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China's White Paper on Human Rights: Some Reflections

Avinash Godbole was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 28, 2013

    Earlier this month, a White Paper titled “Progress in China's Human Rights in 2012” was released. This is the first major policy document focussing on the domestic situation to come out during the new leadership and soon after the biennial publication of the Defence White Paper. Like the Defence White Paper, the document on Human Rights comes out once every two years. But unlike the former, it does not generate the hype. For China, it is an exercise in projecting its inclusive growth and sensitivity towards the marginalised and no longer seen as contestation with the West since issues like trade, tariff and currency have taken centre stage.

    The context and timing of this paper is significant as it surveys the wide spectrum of social issues and the challenges facing China. These issues have been central to the Xi-Li's leadership since coming to power recently. The reported number protests over issues concerning environmental, employment and land ownership have crossed 100,000 in the 2012.1 At the same time, the new leadership has also identified corruption and exploitation of powers as problem areas to be effectively tackled. Yet, the scope of this White Paper is limited and only defines human rights in China as economic and political construction, cultural services, social development, ecological progress, and foreign exchange and cooperation.

    The White Paper begins by delineating the state’s role as “…pursuing scientific development, promoting social harmony, improving the people's livelihood and promoting the wellbeing of the people”.2 It adds, “…China combines its human rights endeavours with economic, political, cultural, social and ecological construction, prioritizes the people's rights to subsistence and development, and endeavors to promote the comprehensive and balanced development of their economic, social and cultural rights as well as their civil and political rights”.3 The emphasis is clearly on the state as a central and necessary organ of human rights and part of the collective system wherein economic development and better quality of life are a priority.

    The primacy of economic development is strongly emphasised in the report, for example, "China has a population of over 1.3 billion. For such a populous country, it would be impossible to protect the people's rights and interests without first developing the economy to feed and clothe the people. Development is the key to solving all existing problems and facilitating progress of human rights in China.”4 The core emphasis of the economic development as the engine of national progress and (re)construction is here to stay, as stressed in the White Paper. However, experts continue to doubt the robustness of the China model given the growing regional, spatial, inter and intra-ethnic economic inequality and discrimination. On the other hand, China is facing competition from South East Asia for low cost business as inflation and labour supply constrains inside China challenges the low cost business model. The Chinese economy, in short, is not able to deliver the desired objectives of comprehensive and inclusive development.

    On the political ramification, the paper outlines how China is creating an impressive legal structure and transparency for the people to know, participate and monitor the activities of the government. However, an important debate has been the rule by law versus the rule of law, which has acquired significance especially since the Bo Xilai scandal. The emphasis, in this section, is towards enhancing the rule by law framework. However, it remains silent on how, when and to what extent the framework would be effectively put in place. Similarly, independence of judiciary from the party is equally left untouched in the paper. At the same time, the status and future of cases involving the likes of Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei is beyond the scope of the White Paper, because it relates to larger issues of openness and critique in the political system.

    On aspects of cultural rights, the White Paper goes to great lengths in showcasing flourishing business of culture but with the same breath argues for the necessity to control and regulate cultural activities – state propaganda and control in the guise of freedom. The overarching role of state as the central regulator is overwhelming and culture along with religion will remain subordinate.

    Social insecurities are increasing causes of unrest and protests in China. Population policy is tilting the pyramid unfavourably. As argued by scholars, China is getting old before getting rich.5 At the same time, inflation, retrenchments and stagnation is putting pressure on people’s livelihoods. The withdrawal of welfare state has affected social security and the Hukou, China’s household registration system which helps discriminate between urban residents and migrants, coupled with the necessity of migration for sustaining the low cost labour is adding to these tensions. China also suffers from multiple forms of inequalities which even the most sincere political leadership would be unable to control without radical measures.

    Similarly, environmental challenges in China are at a critical stage affecting people’s health, and livelihood. At the same time, environment is an area where state actions are seen as limited and ineffective. Despite repeated ambitious targets, efforts continue to fall short of what is required. It is an area where human rights linked to right to livelihood, right to clean environment are affected the most.

    Summing up, the new leadership has made its intention clear that it aims to set the house in order by taking upfront the domestic challenges that undermine the vitality of the country’s economic and social policies. On the other hand, corruption and abuse of power are gnawing into the credibility of the CPC. In this White Paper, there are other problems that remain unanswered like the contradiction between economic priority and its impact on inequality as well as on the environment. However, its scope is limited and the target audience is domestic.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.