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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Clashing views of China’s human rights record at UN hearing

October 21, 2013

By Chris Buckley, NYT Sinosphere

October 20, 2013 - Examining the hundreds of pages of submissions to the latest United Nations hearing on human rights in China, a reader might almost think that two very different countries face scrutiny in Geneva on Tuesday.

The reports from the Chinese government and its proxy groups to the United Nations Human Rights Council depict a country making constant advances in the welfare and rights of its citizens. To be sure, there are some development and legal problems, the reports say, but nothing that cannot be fixed by more laws and better enforcement of those laws.

China is “establishing a robust system of human rights safeguards,” says the government’s report to the hearing, part of a rotating “Universal Periodic Review” process, started in 2008, that each United Nations member must face every four or five years. This will be China’s second review, after the first in 2009.

China, the government’s report says, “fosters a fairer and more harmonious society, and works to ensure that every citizen enjoys a life of ever-greater dignity, freedom and well-being.”

By contrast, the submissions from international human rights groups and from independent Chinese ones depict a jarringly different country — one in which violations of rights remain rife, prison sentences for political charges have worsened and the government’s promised efforts to bring legal protections into line with international rules have been tardy, cosmetic or stalled.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international and independent Chinese advocacy groups exude disappointment and frustration in their submissions. “Failed to make progress,” “regressive steps,” “little improvement,” “severe suppression,” “steps backward” — bleak phrases like these stand out in their submissions, which have been collected online.

“Torture and cruel treatment are still routinely employed to retaliate against and intimidate human rights defenders,” says a submission from Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an international group that works closely with grass-roots rights advocates. “The Chinese government has made little improvement in the critical areas of concern.”

The United Nations review is emblematic of the broader contention over human rights in China. In a hearing of more than three hours, Chinese officials will answer questions from other United Nations member states, which, reflecting their views on China, will vie either to flatter or to press Beijing. Dozens of advocacy groups have also submitted views in writing, and quite a few have representatives in Geneva as observers at the hearing.

Ultimately, China’s own tensions are also on display in its handling of human rights.

The government maintains that it is a faithful adherent of international norms and rules on rights, although it takes a different view from Western countries as to what those norms and rules entail. “China respects the principle of universality of human rights,” says the government’s report to the meeting in Geneva.

But the Chinese Communist Party regularly depicts “human rights” as a vehicle used by Western forces and their Chinese followers to undermine and eventually topple one-party rule. Throughout this year, party-run journals have railed against “universal values,” described as an ideological Trojan horse riddled with subversive credos. An internal party directive issued in April spelled out these accusations.

“The intent behind promoting ‘universal values’ is to shake the ideological and theoretical foundations of party rule,” said the directive, widely known as Document No. 9. “They believe that Western freedom, democracy and human rights are universal and ever-lasting.”

The Chinese government has detained or intimidated Chinese citizens who have sought a say in their government’s submission or tried to travel to Geneva for the meeting, said Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, an advocacy group with offices in New York and Hong Kong. Those detained include Cao Shunli, a woman who disappeared in September as she was preparing to take a flight to Geneva, Ms. Hom said.

“This time, the big difference is China’s own citizens,” she said by telephone from Geneva, where she was planning to attend the session on China. In May, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs used a hard-to-find notice on its Web site to give citizens about two days notice to submit any views about the rights review, she said.

Ms. Hom said: “You are having this kind of very conscious, heavy-handed threatening of citizens who are simply trying to participate as is their right.”

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