For years, much criticism has been directed towards the United States for not doing enough to pressure China to address its human rights abuses. The New York Times noted in an article on July 26th that, “critics say that merely raising concerns with the Chinese government, as the United States does in this dialogue each year, is an exercise in diplomatic futility.” These abuses range from censorship of politically sensitive issues in all forms of printed and social media to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities as well as serious problems and lack of oversight in the judicial system. However, recently there have been promising signs that change may be on its way, but this change will take time and must come from within China, not from the external pressure of the United States.
China had a once-in-a-generation transfer of leadership in November of 2012 as Xi Jinping took over control of the Chinese Communist Party from his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Many human rights organizations within China as well as those working abroad judged Hu Jintao to have done very little in terms of efforts to advance human rights, citing in particular the abuse of religious rights of Tibetans during his tenure.
Numerous influential individuals within the country have attempted to capitalize on what they perceived as Xi’s openness to economic reform and determination to root out corruption in the party by calling for greater freedoms politically. Most notably, journalists and editors at Southern Weekly, a prominent national newspaper based in Guangzhou, held a strike after the propaganda authorities in Guangzhou’s province replaced a New Year editorial calling for full implementation of the clauses in China’s constitution with an editorial that glorified the party. The strike ended after the editors and the authorities reached a compromise where there would be less censorship in the future in exchange for a stop to public denouncements by the editors and journalists. This could be called a small victory as the newspaper managed to reassert its independence though censorship continues to exist.
Other newspapers and journals have done the same over the last two months, calling for the constitution to be respected but in a subtler, less critical fashion.
An open letter to the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was issued a few days ago by a group of notable intellectuals in China that included economists, activists and journalists. They observed that if steps towards reform were not taken, official corruption and general unhappiness in society could one day push the country towards a violent revolution. The Covenant has been ratified by 167 countries thus far.
This letter followed another issued by largely the same group of nations in December that asked for reform in the form of a judiciary that would possess complete independence as well as democratic change. Currently, the only democratic elections are on the village level as the Party vets candidates for higher positions.
The increased appeals by the intelligentsia has been complemented by a noteworthy increase in the use of social media by ordinary citizens to expose political and corporate scandals over the last year, forcing the party to take measures to be more transparent and to overhaul regulations to ensure safer products and more accountable officials.
Although initial expectations of reform may have fallen short, China looks primed to take a few small steps this year toward respecting more of its citizens’ human rights.
–Kevin Wu, ’16