China's Human Rights

According to Colin Mackerras, in his book Western Images of China, ‘the preoccupation of Western images with matters concerned with human rights and dissidents gained an added emphasis at just the same time that the general standard of livelihood of the Chinese people rose to an extent unprecedented in China’s history. This is not to deny the existence of human rights issues, but the focus they received in the Western media was both ironic and unwarranted by comparison with the improvements.’1

Randall Peerenboom, in his book China Modernizes, accounts for this irony by suggesting that the constant negative reporting on China by the Western media reflects a long-standing ‘bias against nonliberal democratic regimes,’2 noting that ‘UN resolutions for systematic government violations of human rights have overwhelmingly been meted out against a handful of non-democratic developing countries with poor civil and political rights records, even though they may do relatively better on other human rights measures and indicators of well-being, including physical integrity violations.’3 In 2002 for example, China, which received a Level 4 rating on the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International devised Political Terror Scale, was targeted for criticism for systematic human rights violations, while only Afghanistan among the eight countries with the worst Political Terror Scale rating of 5 was targeted. China was one of only four countries with a Level 4 rating to be targeted for systematic violations, and even though at the time there were twenty-two countries with a Level 4 rating – almost half of them democracies – the only four countries targeted were non-democracies.4

China’s rise certainly is seen as an ideological threat, as John Lee makes clear in his book, Will China Fail? ‘The China question presents a moral challenge, not just a strategic one,’ he writes. ‘China does not seek to explicitly defeat the West but to legitimately take its place as one of the genuinely great powers. However, its regime seeks to do so armed with a moral and political reasoning that is at odds with the freedom and restraints on governments in the West.’5  This is also the view of Hong Kong’s former governor, Chris Pattern, who believes that China’s economic success promotes the idea that nation states can develop and ‘get rich’ without the need for democracy – an idea that he claims is very threatening to the West, since this would allow for a restructuring of global culture by emboldening and inspiring actors in other developing countries throughout the world to restore authoritarian rule.6 Western cultural values and institutions would consequently be decentred, no longer regarded as universal, but as Western. The rules of political and economic engagement would therefore cease to privilege the nation states of the developed West. Those who see the ‘writing on the wall’, as Will Hutton does, prefer to imagine instead a China that is so unsustainable and full of contradiction, that it is destined for collapse.

But as Daniel Bell very wisely suggests, ‘Western-style liberal democrats should tolerate, if not respect, areas of justifiable difference.’7 Yet it is only by absorbing ourselves into the Chinese mind, into the Chinese way of seeing and doing things, that we will be able to recognise and to appreciate such ‘justifiable differences’ – thereby enabling us to make more rational, more reasoned, more enlightened judgements about the present human rights situation in China.

It is important to keep in mind the fact that the Chinese view human rights a little differently from most Westerners, and that’s not because they are inherently somehow less moral, but because their material realities and modes of living and relating to one another, as embodied by the Confucian culture, result in a different psychology and hence a different mix of values from ours.

‘One only needs to recall that the very concept of “rights” is a Western product,’ as Dingding Chen (a political scientist from the University of Chicago) points out in Understanding China’s Human Rights Policy: The Limits of International Norms. This concept is absent from the traditional Chinese philosophy and culture, which ‘emphasises duties to the ruler, responsibility to society and obligations to the community as the very basis of the social harmony and order. For more than a century, it has been the Chinese’s dream to build a “wealthy and powerful” state, and this way of thinking has been deeply rooted in the minds of virtually every Chinese person and forms a powerful discursive structure within which human rights policies are formulated.’8

This dream of ‘building a wealthy and powerful state’ has at least two implications for China’s human rights understandings. ‘First,’ to quote Chen, ‘there is a strong utilitarian element in the conception of human rights. Rights are not protected for the sake of rights, rather, the protection is based upon the benefits it will produce. Naturally, economic rights are placed before civil and political rights since the latter cannot produce immediate benefits for society as a whole. Secondly, national rights are placed before individual rights.’9

‘The Government is justified in setting aside individual rights if it means that the collective good is promoted,’ argued one post-graduate student from Peking University, the New Internationalist’s Chris Richards reported, and ‘this is a feeling that is still prominent.’10

In short, the Chinese conceptualise human rights as being more collective in nature than individual, more social and economic than civil and political, more needs-based than rights-entitled, and more duties-oriented than rights-centered – and such values are consistent with the dominant tradition of Confucian humanism. Placed in these cultural and historical contexts, it becomes much easier to understand why the Chinese government has put so much emphasis on national development and economic rights. As Chen says, ‘it is not so much that the Chinese government uses developmentalism as an instrument to deflect international criticism, although this might be part of the reason. The more fundamental reason is that they indeed think this way, and their thinking is largely shaped by traditional Chinese culture.’11

Much can be learnt about the Chinese conceptualisation of human rights by examining for example, the motivations behind the implementation of the household registration system (hukou), which can be used to tie people to the place where their household registration is kept. Initially set up during the Mao era, the hukou system continues to provide the state with a mechanism with which to regulate population distribution, with one of the main aims being to prevent the emergence of large urban slums. Since the beginning of the reform era, the hukou system has been continually reformed to allow greater numbers of rural farmers to migrate to the cities in search of better work opportunities and higher incomes – although as Dorothy Solinger has pointed out, migrant labourers are not treated as well as urban citizens, since they are not entitled to all the rights that go along with an urban hukou in a given area. More often than not, migrants are ineligible for welfare, medical, educational and housing benefits, making them ‘secondary citizens’.12 Solinger is morally outraged, noting that the more economically developed areas of China have ‘drawn upon the country’s own domestic peasants to serve as drudges, in the process denying them the rights that international norms of justice decree should belong to all human beings.’13

To be sure, the legal discrimination against rural migrants does have negative social consequences: they are routinely subject to the scorn of urbanites and are often suspected of criminal activity, and a survey conducted in Beijing in 2002 revealed that ‘roughly one in four’ experienced problems getting paid, with 60 percent of respondents saying they regularly worked ‘over ten hours a day.’14

So what could possibly motivate what seems like a transparently unjust system? ‘One way of answering this question is to anticipate the likely consequences of economic development without the hukou system’, explains Daniel Bell. ‘Consider what happened when Tibet – for Han Chinese, the most remote, inhospitable, and hostile part of the country – was exempted from the hukou system.’15 To encourage economic development in Tibet, the central government exempted Tibet from the general rule that one must be a permanent resident of a given area to start a business there. ‘The result,’ says Baogang He, ‘was that Tibetan cities, Lhasa in particular, were inundated with so-called “floating population” of Han Chinese from other provinces.’16 This he says, resulted in the taking away of businesses from Tibetans, exacerbating tensions between the two groups.17

If the urban hukou is abolished in larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing, argues Ming Wu, ‘there will be a flood of labourers from the countryside’ which will lead to many ‘urban illnesses.’18 Daniel Bell agrees, arguing that the hukou system has prevented the emergence of large shanty towns and slums of the kind that ‘characterise the big cities of other developing countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India, and Indonesia,’ noting that the system consequently also helps to minimise crime and conflict.19  Not only this, adds Bell, but ‘the medium-sized and small cities of the less-developed western part of China find it easier to retain the talent that helps to develop their economies. In short, the disadvantages of the hukou system may be outweighed by the positive contribution of the system to the long term economic development of the country. Once the country attains the requisite level of economic development, the system can be abolished.’20

Indeed, already the system is no longer deployed as a ‘one size fits all’ solution: the levels of economic development vary greatly across China, and different resident requirements apply in different contexts. As Fang Cai points out, in more than twenty thousand small towns ‘the requirements to get a hukou have been reduced to no more than stable living and legal housing in towns, so any non-local person or family can apply for hukou.’21 In Beijing however, the requirements have actually been tightened, and in 2005, one deputy of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee argued for even further restrictions: ‘Beijing’s population must be limited,’ he said. ‘The population already exceeds 17 million people...There are shortages of water and electricity, so restricting the population is a necessity.’22 

For the fundamentalist liberal, the hukou system is inherently unjust and is something that ought to be abolished. But for the Chinese, the need to regulate population distribution examplifies the strong utilitarian element in the Chinese conceptualisation of human rights – one that places collective rights over those of the individual. 

If we were to look at China’s human rights record over the past twenty-five years through Chinese eyes, the big picture would look quite impressive. As the United Nation’s 2005 Human Development Brief reports, ‘China has registered some of the most rapid advances in human development in history, with its Human Development Index ranking increasing 20 percent since 1990.’23 The report recognised China’s massive achievements in poverty relief in the past 30 years, saying that if ‘China’s achievements were not recorded, the world would have actually regressed in its progress towards poverty alleviation.’24 China, since the Deng reforms were first introduced, has managed to lift roughly 250 million of its people out of poverty.

‘China was the world’s fastest growing economy over the past two decades, with per capita incomes rising threefold,’ says the report, ‘although growing inequalities have left Guizhou ranking alongside Namibia (ranked 125 on the index) whereas Shanghai is more comparable to Portugal (which ranks 25 on the index).’25

Indeed, as Curt Goering of Amnesty International pointed out in an interview he gave for NOW magazine, ‘there is a growing recognition of economic, social and cultural rights as rights: that the right to food, to housing, health care, employment and education, are rights every bit as important as the right to freedom of speech or the right not to be tortured or arbitrarily detained. There is a growing understanding of the interrelationship and indivisibility of rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural.’26

It is unfair however, as Randall Peerenboom suggests, to compare China’s human rights progress, both collective and individual (along with the performance of its legal system and government institutions) with the record of much wealthier countries, as empirical studies show that ‘rule of law, good governance, and virtually all rights including civil and political rights are highly correlated with wealth.’27 William Meyer for example, in his 1996 study titled ‘Human Rights and MNCs: Theory Verses Quantitative Analysis’, found that Gross National Product was the biggest contributor to political, social and economic rights.28 ‘Countries that enjoyed higher levels of economic well-being had somewhat consistently better human rights records than those that did not,’ concluded Neil J. Mitchell and James M. McCormick in their 1988 study on the ‘Economic and Political Explanations of Human Rights Violations.’29 Likewise, Geert Hofstede, in his 2001 study titled Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organisations Across Nations, found that wealth was the main factor effecting rights compliance,30   and Clair Apodaca, in her 1998 study, ‘Measuring Women’s Economic and Social Rights Achievement’, also noticed that higher Gross Domestic Product was associated with better performance on human rights indicators.31

‘When a society’s economic development is such that most people can read and write, then it is in a much better position to practice such rights as freedom of speech and freedom of the press,’ concedes the human rights journalist and China critic, Frank Ching. ‘The link between economic development – that is economic rights – and political rights should be obvious.’32  But of course far more is needed than high per capita literacy levels alone in order to make substantial gains in measurements of civil rights compliance, for as Doug Guthrie points out, economic development and the transition to capitalism requires a great deal of learning to take place, as people come to terms with new rules and institutions. ‘The assumption most often seems to be that, given certain institutional arrangements, individuals will naturally know how to carry out the practices of capitalism,’ with all of its Enlightenment institutions, such as a democratic system of government, a free press and a stable rule of law. ‘Completely absent from this view are the roles of history, culture, and pre-existing institutions, and it is a vision that is far too simplistic to comprehend the challenge of making rational economic and legal systems work in the absence of stable institutions and a history to which they can be tied to.’33  New institutions, says Guthrie, ‘must be set in place long enough to gain stability and legitimacy,’ which are processes that ‘occur slowly and over time.’34

Comparing China to much wealthier countries leads then to the unsurprising conclusion that China has more problems, and so what is more revealing, argues Peerenboom, ‘is how well a country does compared to the average country in its income class.’35 When one takes a closer look at the evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, it becomes clear that ‘China outperforms the average country in its income class on most major indicators of human rights and well-being, with the notable exception of civil and political rights.’36

China has certainly made impressive progress in meeting the needs of its people in the areas of health, housing and education, despite the claims of some China critics. In order to help support his thesis that China, thanks to its ‘closed political system’, was a country ‘trapped in transition’, Minxin Pei for example, writing in 2006, claimed that China’s public health delivery system was in a state of serious deterioration. China’s health outcomes compared ‘poorly with that of its neighbours,’ he argued, citing as evidence the World Health Organisation’s World Health Report 2000, which, using 1997 data, had ranked China’s health system behind those of India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.37 More recent World Health Organisation reports however, contradict Pei’s thesis by showing instead continual improvements in China’s overall health outcomes, and as the World Bank’s World Development Indicators for 2008 show, China’s health outcomes now compare favourably to most of its neighbours. According to the World Health Organisation’s 2005 report for example, Chinese citizens are now living longer and healthier lives: from 1949-2001, life expectancy doubled, reaching 70.6 years, 79 percent of one year olds were, in 2001, immunised against tuberculosis, measles, and other illnesses, and maternal mortality had dropped from 62 per 100,000 in 1995 to 53 per 100,000 in 2001.38  

China’s maternal mortality rate has continued to improve, as the World Development Indicators for 2008 show, and is now down to 45 per 100,000 births. China’s maternal mortality rate is also considerably lower than most of its neighbours: 570 per 100,000 births in Bangladesh, 450 per 100,000 births in India, 420 per 100,000 births in Indonesia, 230 per 100,000 births in the Philippines, 150 per 100,000 births in Vietnam, 77 per 100,000 births in Thailand and 62 per 100,000 births in Malaysia. China in fact, outperforms most other countries in its lower middle income class, with the maternal mortality rate for lower middle income countries averaging out at 180 per 100,000 births.39

The incidence of tuberculosis in China has also fallen, and is now down to 99 per 100,000 people, yet the average number of cases for lower middle income countries stands at 116 per 100,000. The incidence of tuberculosis in lower-middle income Philippines is as high as 287 per 100,000, 234 in lower-middle income Indonesia, 173 in low income Vietnam, 168 in low income India, and in Malaysia (which is a wealthier middle income country) the rate is 103 per 100,000.40  China has also proven to be more successful at treating tuberculosis than most of its neighbours, with a 94 percent success rate.41

In China, the percentage of children aged 12-23 months that are immunised against measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, is also above the average for lower middle income countries,42 and the percentage of the population suffering from undernourishment is lower in China than it is in most of its neighbouring countries. In China, 12 percent of the population is undernourished, compared to 22 percent in lower-middle income Sri Lanka, 22 percent in lower-middle income Thailand, 20 percent in low income India, 18 percent in lower-middle income Philippines and 16 percent in low income Vietnam.43 When it comes to the percentage of children aged under five that suffer from malnutrition, China again performs better than most of its low and lower-middle income neighbours: 6.8 percent compared with 43.5 percent in India, 24.4 percent in Indonesia, 22.8 percent in Sri Lanka and 20.7 percent in the Philippines, with 10.7 percent being the global average for lower middle income countries.44

China’s infant mortality rate has also continued to improve over the past few decades. In 1990, 45 per 1,000 children died under the age of five. By 2006 the figure was down to 24 per 1,000, compared to 76 in India, 53 in Vietnam, 34 in Indonesia, and 32 in the Philippines.45

All of these health outcomes represent significant improvements for China, though as Randall Peerenboom has pointed out, ‘government spending as a share of total costs has decreased rapidly in the reform era as the state has sought to marketise health services’, with the result being that ‘access to medical care has deteriorated for those without personal or family resources.46 In 2005, government contributions to the public health system in China amounted to only 1 percent, with private out-of-pocket payments constituting more than 85 percent of total public health spending.47

China nevertheless continues to spend a higher percentage of its total Gross Domestic Product on health than most of its neighbours: 4.7 percent compared to Sri Lanka’s 4.1 percent, Thailand’s 3.5 percent and Indonesia’s 2.1 percent. The Philippines spends 3.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product on health, and Malaysia and Singapore, which are both in higher income classes than China, spend only 4.2 and 3.5 percent respectively.48

It needs to be remembered however, as Minxin Pei points out, that on a per capita basis, China’s rural residents ‘receive only a third of the healthcare enjoyed by their urban counterparts.’49 In 2001, only 15 percent of the government's health budget was allocated to rural areas, even though rural residents accounted for roughly 70 percent of the population. ‘Consequently,’ notes Pei, ‘both access to and quality of healthcare in rural China have declined dramatically. Whereas 85 percent of the rural residents had health insurance in 1970, less than 20 percent of them were insured in 2003.’50 

Recognising the seriousness of the problem, the State Council, in January 2009, passed a plan to introduce an 850 billion yuan package to reform the country’s marketised health care system with the aim of achieving universal health care by the year 2020. The plan, developed in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, will provide 90 percent of the population with an adequate level of health insurance that will also subsidise the cost of medicines. Each person covered by the system will receive an annual subsidy of 120 yuan, starting in 2010, and ‘all revenue raised by public hospitals will have to be funneled to state coffers’ and pricing standards for medical services’ will be set by the government in order to keep prices affordable.51

When it comes to education, China also performs better than most countries in its lower middle income class on most indicators. Before 1949, more than 80 percent of the Chinese population was illiterate, but by the year 2000 that number had declined to a mere 6.72 percent.52 The 2000 census data showed adult literacy at 91.3 percent, and literacy for those under forty years of age at 95.2 percent.53 By 2005, both China and Indonesia had achieved youth literacy rates of 99 percent, bringing them on par with much wealthier Singapore.54 Since 1980, notes Doug Guthrie, ‘the number of university students in China has increased by more than 200 percent; the number of faculty in universities has increased by almost 75 percent; the number receiving postgraduate education has increased by about 1,600 percent; the number of students studying abroad has increased by more than 1,000 percent; and the number of study-abroad students who have returned to China has increased by more than 4,500 percent.’55 Despite these impressive achievements, which have brought about the massive expansion of opportunities for many, it needs to be remembered that as of the year 2000, less than 4 percent of the total population held university degrees, and 38 percent received only primary schooling, with only half of the population finishing the nine-year term of compulsory education. In the impoverished countryside, where there is a lack of both resources and qualified teachers, about 10 percent of children are not even able to attend primary schools.56  

China has also made great progress in elevating the economic and social status of women in society. Released in 2005, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index found China to be ‘the most gender-equitable society in Asia’, with a higher female to male income ratio than in the United States.57 The development of the service sector over recent decades has created many employment and business opportunities for Chinese women. Research carried out by the China Association of Female Entrepreneurs back in 2004 showed that 20 percent of all Chinese entrepreneurs were women, with the total number of female entrepreneurs on the mainland growing by a whopping 60 percent between 1996 and 2004.58

According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1950 the earnings of China’s women accounted for 20 percent of family income but by 2004 this figure had risen to 40 percent. ‘Increasingly, as in most of Asia, girls in China are leading their school classes in grades, and more and more go to college and take white-collar jobs.’ Roughly 60 percent of the teachers in elementary schools to universities in Shanghai are female, more than 60 percent of health workers are female, and in 2004 the percentage of women in finance topped 50 percent. With women now making up slightly over 40 percent of the country’s workforce, it’s not surprising that much of China’s consumer revolution is geared towards the female market, whose purchasing power is now very significant.59

Despite the undeniable progress in improving women’s lives, the present picture remains mixed, as even Randall Peerenboom acknowledges: ‘The participation of women in political life is still low,’ he writes, ‘especially at higher levels of government; domestic violence still occurs frequently; and social ills such as female trafficking and infanticide remain problems.’60 The percentage of total political seats currently held by women is relatively high in China though, especially when compared to other Asian countries: 20 percent of the total number of seats that make up the National Peoples Congress in China are held by women, compared to 9 percent of Thailands parliamentary seats, 5 percent of Sri Lankas, 8 percent of Indias, 11 percent of Indonesias, 13 percent of South Koreas, 9 percent of Japans and 9 percent of Malaysias.61

Chinas overall success in satisfying the basic housing requirements of its people is also worth noting.  As Deborah Davis has pointed out, ‘after Deng and Jiang decisively broke with the Maoist vision of de-commodified modernity, urban living standards radically improved, and consumers became key players in the official discourse of economic development. Of particular consequence for understanding domestically focused consumer culture was the unprecedented upgrading of the quality of urban homes and the privatisation of nearly all residential property by 2002,’ which lead to the ‘overnight’ booming of China’s home renovation industry.62  ‘China,’ says Si-ming Li, has now been ‘transformed into a nation of home owners.’63 In 1980, less than 15 percent of urban residential property was owner-occupied. By 2002, 80 percent of non-migrant urban residents had become home owners and almost 100 percent of migrants rented from private landlords.64

China’s housing policy, as the Harvard researchers Mark Duda, Xiulan Zhang an Mingzhu Dong have observed, has ‘both welfare and home ownership components,’ with the state subsidising construction schemes with developer profit caps designed to help middle and lower-income families.65 Housing developers are also offered financial incentives to keep their housing prices affordable, with various tax-reduction and exemption programs on offer for those who are able to keep their profit margins below 3 percent.66   Between 1998-2001, new housing was provided for more than four million medium and low-income families.67

One of the parametres used to define the United Nation’s concept of adequate housing is the amount of living space available to the individual. A common measure of this is a country’s per capita square metre floorage space. By 2002, China’s per capita floorage had reached 22.8 square metres in urban areas triple what is had been two decades earlier. By 2002, per capita floorage in rural areas had reached 26.5 square metres, up 49 percent over what it was in 1990.68

Economic growth in China has not benefited everyone equally of course, as development, wherever it occurs, is always an uneven process. In 2004, the poorest 10 percent of Chinas population consumed just 1.6 percent of the nations wealth, while the richest 10 percent enjoyed 34.9 percent.69  Yet China is nevertheless roughly on a par with the United States and most other Asian countries when it comes to income inequality, as the World Development Indicators for 2008 clearly show: in the United States the poorest 10 percent of the population consumed only 1.9 percent of the nations wealth, whereas the richest 10 percent consumed 29.9 percent; in Singapore, the poorest 10 percent consumed 1.9 percent of wealth compared to the 32.8 percent of the nations wealth that the richest 10 percent of the population enjoyed. In Malaysia, likewise, the poorest 10 percent of the population consumed only 1.7 percent of the nations wealth while the richest 10 percent shared 38.4 percent; and in Hong Kong the poorest 10 percent consumed 2 percent of the SARs wealth while the richest 10 percent enjoyed 34.9 percent.70

The Chinese central government has shown itself to be quite responsive to the problems associated with growing inequality, both in the countryside and the cities, as Randall Peerenboom observes, issuing a steady stream of legislation to improve social welfare, strengthening job training and creation programs, easing restrictions on migrant workers and reducing the tax burdens on farmers.71 ‘Perhaps more importantly,’ he says, the government has given substance to the commitments and promise of these new regulations by increasing spending. For instance, the government spent some 70 billion yuan in 2003, an increase of almost 20 percent over 2002, on the three-stage guarantee for laid-off workers that provides a basic living allowance, unemployment insurance, and then a subsistence allowance if the person still cannot find employment. The government also allocated an additional 4.6 billion yuan to subsidise job creation. There were 29 million retirees from enterprises covered by welfare, an increase of 41 percent over 2002,’  and ‘nearly sixty million people have been covered by the rural old-age insurance scheme, and almost 1.4 million farmers received pensions.’72  As Peerenboom quite fairly points out, ‘although these increased expenditures will by no means put an end to the problems, and will benefit different groups disproportionately, with former state-owned enterprise employees better taken care of than others, they do demonstrate some level of commitment by the [Hu] leadership to pay attention to social justice issues.73

Even when it comes to the issue of individual civil human rights, China has in fact shown a keen desire to conform to international standards and conventions, ratifying to date over twenty human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet despite it willingness to conform to international conventions, China continues to experience serious human rights problems, though it needs to be acknowledged that in most areas, the situation has been steadily improving over recent years.

Take China’s prison system for example, which during the 1990s, was one of the primary targets of allegations about human rights abuses. The most systematic study of the prison system in reform-era China to date remains the one carried out by the reseachers James Seymour and Richard Anderson, whose report, titled New Ghosts, Old Ghosts: Prisons and Labour Reform Camps in China, was first published back in 1998. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, corruption and a lack of state regulation had made the laogi (reform through labour) system one of the most abusive prison systems in the world, but thanks largely to the 1994 Prison Reform Law, conditions began to gradually improve. By 1998, ‘material conditions’ had ‘improved’ thanks to ‘large investments,’ and although conditions varied, ‘in general’, concluded Seymour and Anderson, ‘it can be said that prisoners in China are receiving better treatment than they did during the Mao era. The law is somewhat more respected, and people have much more of a sense of their rights than previously had been the case.’74 

In 2005, the first visit to China in a decade by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture also found improvements in the treatment of prisoners, but, according to a concluding statement, ‘serious shortcomings’ in rights protections still exist. Torture for example, remains a serious problem, despite being prohibited under Chinese law. It is worth quoting at length here from the Special Rapporteur’s findings:

In recent years, the issue of torture has become a subject of public concern and debate within China, particularly after several prominent wrongful-conviction cases came to light in 2005. The growing willingness of officials and scholars to acknowledge China’s torture problem is a significant step forward. Chinese scholars and journalists are increasingly publishing detailed critiques on the practice of torture in China and related problems in the criminal justice system, including weak investigations, lack of professionalism in the police, and confessions extorted by torture. Chinese officials and analysts have characterised the torture problem as “widespread” in basic level organs; “deeply entrenched”, a “stubborn illness”, and a “malignant tumour” that “is difficult to stop” in practice, with forced confessions characterised as “common in many places in China because the police are often under great pressure from above to solve criminal cases.”

The Government’s willingness to acknowledge the pervasiveness of torture was confirmed when the Supreme People’s Procuratorate published The Crime of Tortured Confession (Xingxun Bigong Zui) in late 1997, including China’s first public official statistics on criminal cases of tortured confession – reporting an average of 364 cases per year between 1979 and 1989, upward of 400 cases per year for most years in the 1990s, and the admission that 241 persons had been tortured to death over the two-year period 1993-1994.

Following on from its recognition of the problem, the Government has undertaken a number of measures to tackle torture… In August 2003, the Minister of Public Security, Zhou Yongkang, issued a set of unified regulations on the standardisation of law enforcement procedures for public security institutions entitled “Regulations on the Procedures for Handling Administrative Cases”, including procedures defining police powers in respect of time limits for confiscation of property, legal means for gathering evidence, time limits on investigation and examination of suspects, etc.  In 2004, the Ministry issued regulations prohibiting the use of torture and threats to gain confessions and initiated a nationwide campaign to improve policemen’s criminal investigation capacity…Practical measures to combat torture have included piloting systems of audio and video recording in interrogation rooms, strengthening representation during the investigative and pretrial phase of the criminal process by placing lawyers on a 24-hour basis in pilot police stations, designing interrogation rooms which separate suspects from interrogators, and placing resident procurators in places of detention and near public security bureaus to supervise law enforcement personnel.75 

Although the central Government has made significant efforts to reduce the practice of torture, as noted above, ‘the effectiveness of these efforts is significantly hampered by the degree of localism inherent in policing and criminal procedure at the grass-roots level,’ says the report, ‘which impedes the effective implementation of central regulations, guidance, training, prohibitions, etc.’76

Even though the Ministry of Public Security does formally exercise leadership over nationwide public security work, it is important to realise that ‘local Party Committees enjoy substantial authority to interpret and implement policy in their regions including by exercising leadership over respective Public Security Bureaus. This results in localised and semi-autonomous police forces shaped by local power balances and economic resources, with accountability to local political leaders.’77 The Special Rapporteur also found that prison conditions, ‘were generally satisfactory’, although he did notice a ‘palpable level of fear’ when talking to detainees, and was struck by ‘the strict level of discipline’ exerted on detainees in different facilities. ‘Time and again,’ reads the report, ‘he entered cells and found all detainees sitting cross-legged on a mattress or in similar forced positions reading the Chinese Law or prison rules. According to information provided by detainees, such forced re-education, in particular in pretrial detention centres, goes on for most of the day.’78

The Special Rapporteur also expressed concern at the continuing number of executions carried out each year in China. According to Amnesty International, China imposes more capital punishments than the rest of the world combined, having carried out a confirmed 1,639 death sentences in 2003 alone.79  According to their current report however, there was most likely ‘a significant drop in executions during 2007 after the Supreme People’s Court review for all death sentences was restored on 1 January.’80

The question of religious freedom is another contentious human rights issue in China. According to official figures, Buddhism alone now claims over 100 million followers. Islam, the second most popular religion, has 20.3 million followers, Protestantism 16 million, Catholicism 5 million and Daoism 3 million. These five religious movements alone now claim a combined total of roughly 144 million followers, or 11 percent of the population.81 According to the political scientist Hongyi Harry Lai, in his paper on The Religious Revival in China, folk religions are now thought to attract around 19 percent of the total population, ‘resulting in a marked rise’ in the number of new shrines and temples being built throughout the rural countryside.82 The economic and social changes that have swept through China since the late 1970s have combined to create considerable social stresses and raptures, dislocating millions, with many losing their free health care and guaranteed incomes. Religion, as Lai points out, ‘meets the population’s need for psychological comfort,’83 helping them to cope more easily with their rapidly modernising world – a world, to paraphrase Marx, where all that is solid can, and often does, melt into air.

‘One indisputable cause of religious revival in China is the state’s lifting of restrictions on open religious activities, especially those that do not challenge the state directly,’ adds Lai. ‘In the post-Mao era, the state has openly acknowledged its extreme practice under leftist leadership, and has tolerated religious practice that does not pose a potential organised threat.’84

Mindful of a long history of religious movements toppling dynasties in the past, China, as Randall Peerenboom acknowledges, nevertheless ‘imposes restrictions on religious beliefs and practices’, recognising only the five religions mentioned above, and requiring all religious groups to register with the State Administration of Religious Affairs.85

According to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China Annual Report 2007, unregistered Protestant communities often continue to ‘face harassment and various forms of abuse’. A July 2007 report from a district within Shanghai for example, ‘called on authorities to strengthen control over grassroots religious activity and singled out private Protestant gatherings for monitoring and regulation.’86 The China Aid Association, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organisation that monitors religious freedom in China, ‘recorded 600 detentions of unregistered Protestants in China during 2006. It noted that the figure represents a decline from over 2,000 detentions recorded in 2005, but attributed the decrease to a new strategy of targeting church leaders over practitioners and interrogating practitioners on the spot rather than formally arresting them.’87

The Commission also noted ‘an increase in reported detentions of unregistered Catholics’ in 2005, after the Regulation on Religious Affairs entered into force. In June 2007 for example, ‘the public security bureau detained Jia Zhiguo, underground bishop of the Diocese of Zhending, in Hebei province, for 17 days. Authorities detained him again in August as he prepared to lead meetings to discuss a letter that Pope Benedict XVI had issued to Chinese Catholics in June.’88  Catholic priests aligned with Rome, as Randall Peerenboom has noted, ‘have run into problems because of conflicts over issues where the views of the Pope conflict with government policy, most notably with respect to family planning, birth control, and abortion.’89 According to a U.S. State Department report on China, back in 2006, authorities reportedly forced Catholics in Hebei Province, where more than half of China’s Catholics are located, to follow the Patriotic Church or face fines, job losses, detention, or the removal of their children from school.90

Uighurs in China’s north-western Xinjiang Province are also unhappy with Beijing’s restriction of their religious activities, though it is also true that many independence advocates in Xinjiang operate under the banner of Islam. ‘Working as religious clerics,’ notes Lai, ‘they condemn the Chinese Communist Party and the government, interpret the Koran as advocating an Islamic state and militant jihad, and propose independence as the best way to preserve local cultures.’91  As Nicolas Becquelin points out, Chinese official sources claim that explosions, assassinations and other violent acts in the 1990s totalled a few thousand, and that in 1998 alone, over seventy serious incidents occurred, resulting in more than 380 deaths.92

Political dissidents, religious movements like the Falun Gong, labour activists and Tibetan and Uighur separatists, all pose threats to China’s social and economic stability, and thus the government, as Randall Peerenboom appreciates, ‘must proceed with caution given the high potential for, and horrific consequences of, social chaos.’93 Most Chinese are in fact prepared to accept the need to sacrifice some human rights in order to safeguard other, more important ones. More pragmatic than dogmatic, there is an understanding, widely held, that sometimes a right may have to be sacrificed in the short term ‘in order to secure more of that right in the long term.’94 Interestingly, this way of thinking is not unique to China, or to East Asia in general, as the U.S. government’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks show: ‘When stable, Euro-America can afford to preach to developing countries struggling with terrorists about the value of civil and political rights and the importance of the rule of law,’ notes Peerenboom, ‘but when faced with threats, much cherished rights go out the window. If there is anything universal, it would seem to be disregard for human rights whenever there are real or perceived threats to stability or order.’95 

Nevertheless, when using the pluralist standard of assessment endorsed by John Gray, we can see that traditional values, when widely adhered to by members of a particular society, do in fact very often affect the prioritising of rights. As Daniel Bell explains:

Different societies may rank rights differently, and if they face a similar set of disagreeable circumstances they may come to a different conclusion about the right that needs to be curtailed. For example, U.S. citizens may be more willing to sacrifice a social or economic right in cases of conflict with a civil and political right: if neither the constitution nor the majority of democratically elected representatives support universal access to health care, then the right to health care regardless of income can be curtailed. In contrast, the Chinese may be more willing to sacrifice a civil or political liberty in cases of conflict with a social or economic right: there may be widespread support for restrictions on the right to form free labour associations if they are necessary to provide conditions for economic development.96

Fundamentalist liberals in the West like to think that the individual rights they enjoy ought to be the rights of all, and so they claim their rights to be universal. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its emphasis on the civil and political rights of the individual, is not, however, in reality, relevant for all. As Daniel Bell very rightly points out, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘was formulated without significant input from East Asia’, and so it is not always clear to East Asians why the Declaration should constitute their human rights norms. Most East Asian states, including China, ‘endorsed it for pragmatic, political reasons, not because of a deeply held commitment to the human rights norms that it contains.’97  Enlightenment, as Adorno and Horkheimer argued, ‘is totalitarian.’98 

The Chinese central government has nevertheless shown some willingness to conform to Western norms by committing itself to improving the civil rights of its people, and so its efforts and achievements, where they occur, need to be acknowledged if further action is to be encouraged. It is important then, not to exaggerate the extent of China’s civil rights abuses.

The reports produced by Western-based human rights organisations often depict the detention of political and religious dissidents in China as arbitrary because they allegedly involve persons engaging in political or religious activities, usually peacefully, that many claim are protected by both domestic and international law. ‘Although human rights organisations regularly highlight the use of administrative detention to detain political dissidents, academic experts,’ explains Peerenboom, ‘have noted that the purpose of administrative detention has changed over the last two decades, and that education through labour and other forms of administrative detention are used primarily to deal with petty criminals. In fact, less than 1 percent of those subject to education through labour could be considered political prisoners.’99  Not only this, but charges of endangering the state now account for less than 0.5 percent of all crimes, compared to almost 60 percent during the politicised Mao era, when the same crimes were classified as ‘counterrevolutionary.’100  ‘Simply put,’ says Peerenboom, ‘politics is generally not an issue in most criminal cases.’101 Taking China’s population of 1.3 billion as the basis, and ‘erring on the high side by assuming as correct the Falan Gong organisation’s estimate of 20,000 prisoners of conscience, the total rate of detention would be 0.0015 percent.’ Twenty thousand likely overstates the actual number, but even this figure, while large in absolute terms, is relatively small given the size of the total population. ‘It is difficult to see how China can be described as a country in which execution, political murders, disappearances, brutality and torture “are a common part of life”, as required for a Level 4 Political Terror Scale rating,’ concludes Peerenboom.102  Even the general incarceration rate in China is lower than that of many other countries, including that of the United States: 184 per 100,000 for China, compared to 701 per 100,000 for the United States.103

If we examine the 2005 findings of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Civil and Political Rights, including the Question of Torture and Detention, we see that 314 cases of alleged torture were reported between the years 2000 and 2005, involving around 1,160 individuals.104  Of these, 66 percent were Falan Gong practitioners, 11 percent Uighur separatists, 8 percent sex workers, 6 percent Tibetans, 5 percent human rights defenders, 2 percent political dissidents, and the remaining 2 percent were people either effected with HIV/AIDs or were of unregistered religious groups other than the Falan Gong.105 Most of these abuses occurred in pretrial detention centres, like police stations, and were perpetrated by police and other public security staff – reflecting the Rapporteur’s findings that when torture does occur in China, it is usually at the local level, and ‘because the police are often under great pressure from above to solve criminal cases.’106  Without wanting to trivialise the severe harm caused to such individuals or to downplay the gross injustices they have suffered, it needs to be said, in the interests of gaining a realistic idea of the size and scope of the problem, that these 1,160 individuals make up only a minute percent of China’s total prison population of roughly two million,107 and an even smaller percentage of the country’s total population of 1.3 billion.

Despite ongoing human rights problems, China has, over the past twenty-five years, made significant progress in improving its human rights outcomes, outperforming the average country in its middle-income class on most major indicators of human rights and well-being, with the notable exception of civil rights – though even on this front, steady progress is being made, as is verified empirically by the sources discussed above. While it is true that China’s statistics are thought by many to be unreliable and so are often contested, it cannot be denied that genuine progress has been made, and on all fronts. Even the U.S. State Department notes that China’s modernisation has ‘improved dramatically the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese, increased social mobility, and expanded the scope of personal freedom. This has meant substantially greater freedom of travel, employment opportunity, educational and cultural pursuits, job and housing choices, and access to information.’108 



1 Colin Mackerras, Western Images of China, Oxford University Press, Oxford, second edition, 1999, p.180.

2 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes: threat to the West, or model for the rest? Oxford University Press, New York, 2007, p.181.

3 Ibid., p.169.

4 Ibid., pp.169-170.

5 John Lee, Will China Fail? – The Limits and Contradictions of Market Socialism, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, 2007, p.154.

6 Vaudine England, ‘China is a threat to democracy’, BBC News, Hong Kong, Sunday, November 23, 2008.

7 Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy: political thinking for an East Asian context, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2006, p.8., p.8.

8 Dingding Chen, Understanding China’s Human Rights Policy: The Limits of International Norms, now available online at:

9 Ibid.

10 Chris Richards, ‘Let us speak! Social debate is opening up China…but the Communist Party still dictates’, New Internationalist, September 2004.

11 Dingding Chen, Understanding China’s Human Rights Policy: The Limits of International Norms.

12 Dorothy J. Solinger, ‘Human Rights Issues in China’s Internal Migration: Insights from Comparisons with Germany and Japan’, in Joanne R. Bauer and Daniel A. Bell (editors), The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp.285-312.

13 Ibid., p.286.

14 Shen Tan, ‘Rural Workforce Migration: A Summary of Some Studies’, Social Sciences in China, (Winter 2003), p.91. 

15 Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy, p.314.

16 Baogang He, ‘Minority Rights with Chinese Characteristics’, in W. Kymlicka and B. He (editors), Multiculturalism in Asia: Theoretical Perspectives, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.64.

17 Ibid.

18 Ming Wu, ‘The Chinese Household Registration System: Cannot be Abolished in the Near Term’, Xin xi bu, November 2001, p.26.

19 Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy, p.316.

20 Ibid., pp.316-317.

21 Fang Cai, ‘How the Market Economy Promotes Reform of the Household Registration System’, Social Sciences in China, no.4, 2003, p.122.

22 ‘CPPCC Deputy Suggests Implementing System for Standardising the System of Entering Beijing’, Xin jing bao, January 25, 2005.

23 China Human Development Report 2005, United Nations Human Development Programme:

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Interview with Curt Goering, NOW magazine, April 21, 2006. Now available online at:

27 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.11.

28 William Myer, ‘Human Rights and MNCs: Theory Verses Quantitative Analysis’, Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 18, No.2, 1996, p.368.

29 Neil J. Mitchell and James M. McCormick, ‘Economic and Political Explanations of Human Rights Violations’,World Politics, Volume 40, No.4, July 1988, p.497.

30 Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organisations Across Nations, Sage Publications, 2nd edition, 2003.

31 Clair Apodaca, ‘Measuring Women’s Economic and Social Rights Achievement’, Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 20, No.1, 1998, pp.139-17.

32 Frank Ching, China: the truth about its human rights record, Rider, London, 2008, p.12. 

33 Doug Guthrie, China and Globalization: The Social, Economic, and Political Transformation of Chinese Society, Routledge, New York, 2006, p.71.

34 Ibid., pp.71-72.

35 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.11.

36 Ibid., p.20 

37 Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition: the Limits of Developmental Autocracy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006, p.172.

38 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.132.

39 World Development Indicators, 2008, The World Bank, Washington D.C., pp.22-24.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., pp.98-100. In China, 94 percent of new registered cases of tuberculosis are treated successfully, compared to 89 percent in the Philippines, 86 percent in India, and 70 percent in Malaysia. The average success rate for the world’s lower middle income countries is 90 percent.

42 Ibid., pp.98-100. 

43 Ibid., pp.106-110.

44 Ibid., pp.18-20. 

45 Ibid., pp.18-20.

46 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.132.

47 World Development Indicators, 2008, p.94.

48 Ibid., pp.94-96.

49 Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition, p.173.

50 Ibid.

51 Mei Fong and Jason Leow, ‘Beijing plans health care for everyone’, Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2008. See also Edward Wong, ‘China Announces Subsidies for Health Care’, International Herald Tribune, January 22, 2009. For more details, see Wang Qian, ‘Roadmap charted for universal healthcare’, China Daily, April 7, 2009.

52 Doug Guthrie, China and Globalization, pp.188-189.

53 Comments by the Chinese Government on the Report on the Mission of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education to the People’s Republic of China, UN. ESCOR Human Rights Commissioner, 60th Session, Agenda Item Number 10, at 11, UN. Doc.E/CN. 4/2004/G/16/(2003), p.3.

54 World Development Indicators, 2008, pp.88-89.

55 Doug Guthrie, China and Globalization, p.193.

56 Ibid., p.196.

57 Matt Perrement, ‘China tops Asian gender, but lags behind OECD’, China Development Brief, May 19, 2005:

58 ‘One in Five Chinese Entreprenuers are Women’, Xinhua News Agency, July 3, 2003.

59 Nick Otto‘Women in China finally making a Great Leap Forward’, Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 2004.

60 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, pp.160-161.

61 World Development Indicators, 2008, pp.28-30.

62 Deborah Davis‘Urban Consumer Culture’, Michael Hockx and Julia Strauss (editors), Culture in the Contemporary PRC, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp.176-177.

63 Si-ming Li‘Transition to homeownership: Implications for wealth re-distribution’, Fulong Wu (editor), China’s Emerging Cities: the Making of Urbanism, Routledge, 2007, p.146.

64 Xinhua News Agency, August 9, 2002.

65 Mark Duda, Xiulan Zhang and Mingzhu Dong, China's Homeownership-Orientated Housing Policy: An Examination of Two Programs Using Survey Data from Beijing, Joint Center for Housing, Harvard University, p.1.

66 Asian Market Research News, August 13, 2002.

67 Human Settlements Country Profile: China, p.2

68 Ibid.

69 World Development Indicators, 2008, pp.68-70.

70 Ibid., pp.68-70.

71 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.130.

72 Ibid., pp.130-131.

73 Ibid., p.131.

74 James D. Seymour and Richard Anderson, Old Ghosts, New Ghosts: Prisons and Labour Reform Camps in China, M.E.Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1998, p.222.

75 Manfred Nowak, Civil and Political Rights, Including the Question of Torture and Detention, a report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, March 10, 2006, p.15.

76 Ibid., p.16.

77 Ibid., p.16.

78 Ibid., p.19.

79 Amnesty International Report 2004: China. Now available online at:

80 Amnesty International, ‘Death Penalty: Death Sentences and Executions in 2007’,

81 Hongyi Harry Lai, ‘The Religious Revival in China’, The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 18, 2003, pp.44-45.

82 Ibid., p.54.

83 Ibid., p.57.

84 Ibid., p.56

85 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, pp.107-108.

86 Congressional-Executive Commission on China Annual Report 2007, U.S. Government Printing Office, October 10, 2007, p.100.

87 Ibid.

88 Ibid., p.96.

89 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.109. 

90 U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report—2006, China.

91 Hongyi Harry Lai, ‘The Religious Revival in China’, p.53.

92 Nicolas Becquelin, ‘Xinjiang in the Nineties’, The China Journal, Volume 44, July 2000, p.87.

93 Randall Peerenboom, ‘Out of the Pan and into the Fire: Well-Intentioned but Misguided Recommendations to Eliminate All Forms of Administrative Detention in China’, Northwestern University Law Review, Volume 98, No.3, 2004, p.995.

94 Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy, p.59.

95 Randall Peerenboom, ‘Human Rights and Rule of Law: What’s the Relationship?’, Georgetown Journal of International Law, Volume 36, No.3, 2005, p.935.

96 Daniel A. Bell, Beyond Liberal Democracy, p.61.

97 Ibid., p.68.

98 Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectics of Enlightenment, 1944, London, Verso, 1997 edition, p.6.

99 Randall Peerenboom, China Modernizes, p.97.

100 Ibid., p.98.

101 Ibid., p.98.

102 Ibid., p.99.

103 Ibid., p.98.

104 Manfred Nowak, Civil and Political Rights, Including the Question of Torture and Detention, a report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, March 10, 2006, p.13.

105 Ibid.

106 Ibid., p.15

107 Doug Guthrie, China and Globalization, p.243. 

108 U.S. Department of State, ‘Background Notes: China’,



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