Human Rights in China (9/24/2010)

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has had a very painful history when it comes to human rights. The PRC has only recently accepted any responsibility to conform to international human rights norms and law. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948, China was in the middle of the civil war, and it was the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek who signed it, not the PRC that would soon be established. It was not until 1997 that China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights (which was ratified four years later);1 in 1998 that China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the PRC has still not ratified). 2 These more recent steps show that the PRC has partially recognized human rights issues as a policy priority. Whether they will allow real reform or are just posturing to fit into today’s increasingly globalized world remains an open question.

The political structure of the PRC contributes to its human rights issues. The PRC seeks to control all “political content of print media, jam some foreign radio broadcasts, and censor internet sites… and email.”3 Without a press that is free to report human rights violations, there will be no end to suffering in China. For example, instead of addressing the problems of the ‘black jails’ that local officials use to imprison and intimidate those attempting to petition for grievances, China quashes the stories of abuses and uses its state-controlled media to deny that such jails even exist: “Things like this don’t exist in China. China is a country with the rule of law, and everything is handled according to the law.” 4 Progress made in passing human rights legislation, such as the prohibitions on torture and requiring video tape of police interrogations (which took effect in 2006) mean little if the laws and treaty commitments made by China are never actually implemented into a consistent and impartial application of the rule of law.

The PRC has emphasized economic growth over political freedom, presumably based on a belief that their control will be unchallenged if they can maintain economic development. Mahatma Gandhi said of the masses of India: “They have no political consciousness of the type our politicians desire. Their politics are confined to bread and salt.” 5 The same philosophy was boiled down to four words in American politics: “it’s the economy, stupid!” Such thinking seems to be the basis of policy in the PRC. The Congressional Research Service noted that since 2000, “political and religious persecution have increased, the leadership remains a dictatorship, and that economic development has strengthened rather than weakened the Communist government,” and specifically gave Tibet as an example of how Beijing is trying to use economic development to buy loyalty instead of focusing on political, social, and religious grievances. 6

Some change is coming in China, from the influence of both state and non-state actors. In August 2008, Zhang Chunxian, then a provincial Communist Party Secretary, said that China’s reform efforts should focus on political reform instead of economic priorities. 7 That same year, human rights activists within China signed a document called Charter 08 that called for “an end to one party authoritarian rule… an electoral democracy, under the rule of law, with equality… and protected freedoms of speech and expression.” The document has sparked a great deal of discussion inside of China, and also provoked the arrest of several of its authors. 8

Political change in China is much more likely to come as a gradual process than through a sudden revolution. The Chinese government greatly fears social unrest, and puts stability above all other priorities. In a personal interview, a Chinese exchange student stated that the Chinese in general tend to accept strict government control because they fear the chaos that could result from uncontrolled crowds in China’s vast cities. The Congressional Research Service confirmed that many social groups “value incremental over dramatic social change,” and that they fear the chaos that has plagued post-communist countries throughout the world. 9

The social structure of China contributes to its human rights problems, because it is home to many religious and ethnic minorities that the PRC fears could try to subvert state power. Amnesty International reported that Christian officials have been specifically targeted by the PRC, and gave Han Dingxiang, a Catholic bishop who died in prison after 20 years of confinement as a specific example. 10 China has no diplomatic ties with the Vatican because it refuses to allow the Vatican the authority to appoint bishops without approval from the Chinese government, and many unregistered churches have been harassed and its members imprisoned for practicing their religion. 11 Separatism in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region has also been a source of conflict and oppression. Religious tensions in Tibet have been sufficient to prompt the PRC to require a permit for reincarnation of Buddhist monks to prevent the Tibetans from being able to name their own religious successors. 12

With pressure from international actors, actors within the apparatus of the State itself, and elements among the Chinese people all pushing for greater freedom in China, change will come, but it will come very slowly until the People’s Republic of China accepts the ideal given by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Without openness, transparency, and a press that is free to criticize government policy and report human rights violations without fear of censorship, intimidation, and arrest, the injustices that come from systematic corruption of local officials will continue. The central government may pass laws to protect all the human rights of the Chinese people, but without the free flow of information, the rule of law will remain only a lofty principle, not a reality for the common citizens of the People’s Republic of China.


1. United Nations Treaty Collection, “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” (accessed September 24, 2010).

2. United Nations Treaty Collection, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” (accessed September 24, 2010).

3. Thomas Lum and Hannah Fisher, “Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications,” Congressional Research Service, (accessed September 24, 2010).

4. Al-Jazeera, “China’s ‘black jails’ uncovered,” (accessed September 24, 2010).

5. Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi: Selected political writings, ed. Dennis Dalton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996), 143.

6. Thomas Lum and Hannah Fisher, “Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications,” Congressional Research Service, (accessed September 24, 2010), 1, 16.

7. Ibid, 9.

8. Jonathan Adams, “Charter 08 worries China,” Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2009, (accessed September 24, 2010).

9. Thomas Lum and Hannah Fisher, “Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications,” Congressional Research Service, (accessed September 24, 2010), 23-24.

10. Amnesty International USA. “2008 Annual Report for China.” Obtained from APUS online classroom.

11. Thomas Lum and Hannah Fisher, “Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications,” Congressional Research Service, (accessed September 24, 2010), 14.

12.Matthew Philips, “China Regulates Buddhist Reincarnation,” Newsweek,, August 20, 2007 (accessed September 26, 2010).

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