China Today: Human rights less important than prosperity to party elite

China is giving contradictory signals, with legal reforms accompanied by crackdowns

When President Michael D Higgins shakes the hand of his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Beijing next week, the two leaders will have much in common. Both are known for their charm, their strong socialist credentials and their passionate advocacy of the interests of their respective nations.

The presidential spouses share a theatrical background: Peng Liyuan, Xi Jinping's wife, is a famous folk singer, while Sabina Higgins is an actor and co-founder of Focus Theatre.

Where the interests of the two presidents will not overlap is on the issue of human rights, a perennial problem for visiting leaders, especially from liberal western democracies, who are keen to promote human rights while at the same time not threatening trade.

For the Chinese, human rights is a domestic issue, and whenever western leaders raise it in public, the response is generally a blank look, sometimes with an irritated growl about leaving China’s “core interests” alone.


When he was still vice-president in 2012, Xi told US president Barack Obama: "It is only natural that we have some differences on the issue of human rights."

China is not ready for democracy, and feeding the people and giving them good lives is the most basic human right of all – this is the general line. The Communist Party is proud of having lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the years since the process of reform and opening up began under Deng Xiaoping three and a half decades ago.

For his part, President Higgins is well known as a human-rights activist, a recipient of the Seán MacBride international peace prize who has spoken in the past of “a general failure in the atmosphere surrounding the vindication of human rights in the international economic sphere”.

China on the offensive

Increasingly, China is going on the offensive. The

United States

– the country with the most leverage when it comes to promoting human rights in China – has seen its moral position weakened by


Bay torture cells and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of

National Security Agency


The business community’s argument has always been that by engaging with Beijing and opening up trade routes, democratic reform will somehow follow, but there is no evidence that this is the case.

China is now a major trading partner of the EU, of Ireland and of many other countries, but while the economy has grown massively, there has been no change on the civil-rights side.

There will be a strong trade focus during the President's trip, and his presence will be a big boost to the efforts of State organisations, such as Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, Bord Bía and Tourism Ireland, as well as the Embassy and consulates, as they try to ratchet up trade links.

Whenever Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, comes to Beijing, she is said to bring a list of human-rights cases that she would like to see addressed.Having grown up in communist East Germany, Merkel has generally been more forthright than other EU leaders at addressing human-rights issues, in China and in other countries.

EU diplomats say privately that there are always back channels open for discussion on individual human-rights cases.

President Xi has made much of how reform is beginning to take effect. One area of legal reform that is having an impact on people’s lives has been in relation to the death penalty.

China executed about 2,400 people in 2013 and will execute about the same number in 2014, according to a report by the San Francisco-based rights group Dui Hua. While the country executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, since the Supreme People's Court regained the power of final review of death sentences in 2007, it has executed a lot fewer people, up to 50 per cent less in some parts of the country.

This has led to some groundbreaking cases. Li Yan, who murdered her husband after a period of sustained abuse, was not immediately executed, but rather had the sentence suspended.

And Dui Hua reports that, according to the Supreme People’s Court Monitor blog, reforms are being mooted that would require that all defendants in death-penalty cases be represented by a lawyer during the death penalty review process. This would be a big step to strengthening individual rights protection in the criminal process in China.

A commonly held view is that while the Chinese system has its limitations, the greater good is served.

"All of us recognise the enormous drawbacks of this system, especially in areas such as individual rights and justice, and the prevention of corruption. We also know that under a misguided or unskilled leader, the lack of constraints on power can result in disastrous events, such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution," David Wu, a senior partner at the Beijing office of financial services firm PwC, told the EU China Economic and Finance Forum, organised by the Asia Matters think tank last month. "But under a wise and skilful leader, this system can provide the benefits of stability and effective policy implementation.

“For the past 35 years, the one-party system has provided relative stability at the political and economic policy level. The gradual, controlled introduction of market mechanisms has prevented destabilising big-bang events, chaotic social unrest and disruptive economic shocks.”

Controlled expansion

China’s strong work ethic and adoption of technology, the single-party system, and the continuation of what is effectively a command economy, have provided the leadership with a degree of control that would not have been possible under any other political system.

Since he came to power in 2012, Xi has overseen a major crackdown on dissent, muzzling efforts to reform civil society and human rights, as scores of rights activists, journalists and teachers have been detained.

In August, well-known dissident Gao Zhisheng was released, having allegedly suffering physical and psychological abuse in jail. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is in jail, while artist Ai Weiwei is not allowed to leave Beijing.

Traditionally, those who would take on the state apparatus were farmers who had lost their land to greedy developers with local government help, or petitioners seeking redress for local issues.

Much of Xi’s rule-of-law reforms are aimed at improving the general legal situation for the masses. But expanding the range of the crackdown to include online activity and monitoring social media means that fear is spreading among the middle-class intelligentsia.

Arrest of culture editor

There was genuine surprise, and anxiety, late last month when a 60-year-old culture editor, Xu Xiao, of

Caixin Media

magazine, was taken away on suspicion of “endangering national security”, one of the catch-all charges used to detain dissidents. Her arrest is linked to the shuttering of the independent think tank, the

Transition Institute

, and the Liren Group, which runs private schools and libraries.

“Many people were not ready for Xu Xiao’s arrest, for the so-called crime of endangering national security. Xu Xiao has never mentioned that there is a possibility that she will be in prison,” Zeng Jinyan, a Hong Kong-based rights activist, wrote on her blog. “I guess she is calmly facing the possibility of the arrest anytime. That kind of calm won’t be shaken for anything; she will still cook, meet friends, and work as usual.

"Don't ask why she was arrested, just like don't ask why Guo Yushan, Huang Kaiping and all the others are arrested, because they have the ability to endure poverty and they have all made great efforts in their positions for the improvement of the society.

“We hover between whisper and noise. It is not because we are scared, but because we keep on questioning ourselves: facing such an irrational police system, which isn’t afraid to do what it likes but is afraid of the people, what can we do to protect our loved ones?”

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