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Congressional Research Service, “Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications,” October 31, 2008

This CRS report was prepared by Thomas Lum (specialist in Asian Affairs) and Hannah Fischer (Information Research Specialist).
October 31, 2008

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July 2009 | June 2009 | 2008

In the past two decades, human rights has been a principal area of U.S. concern regarding the People’s Republic of China (PRC), along with security and bilateral trade. Some U.S. leaders argue that U.S. policies of engagement with China, particularly since granting the PRC normal trade relations status in 2000, have helped to accelerate economic and social change and build social and legal foundations for human rights progress in the PRC. Others contend that U.S. engagement has failed not only to produce meaningful political reform but also to set any real change in motion. This report analyzes China’s mixed human rights record of the past several years — major human rights problems, new human rights legislation, and the development of civil society, legal awareness, and social activism. It also discusses factors that may help shape trends during the next several years.

In the past decade, PRC government has attempted to respond to public grievances and popular calls for redress while subduing activists who attempt to organize mass protests. This approach has produced both incremental improvements in human rights and allowed for continued, serious abuses. Major, ongoing problems include unlawful killings by security forces, torture, unlawful detention, the excessive use of state security laws to imprison political dissidents, coercive family planning policies, state control of information, and religious and ethnic persecution. Tibetans, ethnic Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong adherents have been singled out for especially harsh treatment. This report discusses major areas of concern but does not provide an exhaustive account of all human rights abuses in the PRC.

China’s leadership has addressed rising public expectations through a combination of economic growth policies and carrot-and-stick political tactics. In so doing, however, it also has planted seeds of potential change. China’s developing legal system, while still plagued by corruption and political interference, has provided activists in China with a tool with which to promote human 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 rural residents. 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.

The United States government has attempted to promote human rights in China through a multi-faceted approach. U.S. efforts include formal criticism of the PRC government, official bilateral dialogue, public diplomacy, and congressionally sponsored legislation, hearings, visits, and research. The U.S. government also provides funding for rule of law, civil society development, participatory government, labor rights, preserving Tibetan culture, Internet access, and other related programs in China. This report will not be updated.

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