Last week, the Information Office of the State Council, or China’s Cabinet, issued a white paper on “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2012”[i] as a part of its propaganda activity for the upcoming Universal Periodic Review later this year. Unsurprisingly, the white paper praised Chinese progress in human rights—pointing almost exclusively to the benefits of China’s continued economic development. However, behind the self-congratulatory praise and statistics lie China’s underlying philosophy of human rights, which fundamentally misunderstands the international human rights system. China’s white paper is oblivious to the indivisible and universal nature of human rights, and that guaranteeing human rights requires action and not just mere hollow proclamations.
According to the white paper, human rights are divisible and unrelated by treating economic development and the corresponding rights as supreme. The first section of the white paper concerns “Human Rights in Economic Construction” and states that, “it would be impossible to protect people’s rights and interests without first developing the economy to feed and clothe the people.” Rhetoric from China concerning the importance of economic development before even addressing civil and political rights is not new. During the Cold War both capitalist and communist states frequently advocated for either civil and political right or economic, social and cultural rights and ignored the other. This division was a political tool and never accurately described the international human rights system or the philosophy of human rights.
By stating that sustenance is necessary before any other rights can be addressed only recognises half of the human rights system and falls into the false choice of Cold War rhetoric. It is true that the right to sustenance is necessary for the enjoyment of other human rights—but that is not unique to economic rights, as China claims. If people are tortured or killed it does not make much difference if their stomachs were full at the time their rights were violated. It is likewise impossible for them to exercise other human rights if they are arbitrarily arrested or beaten.[ii] Despite the fact that majority of 117 self-immolation occurred in 2012, the white paper maintains a stony silence on the issue, as Chinese authorities continue to publicly and secretly detain, arrest, torture and sentence Tibetans over alleged connections to the instigation and incitement of self-immolation. Failing to recognise that non-economic rights are necessary to the achievement of all human rights ignores the indivisibility of human rights upon which the international human rights system is based. A state may not pick and choose which human rights to address and which to ignore, yet the white paper appears to suggest that China may do exactly that. This is particularly disturbing, as China is the primary human rights defender for 1.3 billion people who literally live and die by how the Chinese government views and applies human rights.
Furthermore, the white paper takes the concept of economic development to extreme well beyond merely feeding and clothing the people. The international human rights documents list the rights that are necessary for people to live with dignity. People who lack sustenance or personal security must assert their rights whereas one who has sustenance and personal security rarely needs to think about the rights they objectively enjoy. Despite this, the white paper uses examples of people who objectively enjoy their rights and ignores those who actively assert their rights. For examples of economic and cultural progress the white paper mentions good things that are not human rights such as private international travel abroad, car ownership, disposable income, online gaming, and sports facilities. In contrast, there is no mention of the needs of the most vulnerable, such as the growing debt burden for resettled Tibetan Nomads, Tibetans receiving less pay for the same work as Chinese, or the prevalent abuse of prisoners. The white paper implies that in China, human rights exist only for the wealthy, who can use their money to travel abroad and buy cars, and not for the poor and vulnerable in society. China fails to recognise that human rights are universal and must apply to all people, regardless of their wealth or political influence.
The white paper treats human rights as abstractions without any real substance by equating proclamations supporting human rights with progress. However, human rights are not implemented through abstract values, aspirations, or proclamations. Human rights are implemented through specific practices that actually work to guarantee the rights provided for in the human rights conventions. Therefore, the statistics of the number of schools built throughout China provided by the white paper are meaningless without knowing how many children are actually attending school. Similarly, the number of laws and administrative regulations China has passed is meaningless if the laws are not enforced. In China, there are two different types of Chinese law: the law-in-the-books and the law-in-action.[iii] The white paper only focuses on the law-in-the-books and accordingly fails to actually discuss human rights issues. For example, Chinese law prohibits torture yet Chinese guards routinely torture prisoners and face no consequences for violating Chinese law, as demonstrated by the fact that there is no effort to hide bruises or broken bones caused by torture. The Chinese law in the book supports human rights but without action, it is just as meaningless as any other Chinese law or proclamation. If China were serious about addressing human rights, the white paper would have included instances of torturers being punished. At the very least, China could allow independent bodies, such as the International Commission for the Red Cross, to visit prisons. Instead, the white paper equates progress with promises.
Even when China passes laws related to human rights, it is unclear whether they actually improve human rights. For example, the white paper proudly proclaims that China proactively administers the religious sector. When the State attempts to control religion by approving certain religions and religious practices, it is little consolation that the restriction was done through the law.
The most troubling aspect of the white paper its the underlying philosophy. The white paper operates on the assumption that human rights are divisible and more important for the wealthy than the poor and marginalized. It further attempts to obscure the fact that human rights are practical and require effective implementation not just on the books but in action as well. The understanding of human rights that the white paper presents is not only dated, but also incompatible with the human rights system. Until China is able to address this issue, any changes in its actual human rights performance will be primarily superficial. In the upcoming periodic review, states should address China’s fundamental misunderstanding of the human rights system and demand actual reform in how China understands and applies human rights.
[i] Full Text: Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2012, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2013-05/14/c_132380706.htm
[ii] 2012 Annual Report: Human Rights Situation in Tibet, http://tchrd.org/newsite/2013/01/tchrd-releases-2012-annual-report-on-human-rights-situation-in-tibet/
[iii] See for example Albert HY Chen, An introduction to the Legal System of the People’s Republic of China (3rd ed. 2004)