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Congressional Research Service, “Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications,” July 13, 2009

This CRS report was prepared by Thomas Lum (specialist in Asian Affairs) and Hannah Fischer (Information Research Specialist).
July 13, 2009

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Human rights has been a principal area of U.S. concern in its relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly since the violent government crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. Some policy makers contend that the U.S. policy of engagement with China, especially since granting the PRC permanent normal trade relations status in 2000, has failed to produce meaningful political reform. Others argue that U.S. engagement has helped to accelerate economic and social  change and build social and legal foundations for democracy and human rights in the PRC. This report analyzes China’s mixed record on human rights – major human rights problems, new human rights legislation, and the development of civil society, legal awareness, and social and political activism. This report discusses major areas of interest but does not provide an exhaustive account of all human rights abuses or related incidents.

Fear of social unrest, especially during times of economic uncertainty, appears to motivate the PRC government’s resistance toward major political reform. The PRC government has attempted to respond to public grievances and popular calls for redress while subduing activists who attempt to organize mass protests and dissidents who openly call for fundamental change. This approach has both produced incremental improvements in human rights conditions and allowed for continued, serious abuses. Major, ongoing problems include excessive use of violence by security forces, unlawful detention, torture, arbitrary use of state security laws against political dissidents, coercive family planning policies, state control of information, and religious and ethnic persecution. Tibetans, ethnic Uighur (Uygur) Muslims, and Falun Gong adherents have been singled out for especially harsh treatment.

China’s leadership has addressed rising public expectations through a combination of economic growth policies and carrot-and-stick political tactics. In so doing, it has planted seeds of potential change. China’s developing legal system, while plagued by corruption and political interference, has provided activists with new ways of defending rights. Although generally supportive of the status quo, the urban middle class has begun to engage in narrowly targeted protests against local government policies, following over a decade of social unrest among wage laborers and farmers. Despite a massive censorship effort, the Internet and other communications technologies have made it impossible for the government to clamp down on information as fully as before.

On July 5, 2009, a peaceful demonstration involving hundreds of Uighur residents in Urumqi, Xinjiang region, turned into an anti-government and inter-ethnic riot after armed police attacked the demonstrators. The state media reported over 180 deaths and nearly 1,700 injuries, mostly ethnic Han Chinese, while Uighur residents claimed that many Uighur deaths had not been reported. PRC authorities reportedly detained nearly 1,500 Uighurs in connection with the riots and vowed to severely punish the protest leaders.

The U.S. government’s multifaceted efforts to promote human rights in China have included open or formal criticisms and assessments of the PRC government’s human rights policies, official bilateral dialogue, sanctions, and congressionally sponsored legislation, hearings, and investigations. Some Members of the 111th Congress have called upon the PRC leadership to release political prisoners and respect the rights of ethnic minorities, introduced various resolutions supporting human rights in China, and passed resolutions supporting Tibetan rights and identity and commemorating the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing. The U.S. government also provides funding for rule of law, civil society development, participatory government, labor rights, Tibetan culture, Internet access, and other programs in the PRC.

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