Introduction: Human Rights and related issues in China 2008: Between tradition and external influence

13. Jul 2008

Karin Buhmann Associate Professor of legal science at the Institute of Food and Resource Economics at the University of Copenhagen ([email protected])


Aim and focus of the human rights theme of the In Focus blog

Prior to the opening of the Beijing Olympics on 8 August much interest has been devoted to human rights related issues in China. In Western media, the events in Tibet in March 2008, demonstrations and other manifestations surrounding the Olympic torch relay particularly in Europe and the US, poor construction standards of schools in Sichuan province resulting in unnecessary deaths of numerous children and grief in families losing their only child after the recent earthquake, and renewed limits of freedoms of journalists to travel the country and to report, have drawn interest.

Particularly in Denmark but also in some other places, a major proportion of the attention paid by media to China has dealt with these issues. In other Nordic countries, more attention has also been paid to more positive developments in China in terms of economic growth and reforms that directly or indirectly benefit the Chinese population’s access to and enjoyment of human rights along the scale: Cultural, civil, economic, social, and even but to a more limited extent, political rights. Outside the boundaries of the Nordic countries, even more attention appears to have been given to China’s economic development which has lifted more than 400 million people out of poverty in about 25 years and which continues to provide increased trading and production opportunities for the rest of the world.

Human rights concerns nevertheless continue to feature, ranging from China’s one-party system and lack of democracy, continued use of forms of administrative detention without access to judicial review, the plights of migrant workers, corruption in the legal system and other public institutions, the use of torture and the death penalty, restrictions on the freedom of expression of journalists and dissidents, including reports of lawyers defending victims of the Tibet events in March 2008, reports of child labour, forced labour, extended overtime work practices, restrictions on the freedom of negotiation, lack of a free trade union movement and other deficient respect and enforcement of Chinese or international labour law, the one-child policy, and continued poverty as well as regulatory schemes marring the access to the human rights to health and education.

With China’s growth as an international economic power and huge consumer of oil and other natural resources for production, increased focus has also been given to views that China needs to take responsibility for human rights in countries where it has economic involvement, notably in Sudan and Myanmar/Burma.

These issues have been dealt with at length elsewhere. This thematic blog aims to give a different perspective on the China that is the host of the 2008 Olympic Games: A country with a long and indeed complicated, challenging but also rich tradition and legacy with regards to human rights and law-based governance, a country that has been for the past 30 years on what sometimes seems a ‘two-steps-forward-and-one-step-backward’ but nevertheless continuous journey towards an improved human rights situation and a (possibly Chinese version of) rule of law, and a country which fends its way between severe critique from countries particularly in the West, a wish and capacity to become an international power in terms of economics (leading i.a. to China’s joining the WTO in 2001) as well as culture (but still a long way from reclaiming its enormous cultural influence up to the fall of the last of the imperial dynasties in 1911), and a course of dealing with poverty and, in later years, considerable discrepancies between the levels of economic development in the rich East and South-East and the relatively much poorer and less developed West and North-West.

The articles on this blog will provide perspectives on China of 2008 as a country inspired but also caught between its rich philosophical and cultural tradition and the demands, critique and influence of normative and other sources in the 2000s. The aim is to allow readers (and their own audiences) to better understand some of the developments in China that may often appear unacceptable and/or close to incomprehensible to a mind raised in the West with this region’s strong self-consciousness, especially post-World War II, of being a human rights and rule of law champion.

While not denying the considerable human rights problems that persist in China and the risk that human rights violations may take place during the Olympics or in their aftermath, the articles on this blog aim to provide a wider background to the general picture. We address the human rights theme from several angles: The first week of the thematic blog ( will cover the context and reforms of administrative law and governance with a focus on human rights (author Karin Buhmann), the situation and development of the court system (author Jonas Grimheden), the situation of migrant workers (author Hatla Thelle) and Chinese approaches to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) including the Chinese CSR standard CSC9000T which builds on Chinese and international labour law standards (author Karin Buhmann). The second week will feature articles on the media (author Marina Svensson), Nordic-China development cooperation on human rights (author Cecilie Figenschou Bakke), human rights as a common language for CSR (author Mads Holst Jensen), and the debate on human rights in China as seen from Beijing (author Otto Malmberg).

Information on affiliation and contact details of authors will be found in the context of each of the articles.