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China Flunks Its Own Standards

In the "dog bites man" department, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a devastating report, which found that the Chinese had "failed to deliver" the human rights gains promised in its much-ballyhooed, first-ever "National Human Rights Action Plan" for 2009-10.

The report is timely, since Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington this week to discuss a wide variety of issues with President Obama and other U.S. leaders, including human rights. In terms of "promises made and promises broken," the U.S. will surely have China’s human rights record of the last two years in mind.

HRW reports that the years 2009-2010 witnessed a "rollback of key civil and political rights" in China, as the regime, among other actions, stepped up its practice of "enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, including in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as ‘black jails.’" It also:

  • "continued its practice of sentencing high-profile dissidents such as imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to lengthy prison terms on spurious state secrets or "subversion" charges;
  • expanded restrictions on media and internet freedom;
  • tightened controls on lawyers, human rights defenders, and nongovernmental organizations;
  • broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans."

This is a serious report. By taking China at its word as to the sincerity of its Human Rights Action Plan, HRW throws a lot of cold water on the theory that has been a critical part of U.S. China policy for nearly half a century: that engagement will lead to democratic change.

While focusing on political rights, HRW strains to give the Chinese government credit for something. It notes, for example, that the UN has commended the regime on its efforts to address "subsistence and development rights"—still, as the report observes, even here, reliable data are hard to come by.

But political and civil rights are the report’s priority. Among its findings: The Chinese government "repeatedly rejected requests" for an "independent international investigation into the March 2008 protests across the Tibetan plateau," refused to approve requests to visit Tibet by the United Nations," and "made false statements" before UN Human Rights Council in February 2009." What were those "false statements?" The government denied that there was any censorship in the country or that any individual or press representative had suffered government retribution for airing their opinions.

That’s a whopper, even by UN standards. According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which maintains a database on political prisoners, roughly 5,500 individuals are incarcerated in Chinese prisons today simply for exercised their internationally-recognized human rights. As the CECC website notes: "A ‘political prisoner’ is someone who is detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising his or her human rights under China's own Constitution and laws, or under international law. These rights include peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and free expression—including the freedom to advocate for peaceful social or political change, and to criticize Chinese government policy or Chinese government officials."

As the HRW report notes, one of those languishing in prison for the crime of peacefully airing his opinions is Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner. The report also focuses on a notable and ironic example of government censorship and, arguably, manipulation: In an Oct. 2010 interview on CNN, broadcast in the U.S., Premier Wen Jiabao argued for freedom of speech in China, especially the right to criticize the government. But no one in China saw his remarks; they were censored.

A cynic might suspect that Wen himself gave the order to censor his own remarks, but in this "looking glass" world that is modern China, perhaps we should take the Premier at his word. Enter the looking glass: Tonight, if tradition is observed, President Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, will exchange toasts at a state dinner with President Hu, jailer of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used very blunt language recently to call for Liu’s release. What President Obama says tonight and how he says it, will be yet another milestone in a presidency defined by difficult challenges.

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