Human rights in a frenzied time

27. Jul 2008

Otto Malmgren LL.M, Senior Program Officer, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights (University of Oslo) and guest researcher at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of Law (Beijing) (([email protected]))


Since before China was awarded the 29th Olympic Games in 2001 ‘human rights’ has been a focus point for all cooperation with China, at least on the political arena. No foreign politician could travel to China and come away with not pressing the regime on a number of issues ranging from torture, suspected extreme death penalty numbers and denial of justice, to persecution of dissidents and blatant discrimination of minority peoples and religious groups. However, after China won the bid, this attention only got stronger. The Chinese response towards the outside has been a paradoxical combination of indignant outrage and apologetic developmental argumentation, making both true claims of fantastic developments in living standards for a large portion of the Chinese people. And while perhaps less true claims of effective protection of forty-odd constitutional rights and freedoms are made, some critical discourse on human rights issues within its borders has been steadily developing. However, in the months running up to the Beijing Games this discourse seems to have dwindled to nothing. Well, almost anyway.

After the farmer activist Yang Chunlin was detained in February of his open letter titled “We Want Human Rights, not the Olympics”,[1] Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi, responded to international criticism with the following statement; “No one will get arrested because he said that human rights are more important than the Olympics. This is impossible. Ask 10 people from the street to face public security officers and ask them to say ‘human rights are more important than the Olympics’ 10 times or even 100 times, and I will see which security officer would put him in jail.” This seemed to close the door on the official human rights discussions in China, at least until the middle of July when the government felt compelled to ensure that there has been “[n]o ‘dissident’ arrested for [the sake of] Games’ security,” stating that such accusations are untrue and groundless.[2] Others seem to disagree.

Yang Chunlin was eventually sentenced to five years in prison in March for “inciting subversion of state power”, and the detention, harassment and persecution of a large number of activist, lawyers and organizations continue to be reported from within China.[3] Although the message seems to have come through and the domestic critical discourse on the issue has been effectively silenced, and subsequent debates have been careful at least not to formulate themselves within a human rights vocabulary, the official distrust towards proponents of human rights related issues such as HIV/AIDS, environmental activism, minority autonomy, rights defenders continues. All this seems to be, as Amnesty puts it, “occurring not in spite of the Olympics, but actually because of the Olympics.”[4] However, the conclusion often heard from Chinese lawyers and activists on the quick paced regression on rights guarantees in China, is largely limited to an international audience, and is not a part of a larger public debate within China.

The issue of human rights is obviously of such a sensitive nature that even positive developments are passed over in relative silence. The Chinese government’s willingness to shoulder further international obligations through the recent ratifications of both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the latter would seem most natural considering China hosting the 13th Paralympic Games in September – have unfortunately only seen fleeting domestic mention (not counting English language press), and even less in the way of international attention (despite the informative attempts by the Chinese government). Furthermore, ample evidence – although sometimes anecdotal – reveal several initiatives and measures in recent months to place difficult issues on the agenda, such as the abolishment of the Reeducation through Labor system, reemergence of the Supreme People’s Court’s death penalty review procedures, and stabs at increasing intra-Party pluralism. Yet, the overshadowing concerns for harmony and stability seem to even reduce these issues to headlines and little more. National and international conferences on human rights issues has been cancelled or postponed indefinitely, and the publication of human rights related materials not directly sanctioned by the government is strongly discouraged. Perhaps the failure of the February government White Paper on rule of law to make the standard observations on the future ratification of the UN Covenant of Civil and Political Rights could be considered a suitable illustration of the political temperature in the country, at least at the time some Chinese scholars were in private finding this a telling development.

Of course, any human rights discourse would have had to compete with a perfect storm of all-consuming events over the last few months. Starting and ending with natural catastrophes, Chinese society, media, ‘blogosphere’ and everyday life has been torn between frenzied nationalism and feverish despair, eventually leaving little room for a discussion about little else, not the least human rights. The dissatisfied grumbling over the governments handling of the snow and ice disaster during the Chinese New Years’ celebration was eventually taken over by the reemerging questioning of foreign concern for Chinese engagement in the Sudan, eventually drawing little response from the Chinese community. Any concern was sharply broken off by the 15 March riots in Lhasa and the following repercussions in and around traditionally Tibetan areas. The official response was largely formulated in a disbelieving anger over petulant minority criminals led by foreign forces, and any attempts within China to negotiate a more careful evaluation of the March riots were met with the wrath of the Chinese ‘netizens’. These events blended ominously with the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay, which ended in a public relations mayhem for French public security authorities and contributed to stoking the fires in the increasingly vociferous Chinese national pride. And when Chinese students in Seoul started mixing up freedom of speech with violence, the government had no other choice but to express meek support for the students’ acts – anything else would have been unpatriotic.

In the meantime, foreign media supplied government media and internet nationalists with sufficient ammunition for rather strong arguments of anti-China sentiments. By conflating the Chinese engagement – or lack thereof – in the Sudan (Darfur) conflict, Tibetan independence and the violent response to the Lhasa riots, political boycott
of the opening ceremony, and the general concerns for human rights issues in China leading up to the Olympic Games, it created a situation so complex and – for Chinese – so threatening that it brought frustration and indignation even to usual system critics. When CNN commentator Jack Cafferty made his “goons and thugs” comment, showing a certain lack of fingerspitzgefühl, it was just added as another general statement of foreign perception of China further confirming the sentiments represented at – a website set up by a 23 year old student “to expose the lies and distortions in the western media.” Any further qualification of Cafferty’s statement was discredited as an attempt to foment discord between the government and the people of China. The public response in China was overwhelmingly supportive of the government, and the continued perceived international criticism of China and the Chinese eventually reawakened a long-time “human rights tiredness” among many, turning any human rights questions into a negative. As was observed to a Norwegian newspaper recently in response to the last few months’ China bashing media frenzy; “Human rights are bullshit.” Whether or not the criticisms of China are deserved or not remains for the time being beyond the domestic discourse, despite attempts by domestic liberal media to point out inconsistencies in the Chinese patriotic response. This self-righteous nationalism will probably remain the legacy of the events during the spring of 2008.

Just when things were quieting down, the torch had completed its difficult international tour and started its far more harmonious domestic tour, and the final preparations for the Games could commence – nature struck. The devastating 8.0 Richter scale earthquake in Sichuan left China in shock and in the hands of the largest humanitarian disaster China has faced since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. While the Chinese people rediscovered a national solidarity among the rubble of the many collapsed schools, the disaster also left the government open for a new round of critical remarks. Shoddy construction and lack of funds left thousands of children dead under the rubble, and the grieving parents search for closure put the local governments on the spot. Accusations of corruption, ineffective governance and abuse of powers shamed the government into action with new instructions to pay more attention to the grievances of the people, but the focus on stability over all other concerns ahead of the Olympic games has put limits on the tolerance for complaints, and reporting and investigations into contributing factors to the magnitude of the Sichuan disaster was quickly banned, leaving many without answers or closure. The persistent questioning by the survivors is increasingly met with vilification, just as other prior and subsequent protests are either disregarded as actions of mal-contents subject to administrative sanctions or even subjected to criminal proceedings.

Concerns for nationalism, anti-terrorism, territorial integrity and a successful Beijing Games are thought to warrant all and any limitations on individual rights for the time being, and largely overshadow any rights discourse in China. The key being social stability and harmony, however, these goals are quite out of tune with the often draconian measures employed to achieve them. Next year China’s human rights situation will be placed under the scrutiny of the UN Human Rights Council through the mandatory universal periodic review. One can only expect increased focus on human rights in China, and only hope that the Chinese authorities will respond with tolerance and openness to domestic concerns.

[1] Chinese Human Rights Defenders, “Activist Yang Chunlin Tried for Demanding Human Rights Prior to the Olympics”, 2008.02.19[2] The Telegraph, “China denies arrests over Beijing Olympics”, 2008.02.29,, last accessed 2008.07.17[3] See e.g. Chinese Human Rights Defenders web pages for details on individual cases ([4] Amnesty International, “People’s Republic of China The Olympics countdown – crackdown on activists threatens Olympics legacy”, ASA 17/050/2008, 2008.04.01