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Friday, February 12, 2010

Human Rights in China: Trends and Policy Implications

Thomas Lum
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Hannah Fischer
Information Research Specialist

Human rights has been a principal area of U.S. concern in its relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC), particularly since the violent government crackdown on the Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989. Some policy makers contend that the U.S. policy of engagement with China has failed to produce meaningful political reform. Others argue that U.S. engagement has helped to accelerate economic and social change and build social and legal foundations for democracy and human rights in the PRC. This report analyzes China's mixed record on human rights – major human rights issues, PRC human rights legislation, and the development of civil society, legal awareness, and social and political activism. This report discusses major areas of interest but does not provide an exhaustive account of all human rights abuses or related incidents. 

Fear of social unrest appears to be a large factor behind the PRC government's resistance toward major political reform. The PRC government has attempted to respond to public grievances and popular calls for redress while subduing activists who attempt to organize mass protests and dissidents who openly call for fundamental change. This approach has both produced incremental improvements in human rights conditions and allowed for continued, serious abuses. Major, ongoing problems include excessive use of violence by security forces or their proxies, unlawful detention, torture, arbitrary use of state security laws against political dissidents, coercive family planning policies, state control of information, and religious and ethnic persecution. Tibetans, ethnic Uighur (Uygur) Muslims, and Falun Gong adherents have been singled out for especially harsh treatment. 

China's leadership has addressed rising public expectations through a combination of economic growth policies and carrot-and-stick political tactics. In so doing, it has planted seeds of potential change. China's developing legal system, while plagued by corruption and political interference, has provided activists with new means of defending rights. Although generally supportive of the status quo, the urban middle class has begun to engage in narrowly targeted protests against local government policies, following over a decade of social unrest among wage laborers and farmers. Despite a massive censorship effort, the Internet and other communications technologies have made it impossible for the government to clamp down on information as fully as before. 

On July 5, 2009, a peaceful demonstration involving hundreds of Uighur residents in Urumqi, Xinjiang region, turned into an anti-government and inter-ethnic riot after armed police attacked the demonstrators. The state media reported over 200 deaths and nearly 1,700 injuries, mostly ethnic Han Chinese, while Uighur residents claimed that many Uighur deaths were not reported. PRC authorities reportedly arrested 400 people, predominantly Uighur, and imposed death sentences upon 17. 

The U.S. government's efforts to promote human rights and democracy in China have included open or formal criticisms of PRC human rights conditions, bilateral dialogue, sanctions, and congressionally sponsored legislation, hearings, and investigations. Members of the 111th Congress have called upon the PRC leadership to release political prisoners, cease persecution of Falun Gong and "house churches," and respect the rights of ethnic minorities; introduced various resolutions supporting human rights in China; and passed legislation upholding Tibetan rights, commemorating the 1989 democracy movement, and supporting human rights activists. The U.S. government also provides funding for rule of law, civil society development, participatory government, labor rights, Tibetan culture, Internet access, and other programs in the PRC. 

Date of Report: January 25, 2010
Number of Pages: 44
Order Number: RL34729
Price: $29.95

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