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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."

Interview: China's 'Mixed Record' on Human Rights

March 29, 2009

Interviewee: Jerome A. Cohen, Adjunct Senior
Fellow for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
March 26, 2009

Jerome CohenJerome A. Cohen, an expert on human
rights in China, sees "enormous progress" in
economic and social rights but says deep
problems--and sometimes harsh reprisals--persist
for those seeking political and civil rights.
"Repression is brutal and continuing for people
who overtly challenge the system or refuse to
allow themselves to be beaten down," Cohen says.
He notes the continuation of the practice of
"reeducation through labor" to clamp down on
dissent. Cohen says the Obama administration has
not yet decided how to deal with the problem when
it needs China's help in economic, diplomatic,
and military areas but says there is a great
opportunity for cooperation in improving China's rights system.

The latest State Department report on human
rights around the world is rather condemning of
China's recent record. Is China really doing that
badly or has there been some improvement in recent years?

If we're talking about human rights in the
narrower sense that Americans generally use it,
that is, political civil rights, meaning freedoms
of expression and protections against arbitrary
state actions, including imprisonment, then China
has at best a mixed record. But the Chinese might
discuss human rights in terms of economic and
social rights. Of course in those categories,
China has made enormous progress, even though
there are increasingly obvious social costs,
especially the big gap that's getting bigger
between the rich and the poor. But if we talk
about what I think we're talking about, which is
political and civil rights expressions, due
process of law, and all that, it's at best a mixed record.

Perhaps we should focus on the period after Mao Zedong died?

Beginning in 1979, China started the process of
what it calls "the open policy," and that has led
to considerable improvements including in the
legal system. There wasn't much of a legal system
even before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
When the Cultural Revolution ended with the death
of Chairman Mao in September 1976, and Deng
Xiaoping finally ascended to the head of the
party in late 1978, there was a push to create a
legal system. Deng knew that China needed a legal
system for many reasons--internal economic
development, foreign economic cooperation,
assuaging people's concerns against all the
trepidations of the Cultural Revolution when over
100 million were adversely affected. It
represented one of the most arbitrary periods of Chinese history.

[R]epression is brutal and continuing for people
who overtly challenge the system or refuse to
allow themselves to be beaten down.

China needed rules and regulations for regulating
the allocation of power among central government
institutions and between the central government
and the provincial and local governments. In
summary, China needed law, in fact, just to
settle disputes. If you get a huge number of
individually unimportant disputes, that gets out
of hand because the system isn't processing them.
This creates a dangerous situation. And that's
what the Chinese social situation is becoming
now, with a huge number of petitioners trying to
solve their grievances and the questions of what
kind of systems are there for processing these grievances.

I was a Soviet specialist, and in those years, it
was clear that human rights were quite limited.
The Communist Party was everywhere, and it was
very hard for individuals to speak out at all. In
China today, given the Internet and everything
else, it's obviously easier to speak out individually.

It's easy to speak out as an individual if you
don't overtly challenge the system and if you
don't seek to have any colleagues or any kind of
large-scale organization or association. People
have the freedom to speak at home now. They used
to be afraid during the worst years of the
Cultural Revolution and earlier to speak out even
at home. You never knew who would be forced to
betray you. So there is a big improvement in
terms of speaking to your friends confidentially,
putting individual opinions out criticizing this
or that. That can be done more than in the past,
and the Internet obviously facilitates that. But
repression is brutal and continuing for people
who overtly challenge the system or refuse to
allow themselves to be beaten down.

What are the issues that the Chinese authorities are most sensitive about?

Falun Gong, the new quasi-religious organization,
would be at the top of any list for ridiculous
reasons. Tibet would certainly be at the top
along with Xinjiang. Taiwan is another sensitive
issue. The administration of repression is uneven
because it varies from month to month depending
on the circumstances, and it varies from place to
place also depending on circumstances. The fact
is that state security agencies, together with
various police units, including armed police
under the military, run a very tight ship, and
quietly, they're very good at regulation. They
have an enormous amount of repression skills,
even while giving the appearance of not being a
police state. If you go to Pakistan, for
instance, at every corner even though there're
democratic elections and the restoration of a
chief justice, you are in no doubt that it's
essentially a policed country. You see military
in police uniforms on every corner. If you go to
China, it looks great. You don't see any of this.

When I was in Shanghai last November, I didn't see much repression at all.

It's wonderful except you can't be under any
illusion that they aren't aware of what you're
doing. If they think it's worthwhile, they will
quietly be tracking you. People will ask me, "Are
you followed when you're there?" I say, "No,
they're ahead of me." When I arrive at some
place, they're already there because that's the
way the system works. My friend Zheng Enchong, a
Shanghai lawyer, wasn't challenging the
government in any way or calling for the
overthrow of the party or the constitution or
calling for freedom of expression. He was
representing a large number of lower-middle-class
and middle-class people who had apartments that
were being dispossessed for profitable
real-estate redevelopments by favored developers.

Authorities stopped Zheng from helping these
people. They took away his lawyer's license and
when he continued to advise without a lawyer's
license, they cooked up a scheme to send him to
prison for three years, saying that he had sent
abroad state secrets. And when he came out and
finished his period of deprivation, nothing had
changed. He's continuing to be under a very loose
form of house arrest that effectively precludes
him from seeing people. I tried to visit him, and
six police stopped me at his door.

But what about the judicial reforms?

There has been some criminal justice reforms, an
attempt to improve the review of death penalty
sentences at the Supreme Court level. Formal
criminal justice reform efforts still survive in
China despite a very conservative climate. But
that's at the top, very visible part of the
scale. Underneath, you have all these thugs.
You've got secret jails, and you've got the
Communist Party's Discipline and Inspection
Commission. They're the real police for over 74
million people who are party members. When a
party member is suspected of corruption like the
deputy president of the Supreme Court of China
was last year, he's not taken in by prosecutors
or investigators or the police; he's taken in by
the party's Discipline and Inspection Commission.
There are no set rules. They have certain rules
but they just don't come into play day to day in
the commission. If they're taken in by the
police, there are at least some formal rules.
You're supposed to be held only thirty days
before the prosecutors have to approve an arrest warrant.

But when the party's Discipline and Inspection
Committee takes over, you're gone. And they spit
you out whenever they're ready. Some of the 15
percent of the people that are spit out are then
taken to the police and prosecutors for criminal
conviction. Others will suffer other
consequences, starting with the loss of their
party membership, etc. So in other words, you
have the formal criminal justice system that has
seen some reforms, largely at the death penalty
review level at the Supreme Court, and then you
have the real system including reeducation
through labor. Reeducation through labor is a
system that existed in the old Soviet Union. You
were often sent away out of town sometimes for
several years by a system that didn't go through
the criminal justice system. You could be exiled
maybe for three years, maybe for more. The
Nationalist Chinese used that under Chiang
Kai-shek, starting in the late 1940s. People were
sent to Green Island off the coast of Taiwan and
to other places without going through the
criminal justice system. That finally ended in
Taiwan in January of this year, but the mainland
has not been able to end reeducation through labor.

Lots of people, including important judges,
denounce it as a violation of the whole
constitutional criminal justice system, which it
is. And yet they have one significant opponent,
and that's all you need. That's the industry of
public security, which fears if they lose this
right, they won't be able to cope, whether in
Tibet or Guangzhou, and the minister of public
security has now been promoted to become head of
the Communist Party's Political Legal Committee.
That is the legal organization that controls human rights in China.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in China
last month, and it was played up in the press
that she avoided any public discussion of human
rights violations. There's a certain feeling now
that at this time the United States is not
interested in picking a fight with China. Is that your analysis?

The State Department just hasn't got its act
together in terms of what priority to give human
rights in its current relations with China, and
how to express whatever priority they decide upon.

We've got very important political, diplomatic,
and military issues where we need China's
cooperation. At the same time, you have to decide
with an incoming administration, which could make
a fresh start, what to stress. One option is that
you just downplay human rights, and that's
certainly the impression she has given. Another
option would be to downplay only the public
expression of pressure on China in favor of
off-the-record, confidential talks and perhaps
even greater U.S.-China cooperation to improve
human rights. There's an enormous area of
opportunity for the United States and China to
work together to improve the human rights system
in China. The real situation with Hillary is that
the administration hasn't worked all of this out.
They looked ridiculous at the Geneva [UN] Human
Rights Council meeting in February because our
representative just sat in the back taking notes.

This was the first review of China under the new,
what they call, universal periodic review, by the
Human Rights Council. People were waiting to see
what the new administration would do. In the end,
they did nothing because they haven't pulled a
policy together. They're having trouble just
putting the team on board, and these things take
time. Then Hillary got caught up in these demands
of the annual bureaucractic process. Having taken
a lot of heat for her phraseology to put human
rights down on a lower peg than other matters on
her China trip, she comes home and very shortly
afterward, her department issues its annual human
rights report. Obviously, it had been prepared
before she took over. The report is a very useful
review. The State Department just hasn't got its
act together in terms of what priority to give
human rights in its current relations with China,
and how to express whatever priority they decide
upon. What's the nature of cooperation to be, what should criticism be?

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