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China's Human Rights Puzzle

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies
January 27, 2011

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During his recent summit meeting with President Barack Obama and his meetings with congressional leaders earlier this month, Chinese President Hu Jintao was pressed on human rights issues. CFR expert Jerome A. Cohen says it's possible that if public pressure is sufficient, Hu's successor, Xi Jinping, will be more amenable to improving the human rights situation when he becomes president in 2012. Cohen says that despite the much improved economic situation in China, the gap between rich and poor is growing and pressure for democratic change is coming from the "uprooted." The huge gap between rich and poor "is spreading discontent," says Cohen. "Some leader is going to have to do more than improve objective economic and social conditions."

President Obama raised the issue of human rights during the just-concluded summit with President Hu. What was your sense of the importance of this, and was anything accomplished?

Of all the many important subjects that they discussed, human rights got a great deal of attention, but without much hope for significant progress. When you think of the Korean peninsula and Iran and military-to-military cooperation and climate control--all the many subjects mentioned in this forty-one-point joint statement that the two sides released--probably human rights got the least weight. Even though human rights received a great deal of attention beforehand, and it got a huge amount of publicity and concern from the American media, it doesn't amount to that much.

Were there any agreements on human rights?

They agreed they would have another session of the dialogue between the governments on human rights, and they finally put a date on it. This meeting was called for at the last summit in November 2009 but never scheduled. The dialogue has now been set for before the next round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue scheduled for May. Secondly, they say there will be another round of the Legal Experts dialogue on human rights, which will occur before the human rights dialogue.

Do you expect any real progress?

These discussions are, at best, of only modest significance. China loves to have human rights dialogues, and it's a way of letting the democratic countries show their constituents that they are sincerely trying to move China down the path of human rights, but not much really comes out of these sessions.

As you noted, not only do the Chinese have these talks with Western countries, but didn't they in fact issue their own human rights agenda?

They have a National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) for 2009-2010 that was announced in 2009. Human Rights Watch just offered a very good critique (PDF) of that program. That program was stimulated by China's participation in the UN human rights proceedings. The UN recommends that every country should state what its goals are in human rights, and what the problems and achievements are. As the HRW report shows, the NHRAP is more words than deeds.

When you hear statements being made by Hu that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights" and that China is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights, and has made enormous progress, what human rights is he really talking about?

Didn't President Hu say in his press conference with Obama that China had "work to do on human rights?"

People are looking for some symbols of progress in China's commitment. What he said hit the spots of a very general question. He should have been asked very specific questions about human rights. He should have been asked: "What have you done with the nation's greatest human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng (WSJ), who has been disappeared for an obscene amount of time? Have you killed him?" Something like that might have gotten a reasonable response, instead of just blather. But they gave him puff questions, and he finally got around to answering (WSJ).

What has happened to human rights in China over the past thirty years?

Before the communist victory over the entire country in 1949, there was a civil war. [In] the 1940s when Kuomintang [Nationalist China] was in control, the Communists who were being harassed by the government knew how to use the term human rights, and they knew what it meant in the sense we use it. They meant they were being denied their political and civil rights. They were being denied fair justice.

But once the Communists took over in 1949, the term "human rights" was out of action. And it has only come back into action in the last fifteen, twenty years or so as China began to join the world community in a meaningful way. China ratified the Convention against Torture in 1988. That was at the height of what appeared a liberal trend within the Communist leadership under Zhao Ziyang, who was then the head of the party and government. He got tossed out in May 1989, just before the shooting started in Tienanmen Square on June 3-4. He was replaced by Li Peng. And that ended the liberal era.

Zhao Ziyang thought the party should keep out of court cases. For example, they shouldn't try to dictate how a court trial should come out, whether somebody should be found guilty or punished. He felt the party should just set policy. But he never succeeded; the more conservative group came to power after May 1989, and we haven't heard much about those legal reforms since.

So when you hear statements being made at the White House press conference by Hu that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights" and that China is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights, and has made enormous progress, what human rights is he really talking about? On the one hand, Chinese officials are always saying, "We recognize human rights. We adhere to many human rights international documents. On the other hand, we have to take into account how they'll be interpreted in light of our own history, culture, government--different from yours. And besides, there must never be interference in the affairs of other countries."

When China commits itself formally to do away with torture, which is specifically defined in the torture convention, and then still has torture throughout the country in a very serious way, is it interference in the internal affairs of China when other countries call China on it? That's nonsense. China has made an international commitment. If torture is forbidden in China and other governments point this out, they're not interfering in China's internal affairs. They're dealing with an external affair to which China, through its sovereignty, has committed itself.

What other documents have the Chinese signed?

They still haven't ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. They signed it in 1998.

We all know prospects are not good for any immediate ratification. But it has ratified other human rights documents. Torture is the most relevant to the administration of justice. But China also ratified, I think in 2001, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and it started reporting on that. It's got a lot of problems implementing that.

You have to listen to what they're saying. Hu said, for example, "We will continue our efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people." That's certainly true. "And we will continue our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in our country." Democracy? What have they done for democracy? And then they say, "every country is free to decide its own view of what human rights means." Are the Chinese people free to decide what to do about China? China is repressing their human rights, denying them their freedom. That's how they interpret democracy.

If torture is forbidden in China and other governments point this out, they're not interfering in China's internal affairs. They're dealing with an external affair to which China, through its sovereignty, has committed itself.

Isn't rule of law is making some progress?

Formally. But in implementation? It's very gradual. In the last three years, the Hu regime has been going backwards.

Is there any likelihood that when Hu leaves office in 2012, the new president, Xi Jinping, will be any different?

In the Communist system, you don't know until the guy gets to the top what he really is thinking or is going to do. Nobody knew what [former Communist Party leader and premier] Nikita Khrushchev would do in 1956 at the Soviet Party Congress. He'd been a running dog of Stalin. We didn't know he hated him. And he introduced de-Stalinization. Nobody knew what [former party leader] Mikhail Gorbachev would do, even though he was a law school graduate. He certainly didn't get to the top by giving people a platform of human rights reform.

The New York Times had the front page biography of Xi Jinping. You could say there are signs in his career that he wants to liberalize the repressive communist regime. He supported Hu Yaobang, the party general secretary who got thrown out in 1987, and whose death in April 1989 may have helped cause the demonstrations and the shootings which took place that June. This man is very cautious. He's smart. He's had a better education than engineers who've been running the Politburo. His number two, Li Keqiang, is a graduate of Peking University Law School. The first law school graduate to get to the Politburo.

What will these guys do? In their careers to date, they give very little basis for hope that they're secret human rights advocates. But they know better than we of the corruption, the deprivations, and all the repression carried out by the government. Two years from now, will popular pressure be such in China that they're going to say, "Well, it's time. We better recognize human rights in a meaningful way. We better really try to get the police and their thugs under control because this is offending too many of our own people"?

Is there pressure for more human rights in China?

Yes, but it's not coming from the rising bourgeoisie as it did in the West. It's coming from the uprooted, the people who haven't got the money. They aren't the entrepreneurs. They aren't admitted into the party, most of them. They have to rely on law to protect themselves. More and more these people are the ones who take part in all these protests that have to be put down. And we only learn about some of them.

There's a lot happening in China. The elite are doing better and better. The middle class is developing. But the majority of people are feeling relatively prejudiced against, discriminated against, unfairly treated. The gap between rich and poor is huge. All of this is spreading discontent. Some leader is going to have to do more than improve objective economic and social conditions.

Some day, somebody at the top is going to see the opportunity to do something for them the way Zhu Rongji, the former prime minister who was the economic reformer, saw the need to take the lead and force the reforming of the state-owned enterprises. But so far, nobody has come forward to do it on human rights.

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