Despite Flaws, Rights in China Have Expanded
SHANGHAI — For the past two decades, China’s people became richer but not much freer, and the Communist Party has staked its future on their willingness to live with that tradeoff.
That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But as the Olympic Games approach, training a spotlight on China’s rights record, that view obscures a more complex reality: political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.
Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.
But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.
“Some people will tell you, look at the walls, and say they are still pretty high, while others will tell you that there is a lot of space between the walls,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch. “Both things are true.”
Chinese who try to challenge the one-party state directly say authorities are no more tolerant of dissent than they were in the 1980s, and in some cases they are tougher on citizen-led campaigns to enforce legal rights or stop environmental abuses.
On the other hand, the definition of what constitutes a political challenge has changed. Individuals are far less likely to run afoul of a system that no longer demands conformity in political views or personal lifestyles.
The shift toward a more diverse society helps explain some anomalies in perceptions of life inside China. Amnesty International, the human rights group, reported this week that the rights situation had deteriorated significantly in the months before the Olympics despite China’s pledges to improve its record as a condition for hosting the games.
But a survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project this spring and issued last month found that an astounding 86 percent of Chinese said they were content with their country’s direction, double the percentage who said the same thing in 2002. Only 23 percent of Americans polled in the survey said they were satisfied with their country’s direction.
The speeches of China’s leaders, with their gray imagery and paternalistic phrasings, have changed relatively little, emphasizing unity, harmony and economic growth under party rule. The reality on the ground, though, has been transformed, partly because a more dynamic economy necessitates a more dynamic society, partly because money gives people options they did not have when they were poor.
Arguably the most dramatic change in the freedoms enjoyed by most Chinese has been the gradual erosion of a population registration system that tied people to their places of birth, preventing internal migration or, at its height, even tourism.
China has not formally abandoned the system, known as hukou, and it can still prove a nuisance. But as hundreds of millions of people have moved from the inland provinces to wealthier coastal cities in search of economic opportunity, authorities in one place after another have found themselves making concessions to this new reality.
Song Daqing, who lives in a single-room home here with his wife and three children, counts himself as a beneficiary of these changes. Born into poverty in Sichuan Province, he worked as a cattle herder, bricklayer and coal miner, earning as little as 60 cents a day before coming to Shanghai in 1998. His early years in this city were marked by frequent mass roundups of migrants by the police, and he was twice held in crowded detention centers before being expelled from the city.
“Now we all have residence permits,” said Mr. Song, who supports his family by selling vegetables. “The police don’t check our paperwork anymore, and even if they found you without a permit, they won’t arrest you, but rather would suggest you get one as soon as possible.”
Reality Trumps Ideology
The relative flexibility the government has shown in allowing this to happen is more a matter of pragmatism than any overt ideological shift, a grudging concession to economic reality.
“China’s economic development relies on the flow of migrants into cities,” said Wei Wei, the founder of Little Bird, an organization that runs a special phone line to help migrant workers protect their rights. “The country’s growth depends on it.”
Little Bird itself is an example of incremental openness. It is a nongovernmental organization, one of thousands addressing social, economic and environmental issues that the party once insisted it could handle by itself. The leeway private groups have to influence public policy is still limited. Those that cross unwritten lines into political opposition often are shut down.
But China’s bureaucracy is more contentious than it was under Mao. Policy advocates within the government — including officials representing weak bureaucracies, like those charged with fighting pollution, improving education and broadening women’s rights — often seek popular support to increase their clout.
A recent example involved a revision of a law covering rights for the handicapped, which the government undertook after several organizations banded together in 2004 to advocate change on the issue. The activists also contacted Chinese legislators and provided a report to the official Chinese Disabled Person’s Federation.
The government never publicly acknowledged the citizens’ action, but a revised law incorporating some of their recommendations was enacted earlier this year. “The pressure came from both inside and outside,” said Wu Runling, director of the Beijing Huitianyu Information Consulting Center, one of the groups involved. “You can’t tell me that our appeal and calls for revision of the law had no meaning at all.”
Although a powerful system of censorship remains a fact of life, and journalists are frequently jailed and detained, feisty publications with mass audiences in print and on the Internet report forthrightly about ills in society.
Greater access to information has emboldened people to assert some rights. Homeowners in cities like Shanghai and Chongqing have resisted government development schemes with some success, and the proliferation of petitioners with all kinds of grievances presents the authorities with an informal check on their power.
“After 30 years, everybody knows about democracy and freedom,” said Wang Xiaodong, a researcher at the China Youth Research Center, a wing of the Communist Youth League. “They know that as taxpayers, we support the government, not the opposite.”
Before the Olympics, Beijing demolished a favorite pilgrimage spot for petitioners who flow to the capital from all over the country to seek redress from perceived injustice. According to a recent report in a Hong Kong magazine, Phoenix Weekly, the government has also hired thugs to intimidate or kidnap petitioners to prevent them from making their cases. Critics of such abuses say that in an indirect way, the state is acknowledging the power of such protest.
“Human rights has become more than just a theory for the public,” said Jiang Qisheng, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and former political prisoner. “In the past they petitioned and complained about injustice, but that wasn’t about defending their rights. They let the higher authorities to decide their rights.
“What they are asking for now is a change in the system, and this reflects a widespread change in attitude,” he said.
Even in the best of times, China’s human rights improvements have been so gradual as to be almost impossible to discern in any month-to-month sense. And in the tense environment before the Olympics, which China fears could invite uncontrollable protests or blemish its international image, the climate has become noticeably more restrictive.
Lawyers have been sternly warned not to represent clients involved in delicate political cases. Tibetans and Uighur Muslims have been subjected to arrests and “re-education” campaigns.
Hu Jia, a Beijing-based political activist who campaigned for years on behalf of AIDS patients and for greater political openness, was arrested late last year and sentenced to three and a half years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” Many other dissidents have been warned to stay away from Beijing, or have seen state surveillance and harassment extended to their family members.
The government relies on unwritten laws: political confrontation with the ruling party remains a no-go area, and state stability trumps nascent notions of human rights.
Blogs Subvert Propaganda
Yet even as the police tightened security before the Games, the power of new information technologies to chip away at the official line was still on display. In a poor county in Guizhou Province in the south, a teenage girl died under mysterious circumstances, and rumors of police malfeasance and a cover-up spread widely on the Internet, prompting public protests to demand a new investigation.
Local authorities initially tried to suppress news of the protests, which turned violent, and impose an official account of events there. But people wielding video cameras uploaded material to YouTube, and some Chinese journalists disputed official accounts that the riots had been put down peacefully.
One of them was Wu Hanpin, a radio reporter who took pictures of the riot. They showed that the police had fired rubber bullets and teenagers in detention whose bruised foreheads suggested beatings.
“I saw a gap between the official story and the reality, which was mind-blowing, like the presence of the armed police,” Mr. Wu said. “So I put some of these things on the Internet, on my personal blog.” Four days later, after registering hundreds of thousands of visitors, his blog was closed by censors.
“The media has made a huge step forward from the ’80s,” said Sun Jinping, a veteran senior editor at a Beijing newspaper. The riot in Guizhou Province, he said, “would have been impossible for the public to know about in the past.”
A View of the Outside
For others, the impact of information about other countries has been just as great. He Weifang, a professor of law at Peking University, said that before the economic reform era began in 1979, the country was much like North Korea, where people were indoctrinated to believe that Chinese were the better off than people anywhere else.
“Today, even the farmers in remote areas have satellite TVs,” Mr. He said. “So whenever they see an election, such as the one held in Pakistan recently, they may wonder why, even though we have approximately the same economic conditions, they can elect their top leaders, and we can’t even vote for the leader of a small county. I think a consciousness of political rights has increased more than anything.”
Even China’s party-run legal system is a fulcrum for experimentation, though in an ambiguous way that highlights the uncertainties in the country’s transition.
Judges do not have the power to rule independently in China. Yet the country now has 165,000 registered lawyers, a five-fold increase since 1990, and average people have hired them to press for enforcement of rights inscribed in the Chinese Constitution. The courts today sometimes defend property rights and business contracts even when powerful state interests are on the other side.
In criminal law, progress is more grudging. Yan Ruyu, a former Beijing police officer who quit the force and became a lawyer after the violent crackdown on protesters at Tiananmen Square, said such cases remained unpopular with most lawyers because the likelihood of prevailing over the state remains so slim.
“There has been progress, but it’s so slow that sometimes one becomes pessimistic,” he said. “It’s empty talk to speak of having an independent judiciary if the party leads everything.”
On the other hand, Mr. Yan says, party control turns every criminal case into a human rights case. That gives every criminal defense lawyer the chance — and for some of them, the incentive — to inch the system forward.
Li Zhen contributed research from Beijing, and Fan Wenxin and Zhong Zijuan from Shanghai.