Chapter 2: What Is the State of Democracy and Human Rights in China?

Chapter 2 Preface


On May 4, 1989, approximately 100,000 students and workers marched through Beijing demanding democratic reforms in the government and the removal of the Chinese Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping. On May 20, the government declared martial law, and on June 3 and 4, troops were sent into Tiananmen Square, a historic site in the capital city, to stop the protests. The People’s Liberation Army, as the Chinese army is called, crushed the demonstrations, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Following the violence, the government arrested, imprisoned, and executed many suspected dissidents.

In the West, the violence at Tiananmen Square was reported as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre.” Images of soldiers in tanks pursuing students with protest signs left little doubt in Americans’ minds about the lack of democracy in China.

While most American observers have condemned the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, some suggest that the government’s crackdowns on dissent are necessary. Author Robert D. Kaplan argues, “Were China to have suddenly become a parliamentary democracy in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square uprising, the average Chinese citizen would likely be worse off today.” By maintaining political stability, Kaplan argues, Chinese leaders were able to encourage economic growth, which will, in his view, eventually pave the way for democratic reforms in China.

In contrast to Kaplan’s rather optimistic view of Tiananmen, notable groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to document the arrests, tortures, and executions that occur routinely in China. In their view, the international community should condemn China’s poor record on human rights and use economic sanctions or other pressures to encourage China to become more democratic.

China Is Becoming More Democratic

Henry S. Rowen is a professor of public policy and management at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. In the following viewpoint, he maintains that the People’s Republic of China is on its way to becoming a democracy. Rowen predicts that China will follow the examples of Taiwan and South Korea, which became more democratic as their economies improved. The government is allowing local elections to be held in villages, he notes, and is also beginning to institute fair laws regarding business transactions and the treatment of criminals. Rowen concludes that China is becoming freer each year, and will continue to do so as long as it becomes more prosperous.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. When does the author predict that China will become a democracy?

2. What reforms has the Chinese government instituted regarding criminals, according to Rowen?

3. In the author’s view, what is the “worldwide—and Asian—norm” regarding the relationship between economic prosperity and political freedom?

When will China become a democracy? The answer is, around 2015.

There are two reasons for this forecast: One is positive changes there; the other is the effect of economic growth on freedoms throughout the world.

Freedom House [a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy and human rights] gives China a political freedom rating of zero: It is a one-party state, there are many “counterrevolutionaries” in prison, people are detained without trial, and there were more than two thousand summary executions in 1994. Nevertheless, China has come far since the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution [two of Communist leader Mao Zedong’s efforts to economically and socially transform China], notably in three important areas.

Three Signs of Progress
Grassroots Democracy. The dissolution of the communes left no local governments and thus led to village elections. By the early 1990s, 90 percent of village committees had been elected.

Progress has been ragged. Local cadres resist losing privileges, and nonparty members often experience discrimination. Some assemblies require party membership for candidacy. There is some probable ballot fraud, and officials decide if voters can choose more than one candidate. Nevertheless, the principle of competitive elections has been established. Those who oppose party members are no longer “enemies of the people.” The concept of rule by law is accepted, with peasants learning about legal procedures and how to protect their rights.

The Rule of Law. Under communism, law is an instrument of politics. Many Chinese now, however, hold that government should observe its own rules. Values consistent with Western ideals of equality, justice, and legality—and also with ancient Chinese ideals—are expressed widely, and some are now embodied in legislation. Officials recognize that a market economy and foreign investment need stable and fair rules.

Contributing to the demand for law is the weakness of the state, with massive corruption, illegal businesses run by government agencies, and theft of government assets. Most basic is the party being outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts. Other problems are enforcing decisions in civil proceedings, the immunity of military enterprises, and bribery of judges.

The People’s Congress is rewriting the criminal laws. Defendants are not to be presumed guilty and will have their own lawyers. The police no longer will be able to hold people without charge. Doubtless these laws will often be violated, but their passage is significant.

The Mass Media. Economic liberalizing had the unintended...

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China Is Not Becoming More Democratic

In the following viewpoint, James R. Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China and director of the American Institute in Taiwan, rejects the idea that China is becoming a democratic nation. Free market forces do seem to be pushing China toward Western-style capitalism, he admits, but he points out that China has a long history of authoritarian rule and that previous attempts by foreigners to influence China’s development have been met with violence. Lilley concludes that the Chinese people are more concerned with economic progress than with meeting westerners’ hopes for a political transformation in China.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. What historical examples does the author give of instances in which foreigners attempted to influence China, and failed?

2. What is the “overriding slogan for most Chinese today,” in the author’s opinion?

3. What forces will influence the next generation of Chinese leaders, in Lilley’s view?

Will China transform itself into a Western-style democracy? Can the United States do anything to encourage this? Before answering, consider Yale professor Jonathan Spence’s book To Change China. Spence describes the failed attempts of foreigners, from the Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the seventeenth century to General George Marshall in the twentieth, to impose solutions on an imperfect China. In all cases, China was influenced but did not convert.

A History of Violence
Christianity came to a weakened China in force after the Opium War of 1840. The result was not a Christian China but the Taiping Rebellion, which killed 20 million Chinese and was led by an epileptic who believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. Marxism came to China in 1921 when the Communist party of China was founded in Shanghai. The result was not a new socialist China in the Stalin model but the Great Leap Forward of 1959, when Chairman Mao hoped to propel China into the advanced stage of Communism. Instead, 40 million Chinese died—most of them starved to death in failed communes. When free market forces were introduced into Communist China in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping, the result was not an evolving democracy but the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In short, when outsiders apply their standards to China and try to introduce new systems quickly or forcefully, what occurs is never quite what was planned. Tragedy can ensue. China does alter course, but in a Chinese way.

Today, free market forces are pushing back the state in nearly all sectors of China’s economy. Christianity has never been stronger. Yet China is still ruled by a single Communist party backed by a powerful...

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Human Rights Abuses in China Are Widespread

The following viewpoint is excerpted from the U.S. Department of State’s 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In it, the State Department lists the human rights violations that occurred in China in 1999, as well as the slow progress that China has made in the area. The authors maintain that the Chinese government routinely arrests, imprison, tortures, and executes individuals who are perceived to be threats to the Communist Party. Chinese citizens do not enjoy freedom of the press or freedom of religion, according to the report. Although the Chinese government has made some efforts to reform its legal system and institute local elections, the report notes that in general, China’s political atmosphere remains...

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The United States Overemphasizes Human Rights Abuses in China

In the following viewpoint, Ming Wan argues that, while the state of human rights in China is poor according to Western standards, the West fails to realize that the average Chinese person does not place that much importance on human rights. The Chinese government’s official position is that human rights concerns are sometimes outweighed by the need to maintain political stability by suppressing dissent. Wan argues that public opinion in China also supports stability over freedom. Wan concludes that the United States should stop trying to force its values on the Chinese people, and instead let them develop their own views on democracy and human rights. Ming Wan is an assistant professor of public and international affairs at...

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China’s One-Child Policy Violates Human Rights

In the 1970s, China began to implement a nationwide family planning policy—called the “one-child policy” because under it couples are strongly discouraged from having more than one child. In the following viewpoint, Harry Wu asserts that the Chinese government routinely forces sterilization or abortion on women who attempt to have a second child. Wu concludes that China’s one-child policy is unnecessary and that the ways in which it is enforced constitute serious abuses of governmental authority. Harry Wu is executive director of the Laogai Research Foundation, an organization that collects information about forced labor camps and other human rights violations in China.

As you read, consider the following...

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China’s One-Child Policy Does Not Violate Human Rights

The following viewpoint is excerpted from an official document published by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. China’s policy is that family planning is a necessary response to the problem of overpopulation and that it benefits the Chinese people in a variety of ways by ensuring that China’s finite resources are not spread too thin. Moreover, the authors contend that China’s family planning is consistent with human rights principles, reasoning that an individual’s right to reproduce is outweighed by the harms associated with unrestricted population growth.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. In what year did China first begin to promote...

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Economic Sanctions Should Be Imposed on China

William Saunders is foreign policy and human rights counsel to the Family Research Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes traditional values. In the following viewpoint, Saunders calls on U.S. policymakers to institute economic sanctions against China in order to pressure it into curbing its human rights abuses. He favors revoking China’s “Normal Trade Relations” status (the name was changed from “Most Favored Nation” status in 1997), under which trade between the United States and China is free of protective tariffs and other barriers. Saunders maintains that economic sanctions are an effective alternative to military action as a means of achieving foreign policy goals.

As you read, consider the...

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Economic Sanctions Should Not Be Imposed on China

Congressman David Dreier is a California Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee. In the following viewpoint, he argues that China should continue to receive “Most Favored Nation” status (now known as “Normal Trade Relations” status). Economic sanctions are an ineffective means of promoting human rights in other countries, he maintains. China’s economic reforms have resulted in greater prosperity and more freedom; economic sanctions would only undermine that prosperity and cause China to backslide into more repression. Moreover, if the United States were to impose economic sanctions on China, the action could draw the two nations into a disastrous cold war.

As you read, consider the following...

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Chapter 2 Periodical Bibliography


The following articles have been selected to supplement the diverse views presented in this chapter. Addresses are provided for periodicals not indexed in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the Alternative Press Index, the Social Sciences Index, or the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.

America. “The People’s Republic at 50,” October 9, 1999.

Sophie Beach. “Tiananmen Plus Ten,” Nation, June 14, 1999.

Gwendolyn Dean. “We Must Boycott China’s Goods,” Christian Social Action, January 1998.

Bay Fang. “China Draws a Hard Line,” U.S. News & World Report, January 24, 2000.

Robert D....

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