed to gain congressional support. But at this stage of China’s political development, when U.S. policy should focus on building the scaffolding for a better rights regime, a more calibrated and constructive approach is essential.

3. Pay attention to reformers from within as well as to high-profile dissidents.

U.S. policymakers and human rights groups tend to champion a few Chinese individuals outside the system who articulate Western values on democracy and human rights, in the belief that they are the future leaders of a more democratic China. Apart from the unlikeliness of this assumption, policymakers interested only in formal opposition will overlook the need to create a broader political culture which will allow competition. History has shown that authoritarian regimes which are liberalizing will tolerate dissent from within long before they will risk opening the political system to formal opposition. Signs of this internal opening are increasingly apparent in China and should be reinforced.

Beyond concern for avowed dissidents, the United States should support reformers within the Chinese bureaucracy and the growing cadre of national and local politicians who openly debate government priorities. However, with the present volatility of U.S.-Chinese relations, and the particular sensitivity of human rights, the brass-band approach of an “official” assistance program will invite backlash from the Chinese government and citizens alike. Instead, funds should be made available to American nongovernmental organizations with long experience in China for low-profile programs to support reform across the Chinese system. A handful of American NGOs are pursuing these goals, but they require significantly more funding to promote change in a country as large and complex as China. Training for the judiciary and government agencies which implement local electoral reforms, exchanges between U.S. congressmen and younger generation NPC deputies, and training for Chinese NGO leaders are all possible at this time. The aim of such policies should not necessarily be to strengthen anti-regime forces, but to increase the regime’s tolerance for dissent from within and the ability of NGOs to function with greater autonomy. To open this window, however, Americans must eschew a monolithic view of the Chinese system and resist the temptation to dismiss all official institutions as rubber stamps.

4. To engage the Chinese more effectively, work from a broader definition of human rights, and stress instrumental as well as ideological approaches to political change.

Since the Tiananmen crackdown, the United States has attempted to foster an official bilateral dialogue on human rights with little success. Momentum has been difficult to maintain because the framework for discussion is based on American concepts of rights. The talks are viewed by Beijing as a concession to Washington, to be granted or withheld according to short-term political considerations. A decade of dialogue has failed because China has so little stake in it. Two measures are needed to increase China’s investment in these talks.

First, human rights issues should be embedded in a broader discussion of social concerns important to both sides. Washington need not abandon its interest in political rights, but it should agree to discuss areas of economic and social rights which affect citizen-state relations as well. These include environmental protection, health care, and women’s rights, all of which attract growing citizen activism and advocacy in China. These additions will introduce a subtext of popular participation in policymaking. This expanded dialogue should be packaged as a Common Agenda, similar to discussions the United States holds with Japan, South Africa, and Ukraine on a range of social issues. Placing human rights in this broader context will also demonstrate American concern for ordinary Chinese citizens as well as for outspoken political activists.

Where possible, the human rights dialogue should also open a second track to include nongovernmental participants. China has expressed willingness to conduct NGO dialogues on human rights in the past, although Beijing likely intended these as substitutes for government discussion. In any track-two activity, the United States should not insist on perfect symmetry. China will want to involve intellectuals and groups who are closer to the state than their American counterparts. However, a dialogue promoting citizen links will help insulate human rights discussion from the hazards of official bilateral politics. A policy that supports indigenous trends toward openness will give both Chinese and Americans a greater stake in human rights cooperation and harbors a far greater chance of success.