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Congressional Research Service, Human Rights in China and U.S. Policy, June 19, 2013

This CRS report was written by Thomas Lum.
June 19, 2013


This report examines human rights issues in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including ongoing rights abuses, legal reforms, and the development of civil society. Major events of the past year include the PRC leadership transition, the Wukan protests over land expropriation, the negotiations that allowed legal advocate Chen Guangcheng to leave China, and the Tibetan self-immolations. Ongoing human rights problems include excessive use of force by public security forces, unlawful detention, torture of detainees, arbitrary use of state security laws against political dissidents and ethnic groups, coercive family planning practices, persecution of unsanctioned religious activity, state control of information, and mistreatment of North Korean refugees. Tibetans, Uighur Muslims, and Falun Gong adherents continue to receive especially harsh treatment. For additional information and policy options, see CRS Report R41007, Understanding China’s Political System; the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s Annual Report 2012; and the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012.

China’s leadership transition has so far provided few indications of a fundamental policy shift on human rights. Nonetheless, many analysts refer to a legitimacy crisis and possible “turning point” after three decades of rapid but uneven economic growth. Some observers sense a shift in public attitudes from an emphasis on economic development and social stability to an eagerness for political reform that would have implications for human rights in China.

Although the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opposes political pluralism, Chinese society has become more diverse and assertive. Non-governmental organizations are playing a larger role in providing social services and policy input. Social protests are frequent, numerous, and widespread. Economic, social, and demographic changes have given rise to labor unrest. PRC citizens have become increasingly aware of their legal rights, while emerging networks of lawyers, journalists, and activists have advanced the causes of many aggrieved individuals and groups. The media continues to push the boundaries of officially approved discourse, and the Internet has made it impossible for the government to restrict information as fully as before. Some Chinese refer to microblog (weibo ) sites as the most important public sphere for free speech.

The PRC government has attempted to respond to some popular grievances, develop the legal system, and cautiously support the expansion of civil society. However, it continues to suppress many activists who try to organize mass protests and dissidents who openly question sensitive policies or call for fundamental political change. Many lawyers who take on politically sensitive cases face government reprisals.

Some notable changes to the PRC criminal justice system were announced in the past year. Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law, which are to go into effect in 2013, reportedly provide for greater protections against torture and coerced confessions, expanded access to legal defense, longer trial deliberations, mandatory appellate hearings, more rigorous judicial review, and greater government oversight of the legal process. In January 2013, the government stated that it planned reforms related to the notorious Re-education Through Labor camps, which hold citizens without trial for non-criminal offenses. Some experts caution that, given China’s weak legal system, it is too early to predict whether these reforms will result in significant improvements in rights protections in these areas.

The United States government has developed an  array of policy tools aimed at promoting democracy and human rights in China, including sanctions, open criticism of PRC human rights policies, diplomacy, and bilateral dialogue. U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have made efforts to upgrade their Internet offerings and ensure access in China. Congress has funded democracy, human rights, rule of law, and Internet freedom programs and efforts in China and Tibetan areas of the PRC. Some policy makers contend that U.S. engagement with China has failed to produce meaningful political reform and improvements in human rights conditions. Other experts argue that U.S. engagement has helped to advance economic and social change in China, to develop legal and social foundations for democracy and human rights, and to open channels through which to directly communicate U.S. concerns.

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