Happy Lunar New Year from the USC US-China Institute!
U.S. Congressional–Executive Commission on China, "Annual Report 2004," October 5, 2004
The Commission finds limited progress over the past year in some areas of human rights and rule of law in China, but also finds severe and continuing problems on many of the issues critical to ensuring that its citizens enjoy internationally recognized human rights. Chinese government repression of free religious belief and practice has grown more severe over the past year. The Chinese government has continued its record of violating workers’ rights and punishing workers who advocate for change. Chinese authorities continue to expend significant resources to silence their critics and censor information from sources the government cannot control or influence. The Commission notes that China continues to enact legal reforms that may provide the foundation for stronger protection of rights in the future. However, the monopolization of power under a one-party system and the resulting absence of democratic accountability have led to widespread corruption and a loss of faith in government. Together these cascading problems frustrate the efforts of ordinary Chinese citizens to claim their rights under the Constitution and law, and hinder the implementation of legal reforms adopted since 1979.
In March 2004, the National People’s Congress amended China’s Constitution to guarantee human rights for China’s citizens. This step is a positive development, but the Chinese Communist Party will now have to deliver some measurable improvements in human rights to maintain its own legitimacy. The government and Party must also create the legal mechanisms necessary to enforce this and other constitutional guarantees. Without these mechanisms, the Chinese leadership demonstrates its continued unwillingness to allow the Chinese people to exercise their constitutional rights, freely voice their beliefs, desires, and complaints, or take a meaningful role in their government. This reluctance was particularly evident in recent backward-stepping policies designed to move Hong Kong away from the promised “high degree of autonomy” and to delay developing the democratic institutions that most Hong Kong people support.
Since taking office in 2003, China’s new leadership has gradually moved away from the “economic growth at any price” strategy of the past and toward a new “populism.” This shift has been accompanied by substantial efforts to grapple with HIV/AIDS and a failing public health infrastructure, alleviate poverty, and address serious fiscal and governance issues burdening China’s rural poor. Chinese women are benefiting from new economic opportunities, but poverty in rural areas disproportionately harms women. Chinese law has begun to recognize and offer redress for problems like domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual harassment.
The Chinese government continues to detain and imprison Chinese citizens for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and belief. Coerced confessions, lack of access to defense counsel, law enforcement manipulation of procedural protections, pervasive presumption of guilt by law enforcement officials, judges, and the public, and extra-judicial pressures on courts continue to undermine the fairness of the criminal process in China. In the wake of several abuse scandals, Chinese criminal justice organs launched a coordinated campaign in 2003 and 2004 to improve public relations and assuage public anger over some law enforcement abuses. The campaign has set a more positive tone for discussion of defendant rights and produced some limited results. However, lack of professionalism in many law enforcement agencies and courts, public pressure on the government to address rising crime rates, and leadership efforts to maintain Party power and social stability are likely to limit the impact of these initiatives in the short term. As they debate key reforms to China’s criminal justice system, Chinese scholars, judges, and officials continue to look to foreign models and are actively seeking exchange with foreign counterparts on criminal justice issues.
Working conditions in China and the government’s lack of respect for internationally recognized worker rights remained largely unchanged over the past year. Government implementation of labor laws, regulations, and policies continues to fall well below international norms in a number of areas. The Chinese government denies Chinese citizens the right to organize freely and to bargain collectively; it continues to imprison labor leaders and suppress worker efforts to represent their own interests; it continues to discriminate against migrant workers; and it has developed a system that encourages forced labor. Child labor remains a significant problem in China. In addition, unhealthy and unsafe conditions are pervasive in Chinese workplaces.
The Party intensified its crackdown against free religious belief and practice during 2003 and expanded the campaign during 2004. The Commission has welcomed China’s progress toward developing a system based on the rule of law, but in the case of religion, the Chinese government uses law as a weapon against believers. Hundreds of unregistered believers, and members of spiritual groups such as Falun Gong, have endured severe government repression in the past year. Many unauthorized places of worship have been demolished. The Chinese government has tightened its repression of unregistered Catholic religious practice and believers. Protestant house church congregations have suffered continued government intimidation and harassment, with reports of beatings and killings. The Party continues its ongoing campaign to transform Tibetan Buddhism into a doctrine that promotes patriotism toward China, and repudiates the religion’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government continues to strictly regulate Islamic education and practice, particularly in Xinjiang, where authorities prevent Uighur Muslim children from developing a strong Islamic identity and punish adult Muslims for engaging in unauthorized religious activity.
Chinese authorities continue to impose strict licensing requirements on publishing and news reporting. Authorized publishers are subject to censorship; unauthorized publishers are subject to punishment. China’s government continues to harass, intimidate, detain, and imprison those who express opinions that the Party deems objectionable. Although the number and variety of government-controlled information sources continue to increase, the Chinese government attempts to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing news from foreign sources, often with help from foreign and Chinese companies that must either impose political self-censorship or be shut down. Chinese citizens must rely on resources and technology that organizations outside of China provide to circumvent government Internet censorship.
Forced evictions in urban areas and the requisition of farmland in rural areas are fueling anger at government officials and developers and generating a growing stream of citizen petitions, legal disputes, and protests across China. Despite central government efforts to curb illegal land transactions and abuses, corruption remains rampant. Procedures and compensation standards are weighted heavily in favor of the government and developers and do not adequately protect the rights and interests of those whose land is requisitioned.
The hukou (household registration) system remains a key component of the caste-like divide in Chinese society between urban and rural residents. The Chinese government continues to liberalize the hukou regime, but some of these reforms are slowly shifting the existing system into a set of officially-recognized class divisions based on wealth.
Access to justice remains a serious problem in China. Although the government is making strides to enhance the professional quality of the Chinese judiciary, scarce legal resources and the intermingled nature of government and private legal services in rural areas limit equitable access to the legal system. The Chinese judicial system continues to be plagued by both extra-judicial interference and internal administrative practices that constrain the independence of judges and undermine court effectiveness. A closed, non-transparent, and inefficient network of thousands of “letters and visits” offices, where citizens can petition their government, serves as a dysfunctional alternative to the legal system for most Chinese citizens. The Chinese government’s progress in establishing a nationwide legal aid system over recent years is a positive step toward developing the rule of law, but government efforts are limited by the failure to fund local institutions properly.
The visit to China by the Dalai Lama’s envoys that began on September 12 creates an important opportunity to address obstacles and achieve progress through dialogue. Chinese leaders misrepresent the Dalai Lama’s offer to accept bona fide autonomy as an attempt to gain independence in a “disguised form,” even though he has stated that a solution can be based on China’s Constitution. Politically, Tibetan rights to constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, religion, and association are subject to strict constraints, but emerging patterns suggest that local governments in some Tibetan areas are relatively less repressive than others. Economically, most Tibetans live in rural areas where they are marginalized by low incomes, poor health care, and lack of economic opportunities. Culturally, the increasing Han population in Tibetan areas poses a significant challenge to Tibetan culture and heritage.
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