China’s state-run Xinhua news service brings the joyous news that China’s State Council Information Office has declared China is making “remarkable progress” on human rights.
Xinhua declares China “has opened a new era of human rights protection” and is now “contributing to the diversity of human civilization and providing Chinese wisdom and solutions to promote social progress.” Indeed, people from Australia to America have noticed just how vigorously Beijing is “providing Chinese wisdom and solutions to promote social progress” these days!
Among the achievements in classical liberalism outlined by the Chinese white paper are the abolition of nine death penalty charges, a two-year reprieve for those who do end up on death row, amnesty for four types of criminals, an anti-domestic violence law, and an “institutional cage” for the exercise of administrative power to “protect the people’s legitimate rights and interests.” Administrative approval is no longer required for a whopping 618 activities.
“China has enhanced judicial protection of human rights. Efforts to prevent and correct wrongful convictions had seen the correction of 37 major cases of miscarriage of justice involving 61 people, and the acquittal of 4,032 defendants as per the law from 2013 to 2017,” the report states.
No doubt that that is good news for the 61 people who no longer have to suffer from miscarriages of justice, but those do not seem like very large numbers for a nation of 1.3 billion, about 1.5 million of whom are currently in jail. For the record, the United States has the largest prison population at 2.2 million.
A good deal of the white paper hailed by Xinhua concerns battling corruption, which is a major theme of President Xi Jinping’s rule. The paper boasts of how 440 Communist Party officials have been investigated, and the equivalent of $1.5 billion in assets recovered.
Outside observers are considerably less enthusiastic about China’s progress on human rights.
Human Rights Watch, for example, glumly predicts “the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion remains dire” under President Xi.
HRW does give China credit for “modest improvements” in 2016, some of which dovetail with the Chinese white paper’s triumphalism about reforms to the legal system, and even a few Beijing seems less eager to congratulate itself for, such as fairer treatment for discrimination cases brought by LGBT individuals.
“But such developments pale in comparison to the government’s systematic efforts to silence independent civil society voices, its passage of abusive new laws, and a highly politicized anti-corruption campaign that is further undermining an already weak judicial system,” the Human Rights Watch report adds.
Secret detentions, smear campaigns against the accused, and efforts to intimidate those who ask too many questions are still the order of the day. Some of the worst abuses are directed at human rights activists, not all of them Chinese, which is not a good look for a government intent on celebrating major steps forward in human rights. HRW worries that President Xi’s drive to centralize power and stamp out “subversion” will lead to further oppression, given how easily anyone inconvenient to the state can be labeled a subversive.
China still leads the world in executions and refuses to admit just how many it is carrying out. Minorities such as the Uighurs and Tibetans are repressed. Worst of all, free speech is more suppressed than ever in China, through control of the Internet and the electronic surveillance of citizens.
A sobering development was revealed at a U.S. congressional commission on Chinese authoritarianism on Wednesday. Shanthi Kalathil of the National Endowment for Democracy pointed out that the legendary “Great Firewall of China” is not only an instrument for suppressing speech, but a surveillance system directed at Chinese internet users.
Kalathil cited reports that China is already monitored by 170 million CCTV cameras, and another 400 million are coming in the next three years.
This week, Human Rights Watch noted that China’s health program for the Uighur Muslim population of Xinjiang province includes “collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types” for everyone from 12 to 65 years of age, to provide biodata for the government’s pervasive surveillance system.
“It is unclear if the participants of the physicals are informed of the authorities’ intention to collect, store, or use sensitive DNA data,” HRW said. “There is no indication that people can opt out of the collection, or any requirement of informed consent.”
“Government authorities can now identify citizens on the street through facial recognition, monitor all online behavior, and identify potential—or even future—dissenters and ‘troublemakers,’” she said.
Amnesty International warns that China’s relentless campaign against freedom of religion continues in parallel with its suppression of speech, pointing to the suppression of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners, and Christian house churches. China’s heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong politics is also cited in Amnesty’s report.
AI joins Human Rights Watch in complaining that the Chinese government controls or suppresses the information necessary to evaluate whether it is actually making progress in areas such as incarceration and execution. Considering that writing blog posts or giving interviews to Western newspapers can still land Chinese dissidents in prison, it is wise to be skeptical of Beijing’s boasts about legal reforms and civil liberties.
Some observers may be wary of coming down too hard on China after signs of modest progress, even when the Chinese government takes to patting itself on the back for making breathtaking progress and becoming the envy of the world. Progress is fragile, and the Chinese government responds badly to perceived insults, as any of the imprisoned human rights activists could tell you.