Monday, March 16, 1998

Human Rights in Today's China

In November 1993, the chief executive and the vice president of sales and marketing of a small Tennessee firm visited Shanghai on my advice to explore a business relationship with a local company. We arrived on a Saturday evening to have the next day free to acclimate before serious business meetings got underway. Next afternoon, I took them for a walk on the famous Shanghai Bund by the Huangpu River. Being a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, the walkway along the river was full of local people. Young couples wandered aimlessly or simply stood shoulder to shoulder to gaze across the river without really seeing the busy river traffic below. Children out with their parents ran around shouting, chasing after balls, or simply letting out their exuberance and delight. Senior folks sat in twos and threes watching the lively scene and sipping tea or eating a popsicle purchased from the many vendors stationed nearby.

While these American executives, visiting China for their first time, were soaking in the surrounding good cheer, I asked them if the scene before their eyes resembled the police state that has been depicted by the American media at home. They had to admit that what they saw did not fit with their preconceived notions about China.

In October 1996, another Chinese American and I were invited to Xian, the ancient capital of China, to present some lectures. Over a casual lunch with some local government officials in the presence of an official from Beijing, the conversation was informal and lighthearted. One of the senior officials reminisced about how he was successful in pursuading some of the student leaders to tone down their protest during the "June 4 movement"--Chinese euphemism for the Tiananmen protest. Thus their political activism did not lead to arrests though costing them chances for promising careers in government. Instead they became highly successful entrepreneurs, the official noted with a touch of paternal pride.

While sightseeing in the countryside, a funeral dirge wafted from the PA system of a nearby village. One of the accompanying young officials in our group said, "Hey, who died? This is the funeral music played whenever somebody important dies. May be it is for Lao Deng (meaning old Deng Xiaoping)." Another member of the group replied, "Probably not. Nowadays anybody can use that music, including anyone in the village." Sure enough, at the conclusion of the solemn piece, the village disc jockey said that he simply played it for enjoyment. The official who took the music to heart became the butt of some good-natured ribbing from his colleagues.

These were casual conversations that could not have taken place a few years ago. They served as barometers of how relaxed a place China has become. Americans with the opportunity to visit China invariably comes home saying they saw the vitality of a purposeful people but did not see or feel the presence of a police state. Sadly, not enough Americans can go and see for themselves and must depend on the words of pundits and politicians, many in perpetual pout and harshly critical of China ever since the Tiananmen protest in 1989.

My first visit to China was a personal visit with family members in 1974 when China was still tightly controlled by the now reviled Gang of Four. China then was drab and its people wore the same blue or white shirt or blouse. While the people were friendly, they were guarded in what they said and with each other. Old classmates and close friends from their youth did not socialize with each other except on the rare occasions as welcoming a returning classmate from America as was the case with my father-in-law.

When I started to advise American companies on doing business in China in 1978, China was just beginning to emerge from the sameness and drabness that I saw in 1974. There were no high speed expressways, only a few locally made "Shanghai" sedans, and no traffice jams, no fancy Hongkong-style restaurants, no 5-star hotels, no high class department stores with shelves of imported luxury goods, no McDonalds, and nobody wearing anything that could be described as plain much less fashionable. Thanks to its near double digit economic growth since China instituted reform in 1979, all of those things became common place. Twenty years ago, foreign visitors shopped in state designated "friendship stores" that were off limits to local people. Today those same friendship stores are fighting to survive against the proliferation of fancy department stores that are joint ventures with outside participation. Local citizens are no longer barred from friendship stores but prefer the high fashions of stores operated by owners from Hong Kong or Japan.

The one constant about China over the last twenty years is change. Nothing stays the same and the economic reform has been the driving force. While the economic change is the easiest to spot, the change has been accompanied by pervasive social and political changes. While the China bashers dwell on and are fixated by the images from the Tiananmen on June 4, 1989, China has moved on.

At the national level, the National People's Congress (NPC), used to be known as a rubber stamp of the Chinese Communist Party, has been taking more independent action and getting away with it. In April 1995 for the first time, an unprecedented one-third of the delegates rejected Jiang Chunyun for vice premier notwithstanding that he was Chairman Jiang Zemin's nomination. In the latest pro forma election of Li Peng as the president of the Congress, several hundred showed their displeasure by abstaining. In early 1997, NPC drafted and passed amendments to the criminal procedure code greatly liberalizing the provisions handling criminals. These procedures were passed despite opposition and displeasure from the Ministry of Public Security.

Henry Rowen, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and former official of the Bush administration, said in the 1996 Fall issue of National Interest, "The National People's Congress is rewriting the criminal laws to state that defendants shall not be presumed guilty, that they shall have lawyers, and that the police shall no longer be able to hold them without charge. Doubtless, for some time to come these new laws will often be observed in the breach, but their passage is an indicator of the growing demand for democratic procedure."

Locally, China has been holding elections in the countryside in recent years, some villages having started earlier than others. Most recent ones were observed by representatives from the Carter Center sent from the U.S. The essential point of these elections is not whether they meet Western standards --most probably they do not-- but that they are taking place. The eventual plan is to hold elections at the township and county level and perhaps continuing to even higher level. The countryside still represents 75% of China's population. By their learning the democractic process, China is taking an important step to having true political reform. Other nations with predominant rural populations that adopted elections hastily without an electorate properly trained about the process are only practicing sham democracy. A largely uneducated and ignorant population is easily manipulated by a crafty and corrupt few.

Most of these progressive developments in China have been under-reported in western media and over shadowed by the focus on human rights abuses as perceived by the West. For example, most of the American public do not know that China's Minister of Justice, Xiao Yang has publicly stated that China needs to govern all its affairs by the rule of law. He also admitted that China is not there yet. In the June 18, 1996 issue of China Daily, the quasi-official English daily of Beijing government, Xiao indicated that "the aim is to ensure over 80% of the villages, 80% of State-owned enterprises and 70% of other institutions conscientiously administer affairs by law by year 2000."

Upon hearing about Xiao's remarks, the most likely American reaction would be: If China recognizes the need for rule of law, why not 100% now? Such an American expectation typifies the American's lack of understanding of the complexities of today's China. Accompanying the economic reform has been a steady loosening of control by the central government. No longer can Beijing rule by edict and expect immediate compliance. On the other hand, the rise of regional control is uneven as is local commitment to rule of law. Some local courts are fair and professional while others are still not trained in the legal niceties and may be more partial to local parties independent of the merits of the dispute.

American impatience at China's pace of reform overlooks its own history. (+++) Compare to the U.S. experience on can argue that China has actually been lightening quick.

Impatience aside, China's priority on human rights also differs from that of the West. While the U.S. considers the rights of the individual sacred, China along with many other Asian nations prizes the stability of the entire society over the welfare of the individual. Recently, in Zhengzhou, a former head of public security, equivalent to the chief of police in the U.S., was executed for driving under the influence of alcohol and killing a 15 year old boy by hitting him and dragging him for a distance and then driving off without rendering assistance. No doubt this is a harsh sentence from the American perspective. Even worse, I am certain a similar incident in another locale would not likely end up with the same fate. However, visitors to China will agree that the roads congested with many inexperienced by reckless drivers could stand more law and order. If the execution has the desired sobering effect on the drivers of Zhengzhou, who's to say that the road kills avoided do not outweigh the hapless life of one?

China also looks at human rights at a more basic level including such rights as right to life, freedom from starvation, right to shelter and clothing, the right to an education, and right to employment and thus gain the means to support themselves. I contend that when individuals are deprived of these basic rights, and many in economically backward countries do suffer from such deprivation, they are not going to care about voting and having the freedom to express their opinion. With economic growth, the general population begin to enjoy a higher standard of living. When they have their basic human rights satisfied, then and only then do they start to look for more and demand more. They expect more alternatives and choices in lifestyle if not for themselves then for their children. The progressive liberalization that follows may not be part of the plans of the political leaders, but it has been inevitable.

However, U.S. critics insist on dwelling on the treatment of a handful of prominent dissidents, to the exclusion of objective evaluation of the total picture in China. A particular odious example has been the so-called human rights activist, Harry Wu, a man with a distinctly murky past, who has been making some of the most outlandish comments and outrageous statements about China, none of which could stand up to casual scrutiny. (For example, he claimed to have personally videotaped the removal of kidneys from prisoners in China's prison before these prisoners were led away to be executed. The adoring American interviewer did not think to ask Wu how he got invited to such a photo-op.)

Wu has been making a big deal about China's "laogai," a Chinese abbreviation for "labor through education." Based on his personal experiences in the 1960's when he was thrown in prison for stealing, he campaigns tirelessly in the West representing China's prison system as hell on earth. To my knowledge, he has never measured the heavenly index of the U.S. prison system for contrast. Yet the U.S. has 565 prisoners per 100,000 ranking first in the world and is more than five times the number China admits to be in their prisons. The failure of the American prison system is well known. Recidivism in the U.S. has remained over 40%, 50-70% of juvenile deliquents commit another crime within 12 months of release. The only response from government officials is to enact three strikes laws which will reduce recidivism by keeping more of the criminals in jail for longer stays and thus assure the building of new jails as the latest growth industry. China claims to have one of the lowest recidivism rate in the world at between 6-8%. Someone more objective than Wu is needed to make a determination whether America has something to learn from China's approach to reforming convicts.

Finally this year, the Clinton administration has decided to forego the futile annual attempt to censure China through the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Last year the effort ended in dismal failure when countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Japan declined to join the U.S. backed resolution fronted by Denmark. This year even Denmark has decided not to get into this act. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi promptly criticizes the move as one motivated by money at the expense of American values in human rights. She couldn't be more wrong. Western participation in China's economy has done more for improving China's human rights than all the carping and posturing about human rights abuses.

Apart from helping to raise the standard of living in China by investing in China, multinational corporations insist on clear guidelines that would protect their investments. Consequently, Beijing's drive for joint ventures with foreign companies has led to the formation of laws and regulations on foreign owned ventures. These laws are not perfect but represents a huge step in getting China accustomed to the benefits of rule of law. Similar economic pressures have also led to the formation of laws protecting intellectual property and subsequently the enforcement of such laws. The drive to put economic laws on the books spilled over to a host of new civil and criminal laws in China. In fact, China today has become the only country other than the U.S. where the courts will hear class action suits-- perhaps has China gone too far?

Joint ventures with western partners are also important stimuli for change. By having Americans working in China and giving some of the Chinese staff an oppportunity to receive training outside, the Chinese gained an opportunity to directly witness and appreciate American's egalitarian attitudes, concerns for the environment, views on equal opportunity, sense of fair play and other values. With daily contact, Americans in the joint ventures are in a strongest position to introduce American values by example --rather than by rhetoric-- and influence the thinking of the Chinese people.

On one occasion, while driving a group of visitors from China around the San Franisco area, I pulled into a rest area on the Interstate highway and told my guests the story of a homeless priest who took shelter there and acted as the unpaid caretaker/gardener of the rest stop. The state highway authority initially wanted to evict the homeless priest but was turned completely around by the vocal protests of the people in support of the priest. Now the authority wants to use this case as a model for beautification of other rest areas. Why did I stop to tell the story? Because I believe these anecdotal, see-for-themselves incidents are much more effective in promoting their understanding of America than the holier-than-thou lectures that people in Congress like to give. As long as there are cordial relations between the two countries, there are millions of opportunities for these show-and-tells.

I am of course not suggesting in the slightest that China is free from human rights problems but I do believe that China's problems will become increasingly similar to the problems in America. Economic boom has led to widening gap between haves and have nots. Consequently, there is now as many as 100 million migrant workers from the rural areas seeking work in the urban areas. They frequently sleep in hovels or in the open as do homeless in the U.S. With the threatened wholescale closing of inefficient state-owned enterprises, the prospects loom of a huge unemployed workforce clashing with the migrant workers. Unscrupulous outside investors have already taken advantage of the cheap labor and absence of regulations on labor protection to set up sweat shops that operate under inhumane conditions. With loosening of government control, drug addiction is also becoming a problem, a problem thought to have been eradicated when the communists took over.

Will familarity of China's human rights problem bring about sympathy instead of castigation? I don't have any idea, but it is well to bear in mind the observation made by Professor John Bryan Starr, author of a recent and highly readable book on Understanding China. He said, "In looking at conditions in another country, Americans often measure real conditions abroad against an idealized vision of conditions at home, and thus seem blind to violations of human rights in their own society at the same time that they ferret out evidence of violations elsewhere."
A version published in Harvard International Review, Summer 1998, page 68ff