Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s February visit to the United States led to a flood of western media reports and press statements calling for a tough stance on human rights in China. Many of the calls to increase pressure on China were based on the idea that, evidenced by continuing human rights abuses, “quiet diplomacy” isn’t working.

To be sure, human rights in China have deteriorated in some respects, but in others they have gotten better. Recent commendable aspects relate to proposals and pilots to improve the treatment of juveniles and women in the criminal justice system and to provide more due process rights to defendants, including enhanced access to counsel and bail. Continuing abuses involve, among other things, government repression in regions with large Uyghur and Tibetan ethnic populations and the spate of long prison sentences for political dissidents exercising guaranteed freedoms of expression and association.

While human rights concerns are real, the emphasis on a “worsening” condition of human rights in China is in part due to external factors. Electoral races in the US have spurred anti-China rhetoric. Although attacks on China—most notably from Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney—have largely focused on the country’s trade and currency policies, its human rights record and political system have also been slammed. (Romney has referred to China as a “prosperous tyranny” where individual and political freedoms are suppressed.) China is also being measured against human rights developments in its neighbors. In January, Taiwan held free, fair, and non-violent democratic elections, while Mongolia’s parliament took steps to abolish the death penalty, Burma made democratic reforms that led to the release of nearly 300 political prisoners, and North Korea issued a general pardon to welcome its new leader (see Pardon Us: Asian Clemency Laps China).

The value of taking a comparative approach to human rights is not in ranking countries but in determining what methods work in what systems and how continuing problems might best be addressed. “Naming and shaming” is placed on one side of the spectrum, while “quiet diplomacy” is placed on the other. In fact, the most likely formula for successful resolution of human rights disagreements lies in a deft combination of both. While American public opinion on China remains largely negative, according to a Gallup poll conducted in November and December 2011, most Americans “desire more cooperation between the [US and China] in key policy areas.”

Common Problems

China and the US proclaim that they believe in human rights but both see a conflict between rights protection and national security. Their desire for stability puts an emphasis on what’s best for the majority. In China, the resultant “greater good” mentality has led to a concentration of state security arrests in China’s largely Muslim Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas as well as the targeting of ethnic Korean Christians (see Uncovering China’s Korean Christians). Similarly, the US is wrestling with the question of long-term incarceration without trial for terror suspects, and the FBI has infiltrated American Muslim communities without evidence of criminal activity.

In the juvenile justice system, retribution often trumps rehabilitation, despite official rhetoric to the contrary. Although juvenile justice exchange is resulting in the welcome adoption of rehabilitative procedures in China (e.g., the sealing of records and conditional non-persecution), the path to implementation is long. While different provinces are experimenting with the sealing of records, some officials, including members of the National People’s Congress, have already expressed concern about being too lenient and limiting the deterrent effect of criminal punishment. Moreover, Human Rights Watch recently called into question the US system upon which many of China’s reforms are based. In a January 2012 report, the organization alleges that there are currently more than 2,500 juveniles serving life without parole in the US, while not a single youth offender is serving this sentence anywhere else in the world. This is in contravention of three international human rights treaties to which the US is a party, according to the report. The US Supreme Court only recently, in 2010, narrowly ruled that this sentence is unconstitutional for nonhomicide offenses. It has agreed to take up the issue for homicide offenses in 2012.

The needs of women prisoners are also neglected. The Bangkok Rules, adopted by the UN in December 2010, clarify basic standards for the treatment of women prisoners but have yet to become the driving force behind international reform. A report published by the National Women’s Law Center in 2010 gives thirty-six US states failing grades for their refusal to comprehensively limit, or limit at all, the use of restraints (shackling) on pregnant women during transportation, labor and delivery, and postpartum recuperation. In China, little research has been done measuring the treatment of women in prison against the Bangkok Rules. Among the issues the rules address is the need for research and supportive policies for children of incarcerated mothers (see Sino-US Comparison: Children of Incarcerated Mothers). These aspects of the rules build upon the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which includes the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with incarcerated parents. China ratified this UN treaty in 1992, but the US, while signing it in 1995, has yet to ratify.

UN Convention
Ratification Status
  Racial discrimination
  Economic, social and cultural rights
N (1977)
  Civil and political rights
N (1998)
  Discrimination against women
N (1980)
  Rights of the child
N (1995)
  Enforced disappearance
  Source: United Nations Treaty Collection
Note: “Y” indicates that the convention was either acceded or ratified; “N” indicates that the convention was signed
but not ratified and is followed by year of signing.


Finger-Pointing, Foregone

Ahead of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to China, a group representing thousands of British Columbian aboriginals sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao. The letter called on Hu to raise human rights issues, including police mistreatment and torture, with the Canadian government. A Canadian Press article about the letter suggests that it is unusual and embarrassing for people living in western democracies to appeal to foreign governments as a means to redress their grievances. What it doesn’t suggest is that human rights violations are serious issues that need to be addressed wherever they occur.

If they are, the problem with current advocacy work may not be its volume but its content: the degree to which it is predicated on a sense that human rights have been achieved in the developed world. While China’s infringement on the freedoms of speech and association is unacceptable and escalating, other countries are struggling with protecting other fundamental freedoms. A human rights debate that looks critically only at China does little but promote finger-pointing over problem solving. The focus should not be on proving whose records are worse by naming and shaming or checking “human rights” off the diplomatic agenda but recognizing common challenges and fostering partnerships. Only in this way can we hope to protect individuals barred from the negotiating table and do justice to universal human rights.