China

Talking about China’s human rights

 Written by Xu Ruike.

It is unsurprising that British journalists and commentators were obsessive in criticizing China’s human right records during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK last week. Their sincerity concerning human rights in China should not be questioned. But sincerity does not mean impartiality. Their viewpoints regarding the situation of China’s human rights are often biased, largely due to the fact that few of them have an objective and thorough understanding of the real situation within the country. It is no doubt that China still has a long way to go in improving its situation with respect to human rights. There are currently many problems. The Chinese government still has a lot work to do in dealing with this matter. But by and large, the human rights situation has been gradually improving over the past few decades.

It is a cliché to claim improvement of China’s human rights by referring to how many people have been lifted out of poverty. Economic progress does not necessarily improve the human rights situation. However, it is an indispensable precondition for improving human rights. Without satisfying basic needs, it is impossible for people to have a strong motivation to defend their human rights and to make efforts to improve the rights of others. In this regard, the Chinese government’s long-standing commitment to developing China’s economy has played an important part in creating favourable conditions for improving the human rights of the Chinese people. With the rapidly growing economy, Chinese society has become more dynamic and more tolerant. Chinese people, especially the younger generations, are increasingly vocal about defending their rights and also more enthusiastic in offering support to the disadvantaged groups in society. With the younger generations gaining more influence in society, China will most certainly improve its human rights in the future.

It is disappointing to see most of British journalists and commentators fail to make a balanced judgement on China’s human rights. They are inclined to criticise the Chinese government’s wrongdoings without realizing how much the Chinese government has done to help improve human rights in China. From their perspective, a communist government like like that in China cannot improve human rights because only democracies purportedly cherish human rights. Therefore, they habitually exaggerate any scandals of human right violations in China and invariably criticise the Chinese government for such wrongdoings. Whether they realize it or not, their pride in their country’s superiority in advocating and protecting human rights leads to prejudice regarding China’s human rights situation.

Improvement of human rights in any country is a long-term process. It takes time, patience and hard-work. No country has a perfect record of human rights. Britain today has a high standard in protecting human rights. However, the British government was recently accused of violating disabled people’s human rights because of its welfare reforms. British people are proud of their traditions of protecting human rights because of the Magna Carta heritage. But in the past, it was a human rights violator in the eyes of many countries.

For the Chinese people, Britain was once a notorious human rights violator when selling opium to the country and launching two wars against it. At this stage in time, ‘human rights’ was not a popular concept in the West. At that time, the European countries did not have any regard for human rights when they were busy in their colonial activities in other Continents. It was of course not a priority for the West to advocate human rights at that time. As many people in the West have argued, human rights are universal values throughout the world. Human rights should be universal across both space and time. Innocent Chinese people who suffered in the opium wars of course had their human rights. It may be too much to ask for an apology from the British government for its past wrongdoings during the opium wars, but the British journalists and commentators should be well aware of such a fact when criticising China’s human rights. They should realize that like Britain, China needs more time to improve its human rights.

Most British journalists and commentators are instinctively prone to sympathize with the so-called human right defenders for Tibetans and Uighurs.  They believe what the protestors say without questioning whether their demands truly represent the majority and without realizing that maybe these activists tell only one part of a story which intends to mislead people. Putting aside the question as to whether most Tibetans and Uighurs want independence, let’s face a more important question: will the Tibetans and Uighurs be really better off in terms of human rights if they achieve independence? There will not be a straightforward answer if taking a look at the current human rights situation in Iraq.

The situation in Tibet and Xinjiang is much more complicated than most people have imagined. Economic, social, religious and political problems merge together in a complex manner in these provinces. They cannot be solved overnight. Solving these problems will take a much longer time and requires constant effort. The Chinese government has been making tremendous efforts to support economic development of these two regions, albeit with variable levels of success. It should adjust its policies, making use of more soft power to deal with problems in Tibet and Xinjiang. Heavy-handed measures will only breed more hatred and hostility among the local people, thereby never achieving stability in these regions. But it is unjustified to claim that the Chinese government treats Tibetans and Uighurs as second class citizens. They are treated equally in China as the Han Chinese are. In terms of education, they enjoy more privileges than Han Chinese. In Chinese Universities, Han Chinese students get along well with Tibetan students and Uighur students.

China’s billions of pounds of investment will help boost Britain’s economy and create thousands of jobs for British people. It is shocking that Rosa Freedman alleges that China’s investment is blood money comparable to that of Congo’s blood diamonds. Make no mistake: the Chinese government does not use money to fund war against other countries. Such an allegation also disappoints millions of Chinese people who work hard to support their families just like any their British counterparts and who are the real driving force of China’s economic miracle. The Chinese government does not force people to work in order to build China’s economic might. Chinese people work hard simply because they want a better life and they want to create a better future for their children. There is indeed no difference between the Chinese and the British in this respect.

Undeniably, the Chinese government should do more to improve human rights in China. It should be more tolerant of political dissidents. Instead of silencing them, it should allow them to voice their opinions. It should be more confident that it has more to offer than the messages of the political dissidents and is therefore more capable of capturing the hearts and minds of most Chinese people. It should also give more freedom to social media. Otherwise, rumours can always find receptive ears. In addition, the Chinese government should make more effort to respect and protect the culture, values and religion of ethnic minorities. Otherwise, investment in economic development will only create more grievances and resistance. Also, it should take strong action to prevent local governments from confiscating farmers’ land in the name of local economic development. Losing the support of the farmers will weaken the foundation of its rule. Indeed, as President Xi Jinping points out, there is always room for improvement of human rights in China.

Xu Ruike has recently completed a PhD at the School of Politics and IR, University of Nottingham. Image Credit: CC by Ben G/flickr.

15 replies »

  1. “They are inclined to criticise the Chinese government’s wrongdoings without realizing how much the Chinese government has done to help improve human rights in China.”

    Namely, by limiting THEIR own abuses and (partially) ending THEIR own barbaric policies. There is nobody in China torturing or illegally detaining people except government authorities.

    Gosh, is this article for real? Shouldn’t this be an ACADEMIC blog?

    “China needs more time to improve its human rights.”

    You can improve respect for rights, not HR…

    “Their viewpoints regarding the situation of China’s human rights are often biased, largely due to the fact that few of them have an objective and thorough understanding of the real situation within the country. It is no doubt that China still has a long way to go in improving its situation with respect to human rights.”

    How about Tibetans and Uighurs complaining about the same? They also don’t get it, am I right? How about taking ONE of these “viewpoints” you generically mention and disproving it? There are hundreds of news reports, witnesses, studies etc etc. I would like the author to engage with ONE of them, if they can.

    There is not a single reference in the whole article about how the issues are actually treated by the scholars the author criticises, and why their studies and “viewpoints” are incorrect. “Just believe me, THEY are OFTEN wrong”. Because, you know,

    “Such an allegation also disappoints millions of Chinese people who work hard to support their families just like any their British counterparts and who are the real driving force of China’s economic miracle.” “The Chinese government does not force people to work in order to build China’s economic might. Chinese people work hard simply because they want a better life and they want to create a better future for their children.”

    Again, hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. Is this academic writing or the speech of a second-tier city politician?

    “It should be more confident that it has more to offer than the messages of the political dissidents and is therefore more capable of capturing the hearts and minds of most Chinese people.”

    If they are DISSIDENTS, then you should call the Chinese government with the corresponding English word: REGIME.

    “But it is unjustified to claim that the Chinese government treats Tibetans and Uighurs as second class citizens. They are treated equally in China as the Han Chinese are.”

    I really would like to see evidence of this.

  2. The freedom to put forward alternative points of view, and to debate opinions one doesn’t agree with, is one of the hallmarks of western academia. I interpret my remit as editor of this blog to put different opinions out there–if they are ‘wrong’ or ‘unedifying’, then readers have the freedom, indeed they are actively encouraged, to voice their dissent right here in the comments (or to send a rebuttal piece to me).

  3. I love this. It’s the old “China’s a big country and should be allowed to take centuries or so to discover human rights because I need any excuse to explain away why China is (in some respects) still living very much in the past, so screw you and your 21st century BS, I say my government should be allowed to kill dissidents for now and I’ll make any excuse for it.”

  4. Yes it’s good to be balanced, however, one would think that an academic publication would publish articles with academic standards. For example, even in the New SAT’s (a test that many universities in America requires) one needs to point out items in the written portion of the test that are “reasons”, “persuasive styles” and also “facts” and analyze them. However this article would fail that criteria. Here there are persuasive styles but almost no reasoning and zero facts. The author, having attained a PhD at Nottingham should therefore be able to provide more than a word-for-word plagiarism of old CCP propaganda lines and instead throw out some numbers, figures, and reasoning to tie those comparisons together to convince us. Just saying that we should believe him is frankly not good enough.

  5. “Economic progress does not necessarily improve the human rights situation. However, it is an indispensable precondition for improving human rights.”

    I am curious how the author explains parallel economic transition from centrally planned economy (and generally bad state of the economy) and transition from Communist dictatorship to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990s. Clearly, economic progress was not a precondition. Many of those countries had to go through painful and unpopular economic reforms in parallel to fast democratization.

    I will leave political views of the author aside (although I cannot help but consider constant reference to Britain’s past and claims that British journalist should consider Opium Wars first before they can criticise Chinese government human right record as a diversion*) but this one claim clearly ought to be supported better.

    That, and the position that China somehow needs more time to develop respect for human rights.

    *As Czech person, nation that had no role in Opium Wars, was not a colonial power, and spent good part of last 500 years under foreign rule, I consider China’s human rights record worth of the sharpest criticism possible. I know, it is all too complex and foreigner cannot possibly understand…

  6. A blog is not an ‘academic publication’. It is a platform for exchanging views. This blog is hosted by an academic institution and most of our contributors are academics. But it is first and foremost a place for sharing different opinions (often underpinned by academic research). If you disagree with the views of any piece, or if you want to demonstrate the deficiencies in an argument or an approach, write a comment or rebuttal. No one, least of all me, is saying you should believe anything you read prima facie.

  7. As the Editor of this blog, you should be praised for having posted a large number of very good articles espounding a plurality of views on the widest range of topics.

    However, this article does not meet the most basic standards of intellectual (not only academic) honesty and fails to deliver even the slightest informative value with regard to its topic. In addition, its condescending and unsubstantiated justification of gross HR abuses makes it morally repugnant. As a result, it lowers the level of the conversation on this blog.

  8. Dear Michal,

    Thanks for your comments. Indeed, there should be more evidence underpinning my claim over the relationship between economic progress and improvement of human rights. To clarify, I am neither an expert in human rights nor an expert in history of Central and Eastern Europe. I agree with you that economic progress is not a precondition for respect of human rights. But in my opinion, economic progress is an indispensable precondition for improving human rights in China. First, some human right problems have its root in poverty. In Tibet and Xinjiang, it is largely because of the widening gap between the rich (mostly Han Chinese) and the poor (mostly Tibetans or Uyghurs) that make problems in these two areas very hard to resolve. Not all problems in Tibet and Xinjiang are human right problems. I do not deny that Chinese government should adjust its policies, placing more weight to respect of local culture and religions. Chinese government should count on less heavy-handed measures to deal with problems in Tibet and Xinjiang.
    Second, with economic progress, Chinese society becomes more dynamic and tolerant. I think you agree with me that we cannot depend solely on the government to improve human rights. There should be constant pressure from civil society to force the government to change its policies on human rights. China’s civil society is becoming stronger in recent years because of China’s rapid economic development.
    Indeed, people in other countries are entitled to criticize China for its human right problems. But are China’s human right problems as serious as British media suggests? Has China made some progress in its improvement of human rights? Many journalists and commentators seem to think China has made no improvement in human rights. My judgement is that they overestimate human right problems and ignore improvement of human rights in China.

    Best,
    Ruike

  9. Dear Sean,

    Thanks for your comments. You are entitled to criticize my blog post. The purpose of writing it is mainly a response to Rosa Freedman’s piece titled ‘Britain sells out on human rights for Chinese investment’ in CPI blog (on 21st Oct.). I do not speak for Chinese government. What I have written is just my own opinion based my knowledge and experience as a Han Chinese. Your criticism is unjustified. I do not make any excuse for my government’s violations of human rights. Actually, I made some criticisms of my government’s policies regarding human rights.

    China will not need centuries to discover and value human rights. I have confidence that China will make a big improvement in its human rights in the coming decades, just like it has achieved huge economic progress in thirty years comparable to what Britain achieved in centuries. You do not need to be so emotional. We can exchange our ideas in a calm manner.

    Best,
    Ruike

  10. Dear Sean,

    This blog just reflects my opinion on China’s human rights. To be honest, I am not an expert in human rights. Some of my arguments may be improper, but they are not a word-for-word plagiarism of old CCP propaganda lines. If you think my blog post fails the standards of scholarship, you should criticize me in a scholarly way.

    Best,
    Ruike

  11. Dear JS,

    Thanks for your detailed comments. To clarify, my purpose of writing this blog post is mainly a response to Rosa Freedman’s piece titled ‘Britain sells out on human rights for Chinese investment’ in CPI blog (on 21st Oct.). She criticized British government’s violation of human rights in some cases. But I do not think some of her criticisms of China’s human right records are justified. I do not defend Chinese government for its violation of human rights in some cases. Actually, I criticized some of its policies in my blog post. I think it would be better if British media takes a more balanced attitude towards China’s human rights.

    I agree with you that Chinese government should adjust some of its policies, putting more weight to the respect of human rights. Based on knowledge and experience as a native Han Chinese, I think Chinese people, especially the younger generation, are increasingly aware of human rights in recent years. Chinese people is having more respect for human rights.

    I am not an expert on human rights. Maybe the Tibetans and Uighurs to which you refer complained the same about their sufferings. But it does not necessarily mean that their opinion can represent opinion of a majority of Tibetans and Uighurs who live in Tibet and Xiniiang. I do not have data to prove my point. But statistically, their viewpoints may to some extent be biased and therefore fail to represent mainstream opinion of Tibetans and Uighurs living in China. You cannot deny such a possibility. Can you tell me how many news reports, witnesses and studies take into account opinion of Tibetans and Uighurs living in China? I bet there won’t be many.

    You are right to point out that my blog does not include any reference. I should add some. But you can without difficulty find many when goggling the keywords. My arguments are based on my own life experience. In China, students who are ethnic minorities (including Tibetans and Uighurs) have some privileges in college admissions. They enjoy a bonus of 10 scores in the national exam, making them have a comparative advantage over Han Chinese students. As a result, they have more opportunities to go to University. They are not treated unequally in Chinese Universities. Tibetan and Uighur students live together with Han Chinese students. They play football with Han Chinese. Uyghur students can go to Muslim dinning halls to enjoy their meals. In every Chinese University, there are some Muslim dinning halls catering for Muslim students. Some of my Han Chinese friends went to work in Tibet for five years as civil servants after finishing their college education. Some of them work in the poorest towns of Tibet, helping local Tibetans to improve their life. They get along well with local Tibetans. So in my judgement, Tibetans and Uighurs are not second-class citizens in China. There are no solid evidences demonstrating Chinese government systematically discriminate Tibetans and Uighurs in terms of culture and religion.

    Best,
    Ruike

  12. “But statistically, their viewpoints may to some extent be biased and therefore fail to represent mainstream opinion of Tibetans and Uighurs living in China. You cannot deny such a possibility.”

    Oh yes, I can.
    Don’t let me even start about the education system: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02634930701517482
    Or salary/work discrimination:
    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=6&fid=8626993&jid=CQY&volumeId=210&issueId=-1&aid=8626992&bodyId=&membershipNumber=&societyETOCSession=&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0305741012000410

    One question:

    中国共产党新疆维吾尔自治区委员会
    主要领导人(自治区党委书记)
    中共中央新疆分局书记
    王震(1949-1950)
    中共中央新疆分局第一书记
    王震(1950-1952)
    王恩茂(1952-1955)
    中共新疆维吾尔自治区委员会第一书记
    王恩茂(1955-1966)
    中共新疆维吾尔自治区革命委员会核心小组组长
    龙书金(1970-1971)
    中共新疆维吾尔自治区委员会第一书记
    龙书金(1971-1972)
    赛福鼎·艾则孜(代理)(1972-1973)
    赛福鼎·艾则孜(1973-1978)
    汪锋(1978-1981)
    王恩茂(1981-1985)
    中共新疆维吾尔自治区委员会书记
    宋汉良(1985-1995)
    王乐泉(1994-2010)
    张春贤(2010-)

    How many of these were Uighurs or even born in Xinjiang?

    中国共产党新疆维吾尔自治区第八届委员会委员名单 = 46 Han and a very few other non-Xinjiang people, 23 Xinjiang minorities incl. Uighurs (while population: 45.84% Uyghur, 40.48% Han, 14% other).

    And this is just Xinjiang. Want me to start with Tibet?

  13. This whole thing is absurd, here are the reasons why:

    First of all the actual problem is that there is no tangible improvements in human rights in China. Taking a test and moving from 15% to 16% is still failure. We present the same kind of criticism for problems in the West too, there should not be a “Well the West should not have a right to criticize the East and vice versa” when criticism is valid all around.

    What we do have is an army of apologists for the Chinese state. I don’t know if it’s because China has a thumb over their citizens to do so, but even Mencius has a tale about how a thief should stop immediately, not prattle on about how he’ll gently curb back his thieving, once caught. It’s kind of the same here right? China is caught red handed being poor with human rights, they should improve. Instead we have apologists that make arguments that can be distilled down to “Okay it is great that China has made negligible improvements in human rights, it could be better, but criticism should stop now.” followed by complaints as if these papers didn’t also criticize their own governments.

    Finally, saying one is not an expert on human rights is a cop out. I am not an expert on breathing either (I can’t swim or hold my breath for very long) but I know to do it. I don’t see why human rights needs expertise to know what it is, and I don’t think it requires a lot of expertise for the Chinese government to not execute or torture people. I’m totally basing this on anecdotal evidence, but one should be able to easily know that it is not right to unjustly harm your fellow individual under any interests, even state interests. Why this is so difficult when it comes to China and that this somehow requires endless excuses or exceptional-ism really boggles the mind. Unless one can systematically and convincingly argue that somehow Chinese people are genetically incapable of understanding what human rights is, there really isn’t any good humanistic excuse for why we have all these apologists for the blatant abuses the Chinese government enacts on its own citizens.

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