China and the progression of rights
It is thirty years since I made my first visit to China and sixteen since I led a British mission there “to discuss matters of mutual concern, including human rights”. It was not easy – indeed it was a significant achievement – to get the words “human rights” included in the definition of our mission. Given the strength of the media spotlight that Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics has already focused on China’s human rights record, this is as good a time as any to take stock - and, perhaps, to bring some balance into a relentlessly critical, and, in my view, unsophisticatedly black-and-white portrayal of life in China today.
It was as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer that I was invited to visit the People’s Republic as long ago as August 1978. The chance to see something of the country, when it was still very much in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, has served to equip me with a mental yardstick, against which to judge developments over the following thirty years.
The Gang of Four were universal scapegoats; and the re-emerging Deng Xiaoping was only just getting into his stride. My first memories are of the ill-lit, single-track road to the city, from Beijing’s then third world airport; and my most relevant (from the last day of our ten day visit) memories are of the only “court” we were able to find. It was in the heart of a Shanghai police cantonment - and devoid of any visible activity. The two “judges”, whom we were able to find, were retired generals. Neither had ever recorded an acquittal.
Fast forward to this year’s opening of Beijing airport’s third terminal (bigger than the whole of Heathrow) and the cityscape of extraordinarily modern and iconic buildings being built as the City prepares for the Olympics - and the pace of perceivable physical change has been more than fantastic. Against that impressive background, it would be churlish indeed for anyone to contend that there has been no parallel progress in the enhancement of rights – economic, social and civil alike. The personal freedoms that ordinary Chinese citizens now enjoy would have been totally unthinkable at the time of my first visit.
Political reform, of course, has been much less in evidence. But from 1978 onwards China has been taking action to establish the basic pillars of a justice system – in contrast to the overriding “rule of man”, which characterised the Cultural Revolution. And since 1992, the year of my delegation’s visit, formal activity towards the establishment of the rule of law has been more or less continuous. Enforcement has no doubt often trailed behind enactment, but the sheer volume (and indeed the quality) of legislation incorporating human rights protection has indeed been impressive.
In the context of international law, China has signed and ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (2001); and has signed, but not yet ratified, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1998). In the field of domestic law, the passing of the reformed Criminal Procedure Law, 1996 began to recognise the case for the presumption of innocence, for a bail system and for defence lawyers.
Fulfilment of that objective has been less than complete; and the system is in continuing need of updating. But these have been significant steps forward in the establishment of defendant’s rights to fair trial. So too, in 2004, the incorporation into revisions of the Chinese constitution of the need to respect and protect human rights. Nor has China stood still since then. This year alone sees significant steps forward in the protection of employees’ rights, with the new Labour Contract Law (effective since January this year). This requires written contracts of employment and establishes protection from summary dismissal. So too the revised Lawyers Law (effective from June this year) enhances the role and rights of defence lawyers – and, once again therefore, the prospects of fair trial.
Nor should we fail to acknowledge the truly laudable achievement, over the last decade, of lifting more than 150 million people out of absolute poverty. This has been a striking fulfilment of Jiang Zemin’s declaration, to my delegation in 1992, that the need to feed people was his most pressing priority. From the perspective of some countries in Asia, China is now perceived, almost literally, as a land of milk and honey. This certainly is the view expressed by refugees, who have recently chosen, and been able, to escape into China from North Korea – and who have declared themselves astonished (I quote from a leaflet published on their behalf) to find that “personal property and possessions are permitted … the harvest is mine to keep … and there is freedom of residence, freedom of speech and freedom to travel wherever and whenever I want to go”.
Benchmarks of this kind are significant and any society would be justifiably proud of such progress. But it does not receive the recognition which it surely deserves in most media coverage of modern China. Certainly it has carried no weight in the balance of recent press reports on the balance of China’s human rights record. So why is there this recognition gap? How far is the view justified that China should have done more, towards a greater realisation of, in particular, civil and political rights? And even more particularly, how far should it, could it, have done so in this year of hosting the Olympics?
Mark Leonard, in an impressively perceptive book, ‘What does China think?’ writes, “China’s rise is different: it is the big story of our age and its after-effects could echo down generations to come.” This is certainly one reason why China is being called to account in a way that, rightly or wrongly, other smaller, less significant nations, are not. There is also a feeling of disappointment, again highlighted by Mark Leonard, that even though China has grown richer it has not become more “like us”. There has been an assumption that economic growth and development would inevitably lead to the demise of the Chinese Communist Party and to the growth of multi-party democracy. This has not happened. Indeed, the Party’s ability to reinvent itself has so far ensured its own survival and stability.
This certainly challenges Western concepts of the supremacy of liberal democracy, as being the only way to guarantee the freedoms and rights of the governed. But in a society as ancient and continental in scale as China, whose history has experienced long periods of conflict and turmoil, stability is bound to be a dominant objective. Against that background, there can be no doubt that relations between our two
countries are best conducted within a framework of mutually respectful dialogue and exchange of views.
It is that which has characterised the work of two organisations with which I have been myself closely involved, namely the Great Britain – China Centre and the Thomson Foundation. If one takes the issue of freedom of expression as one example, it is notable that China has indeed honoured its commitment to the International Olympics Committee to remove restrictions on foreign journalists’ ability to interview people within China. So too, it has recently allowed access to the long-blocked BBC News website in English.
These two examples underline what folly it is that Hu Jia, an Aids activist, has been imprisoned for “subverting state security”, when we would consider that he was merely exercising his right to express his views on human rights. So, in spite of the significant progress to which I have already alluded, it remains the case that the Chinese authorities appear still to lack the confidence to allow their own citizens to debate and argue freely – whether in print or on electronic media – still less to allow free access to foreign websites. Not unlike some other governments, China’s rulers are still unwisely unwilling to accept criticism of their rights record – all the more so when such criticism comes from overseas.
Freedom of expression and press liberalisation must, as we believe, be the way forward - and ultimately in China’s own interests. A more balanced account of the diversity of views about, for example, Sino-Tibetan relationships and related events would have been more likely to reach the outside world, if the media had had more and not less freedom to observe and report on such matters. Media independence is often the only force that brings incompetence or misbehaviour onto a nation’s agenda – a necessary process, if such misdeeds or misbehaviour are to be identified and corrected. For this reason, the training of Chinese journalists by the Thomson Foundation (and similar work by other UK organisations) on freedom of expression are important interventions. And I am more than convinced that they help to move the debate forward. Encouragingly, there are signs that press freedom is growing in China. Magazines such as Caijing (Finance) play a role in holding the government to account. But progress of this kind is patchy since what is allowed in one month may not be tolerated in the next - which, understandably, makes editors nervous and cautious.
The promotion of the rule of law is an oft-stated goal of the Chinese government - and an organisation like the Great Britain – China Centre works hard with Chinese partners in the judiciary, police and procuratorate, to secure the introduction of best practice models from European experience – for example, in detention centre supervision, human rights training and better procedural processes. No matter how well crafted legislation may be (and there is a good deal now on China’s statute book) it is practice which is ultimately the bedrock for effective protection of human rights. Unless those responsible for implementation understand, and indeed have an interest in understanding, what the law seeks to protect, the law itself is empty -or, at best, a possible ground for appeal. On its own, the law can be no more than an instigator of necessary change. So again training programmes, dialogue and workshops - the very heart of GBCC’s work, - can do much to secure the necessary understanding and practical acceptance of the legal requirements. But we should never underestimate just how daunting a task this can be. By way of example, there are in China over 1.7 million police officers. Getting every one of them to understand and embrace the principles of human rights in their day-to-day policing must be recognised as no mean task.
Ultimately China, the Chinese government and the Chinese people, will determine the level and scope of the rights and freedoms to be enjoyed. We in the West can support dialogue and offer encouragement. We can certainly continue to hold China to account for the promises it has made – and, in particular, the promise of the Beijing Olympics officials that the games would be "an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world". But equally, I believe, we have a duty to inform ourselves of what is actually happening in China - rather than relying on alarmist knee jerk reactions to China’s growing role – political as well as economic - on the international stage.
Upon the basis of our own two thousand years of history, I remain a firm believer in the model of parliamentary democracy and in the values and benefits it confers upon the people of the United Kingdom. But I am prepared to recognise that China, with a history twice as long as ours, and a comprehensive culture of its own making, may yet be forging a new model, that will work for a unified country of one fifth of the world’s population. It is more likely than not to be borne out of its own kaleidoscopic cultural experience and political philosophies, rather than based upon a copycat model of Western historic development.
马克•伦纳德(Mark Leonard)在其极富见解的著作《中国何所思》(What does China think?)中写道，“中国的崛起是不同的：这是我们这个时代的重大事件，其后续效应可能会影响未来几代人。”这肯定是人们要求中国承担责任的原因之一，无论正确与否，对其它规模较小、不那么重要的国家，人们则没有如此要求。马克•伦纳德同时强调，人们也感到有些失望，因为尽管中国变得更为富裕，但中国并没有变得更“像我们”一样。人们有这样一种假设，即经济增长和发展将不可避免地导致中国共产党的消亡和多党民主制的壮大。但这一情况并没有发生。实际上，迄今为止，中国共产党改造自己的能力，确保了自身的生存和稳定。
就我本人而言，我大量参与英中协会(Great Britain – China Centre)和汤姆森基金会(Thomson Foundation)的工作。而构建上述框架正是英中协会和汤姆森基金会的工作特点。以言论自由的问题为例，中国显然的确履行了对国际奥委会做出的承诺，解除了对外国记者在华采访的限制。同样，中国近来还允许网民访问长期被屏蔽的英国广播公司(BBC)新闻英文网站。