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China’s White Paper on Human Rights: Progress or Regress?

On 13 April 2005, State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has released a White Paper entitled China’s Progress in Human Rights in 2004. The White Paper highlights China’s human rights improvement in six main areas: People’s rights to Subsistence and Development, Civil and Political Rights, Judicial Guarantee for Human Rights, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Equal Rights and Special Protection for Ethnic Minorities and the rights and interests of the disabled.

However, the findings and research of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) on China’s human rights record in Tibet stand in stark contrast to China’s claim of human rights progress in the White Paper. TCHRD record numerous human rights violations committed by the Chinese authorities in Tibet in 2004 and over the past many years. TCHRD, through its independent research and refugee testimonies, has gathered numerous information that reflects systematic and continued human rights violation of Tibetans right to political and civil liberties and socio-economic rights.

TCHRD considers the release and timing of PRC’s White Paper as yet another feature of its diplomatic scheme and political gimmick to fend off international criticism of its poor human rights records. Despite that fact that no member state had sponsored a resolution on China’s human rights records at this year’s 61st session of the United Nations’ High Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva, its poor human rights record was one of the major focus during the conference. Additionally, many human rights watchdogs have listed China as one of the most repressive regimes with a deplorable human rights record. Therefore, the White Paper only serves as a mere official rhetoric to enhance its international profile than a reflection of a real progress in human rights situation in China and in Tibet.

The human rights abuses of Tibetans in Tibet takes place in the context of denial of right to self-determination of the Tibetan people in civil and political rights as well as in economic, social and cultural rights. The PRC government has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1998, and signed and ratified International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1997 and 2001 respectively. Both these covenants guarantees the right to self-determination. Despite the establishment of the “Tibet Autonomous Region” (“TAR”) in 1965 and formulation of China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law in 1984, Tibetans in Tibet have had only nominal autonomy with no right to self-determination. Hence, the top-down approach employed by the PRC government in terms of policy decisions and implementation processes has lack of Tibetan participation and disregard of local concerns. All these factors results in human rights abuses of the Tibetan people.

The PRC has reiterated that “the people’s overall living standard and quality of life were improved considerably…” It is true that China injects funds and investments with a particular focus to develop its western region including Tibet. However, the much-hyped economic boom has failed to benefit the Tibetans and other ethnic minorities as Tibet still remains one of the poorest regions in China with huge income disparity between urban-rural populations. This fact is evidenced by reports of the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that lists Tibet along with 11 other provinces in western regions as the poorest and the most underdeveloped region in China. All the state-funded development projects have been targeted more on resource development such as railway and rods etc and less on human development such as education, health, employment and local participation. It is a fact that the stated assurance of development and progress has failed to reach the grassroots agro-nomadic Tibetans who constitutes more than 80 percent of the total population.

The Paper stated that, “the housing conditions and living environment for urban and rural residents have been improved considerably.” In the context of Tibet, urbanization only took place in major towns and cities that attracts huge influx of Chinese migrant workers and booming tourism. However, these had a far-reaching adverse consequence, as the planning and development of Tibet’s urban areas are one-sided. Chinese authorities under the pretext of development neglect and even destroy the ‘old’ urban areas where the majority of Tibetan lives. The evictions and the subsequent demolition of buildings not merely breaches the right to security or tenure, they also breaches the right to live in homes which are culturally adequate housing.

The PRC government affirms to have attached “…great importance to the health conditions of the people” by adopting effective measures “to prevent, treat and control serious epidemics.” Although China has one of the largest HIV cases in the world and concerns are great that the HIV/AIDS infection may soon spread to the rural population especially in the western remote areas where HIV/AIDS awareness are very low. To augment the existing threat of the HIV/AIDS spread in these areas, many commercial sex workers were gradually mushrooming around big towns and cities owing to rapid increase in migrant workers from China.

The PRC’s inclusion of “the state respect and safeguards human rights” in its constitution in March 2004, is hailed as a major event in the development of China’s democratic constitutionalism and an important milestone in human rights progress in China. It is indeed a positive indication that Beijing is attaching importance to the human rights aspects for the first time. However, having a proper enforcement mechanism to implement any provisions guaranteed under law is more important than a mere stipulation on paper.

Contrary to Beijing’s claim of guaranteeing its citizen’s civil and political rights, TCHRD has documented 146 known political prisoners in various Chinese administered prisons and detention centers in Tibet. Exercising freedom of expression, opinion and association are considered as dissent and separatist activities that endangers state security. In Tibet it is still a crime to express faith in the Dalai Lama through possession or display of his photos, conducting prayer ceremony or having a Tibetan national flag or political literature.

China’s “endangering state security” charge in its Criminal Procedure Law has ambiguous definition resulting in suppression of multiple legitimate rights of Tibetans. Under the banner of “Strike Hard” campaign and the global war against terrorism, China has clamp down on activities that supposedly threaten national stability. Many Tibetans have been arrested, detained, tortured and imprisoned by criminalizing their non-violent political activities.

The PRC maintain in its White Paper to protect by law its citizens’ freedom of information, speech and press. In reality, every publication and news goes through a sophisticated screening and with consent of the party before being published to general public. The general public have little knowledge about the outside world since the information inflow and outflow are strictly screened and monitored by the authorities. Most of the journals and media were state-owned where people were fed with news laden with official party ideologies and propagandas. The recent closure of Tibetan culture, a website ran by the Xueyu Zangren Cultural Exchange Co. Ltd in China’s northwest Gansu Province, subsequent disappearance of Tsewang Norbu, the editor-in-chief of the website and recent ban on book written by Woeser, a Tibetan woman writer, which the Chinese Communist Party considered as “serious political mistakes”, and information embargo in the form of radio jamming – are few of the cases which clearly highlights the lack of freedom of expression and freedom of press.

The PRC government asserts that its citizens enjoy the freedom of religious belief in accordance with law. The number of religious venue, renovation of monasteries and number of religious adherents does not signify true religion freedom. Beijing has inherent fear of inter linkage between Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama with that of Tibetan nationalism. For China social stability and national reunification are of paramount concern. Hence, Beijing has intensified anti-Dalai Lama campaign over the years through various restrictive measures such as “Patriotic re-education” campaign in Tibet’s religious institutions and ban on observance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, photos etc.

The “Patriotic re-education” campaign launched since 1996 required the clergies to study communist ideology, and to denounce the Dalai Lama; imposes restriction on the strength of monk community and generally intrudes into the traditional religious studies and practice through constant surveillance over curriculum and activities. Under this campaign 11, 383 monks and nuns have been expelled from monasteries and nunneries in the past eight years.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the XI th Panchen Lama recognized by the Dalai Lama in May 1995, continues to be disappeared for the last ten years and his whereabouts and well-being still unknown. In recent times, popular religious leaders in Tibet have faced persecution by Chinese authorities for their religious belief and political loyalty to the Dalai Lama. For instance, Trulku Tenzin Delek and Bangri Tsamtrul Rinpoche are currently serving life term after their suspended death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment; Chadrel Rinpoche is still under house arrest after release from prison; and Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was released after serving five-year prison term.

The PRC claims to have made efforts…”solve some outstanding problems in law enforcement…severely deal with criminal cases involving government functionaries’ infringement upon human rights by misusing their powers, focusing on cases of illegal detention and search, extorting confessions by torture, gather evidence with violence, abusing people in custody…’ Nevertheless, in Tibet, torture and ill treatment is endemic in every stage of the incarceration. It is commonplace for Tibetan detainees and arrestees to be subjected to torture and maltreatment in order to extort confessions and to crush nationalist sentiments. There have been many cases where ailing prisoners have been denied timely medical treatment. Since 1987 TCHRD has recorded 87 known cases of death of political prisoners while in custody or after release from prison due to torture.

Additionally the re-launched ‘Strike Hard’ campaign in Tibet have had serious human rights implications for the Tibetans since it indicates government tightening of control and excess misuse of power. The campaign is characterized by forceful crackdown, severe capital punishment and swift execution. The conduct of the Chinese police, procuratorate and judiciary consistently fails to meet international human rights standards. Moreover, officials in the criminal justice system consistently disregard the procedure under China’s own national laws, encouraged and facilitated by the authorities under this campaign.

In addition the White Paper has mentioned, “the judicial organs have adopted vigorous measures to prevent and contain extended detention.” TCHRD is concerned over the fate of Chadrel Rinpoche, the former Chairman of the Panchen Lama’s Reincarnation Search Committee and his closed aide, Champa Chungla. Both men are still under house arrest at an undisclosed location even after release from prison upon completing their prison terms.

Another highlight feature in the White Paper is PRC’s claim of “…development concept of putting people first…promoting all people’s participation in development…enhancing the level of people’s enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights.” Beijing’s Western Development Program (WDP) launched in 1999 to develop the western regions of China including Tibet are devoid of local people’s participation, involvement and concerns. The developmental projects initiated in Tibet do not respect the sentiment of the Tibetan people with regard to their land, culture and religious identity of the Tibetan people. Rather the continuous influx of Chinese migrants into Tibet to speed up the development process has resulted in discrimination, marginalization and livelihood problems for Tibetans in their own land.

The White Paper has also proclaimed to have “advanced with great strides” education in ethnic minorities areas. Though there were increase in the number of schools and educational institutes in Tibet over the years, education policies in Tibet are used as a means to indoctrinate communist ideologies. Chinese officials in the “TAR” display a striking and ominous trend to intensify the sinicization of Tibetans in Tibet through the targeting of Tibetan language. Chinese authorities have for some time linked Tibetan language to Tibetan nationalism, and thus to a propensity for “splittist” activities and students were even forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and taught in China’s version of Tibet history. By repressing the use or knowledge of Tibetan language and replacing it with Chinese language with its use both in commerce and administration, China hopes to erode Tibetan cultural identity and completely integrate the next generation of Tibetans into Chinese culture. Therefore, education imposed upon minorities violates the human rights when it denies their linguistic and religious identity. Furthermore, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Education, Ms. Katarina, has deplored that fact that the literacy rate in Tibet is only 39 percent and that the situation warrants redressal by the Beijing authorities.

The White Paper further stated, “by electing deputies to the NPC from their own ethnic groups, all ethnic minorities exercise the right to participate in the administration of state affairs…. The heads of all autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties are all citizens of the ethnic groups exercising regional autonomy in the areas concerned.” In fact, the most powerful and the highest official position in the TAR- the Party Secretary- has never been held by an ethnic Tibetan till date. Other representations at the governmental level are more nominal than functional with no decision making power.

Yet the recent personnel changes in the “TAR” on 29 September 2004 at the fourth meeting of the Eighth Standing Committee of the People’s Representative Congress of the “TAR” witnessed only nominal changes with no major overhaul. Apart from a few changes within the Congress itself and the People’s Government, most removals and replacements took place within the judiciary, affecting the Intermediary Courts and in particular the procuracy departments of all six prefectures of the “TAR”. The appointments reflect the current preference for Chinese over Tibetan cadres and illustrate Beijing’s present perception of regional autonomy as an exercise in integration rather than diversification.

Out of 13 appointees in the procuracy departments of the various TAR prefectures, only two are Tibetan cadres who appear to be replacing Chinese. At TAR level, only one Tibetan out of five appointees has made his way into the procuracy, where he appears to partially replace another Tibetan. In a similar way, out of the seven new appointees to various intermediate courts, only one is Tibetan.

In conclusion, the White Paper is only an attempt to avert international backlash on China’s poor human rights record and elevate its image and positioning in the international arena. TCHRD firmly believes that as long as the PRC government does not guarantee its citizens the right to self-determination, respect rule of law and human rights treaties, and usher and strengthen democratic reforms in China and in Tibet, it cannot claim real progress in human rights.

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