China's Accession to the WTO and Human Rights (Testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means, February 2000)
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China's Accession to the WTO and Human Rights
Testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means(February 16, 2000)
Statement by Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director


We appreciate the opportunity to testify today on China's pending accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the U.S.-China bilateral trade agreement, and the implications for human rights. Human Rights Watch does not take a position on trade agreements per se, and does not endorse any particular trade agreement, including the one signed by the U.S. and China last November. However, we believe that the WTO process should be used to push for human rights improvements. Broader trade with China can be consistent with advancing human rights, but only if it is combined with effective, sustained pressure on China to respect basic civil and political rights.

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Use WTO Process to Push China on Rights
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China: 10 Years After Tiananmen

In my testimony today, I would like to describe the recent deterioration of human rights conditions in China, assess the possible long-term impact of WTO membership on China's human rights performance, and present our recommendations to Congress as you consider the question of extending permanent Normal Trade Relations to China and the broader policy implications of this important decision.

The WTO and China:

As a WTO member, China will commit itself to respecting global trading rules. This is a step towards China's integration into the international system regulating not only trade relations but also governments' treatment of their own citizens. Restructuring China's economy to fit WTO standards will give a boost to those within China arguing that it must open up further both politically and economically if it is to be a respected member of the international community.

But WTO membership won't itself lead to political changes. It could be an important catalyst for change over the long run if combined with consistent pressure from outside China. For instance, greater transparency in economic matters could increase demands and expectations from within China for more openness in other areas.

China is a long way from having a legal and court system that functions independently of the Party and the State. Demands to modernize China's legal system to handle commercial disputes, protect contracts and combat corruption could help lay the groundwork for an independent judiciary and the rule of law that might extend to the political and security realms. As the World Bank has pointed out, "economic reforms have made legal rules matter" in China.

The closing of thousands of state-run enterprises -- there are currently about 300,000, nearly half of them industrial -- could push workers to insist on greater collective decision-making on workplace issues and the need for a social safety net. They may increasingly insist on exercising the worker rights guaranteed in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (China signed this treaty in October 1997, but has not yet ratified it.) The official national employment rate is about eight percent, and in some rural areas it's much higher. A rise in the unemployment rate may create more instability in the short run, with the authorities clamping down on attempts by workers to organize. But eventually the government may be forced to create channels for workers to negotiate over their grievances. The alternative to allowing greater freedom of association is to risk disaffected workers turning against the state.

But I must emphasize that WTO membership in itself will not guarantee the rule of law, respect for worker rights, or meaningful political reform. Economic openness could be accompanied by tight restrictions on basic freedoms and a lack of governmental accountability. The Chinese government might seek to build the rule of law in the economic sphere while simultaneously continuing to pervert and undermine the rule of law elsewhere. For example, Chinese authorities claim to be upholding the "rule of law" by arresting and throwing in jail pro-democracy activists, and the nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong movement has been cloaked in rhetoric about the "rule of law."

We believe the U.S. and China's other major trading partners must increase pressure on Beijing for significant improvements in human rights. It makes little sense to bring China into the WTO and expect it to abide by global trading rules when Beijing flaunts international rules of human rights with impunity. China must be moved to go beyond opening its markets to opening its jails, easing restrictions on the press and the Internet, and protecting the rights of workers.

Human Rights Developments in China:

There has been a clear deterioration of human rights conditions in China. A tightening of controls on basic freedoms began in late 1998, escalated throughout 1999, and has continued into the new year. The range of the crackdown suggests that a nationally coordinated campaign is underway to shut down all peaceful opposition in the name of maintaining "social stability."

Among the elements of the crackdown are:

-- an intensified attack on all organizations that the Chinese Communist Party perceives as a threat to its rule;

-- a series of regulations that constrain free association and assembly and religious expression;

-- the ongoing arrest of Tibet "splittists" and tightened secular control of Tibetan Buddhism;

-- the stepped up pace of arrests and executions of activists in Xinjiang. Even a prominent Uighur businesswoman, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, who is well known in the U.S., has been detained and may be given a long prison sentence;

-- ongoing attempts to interfere with the free flow of information at home and abroad, through new restrictions on the Internet and threats against academic research in open sources. We welcomed the release of the respected scholar, Song Yongyi, but his arbitrary arrest and detention are a clear reminder of the capriciousness of the "rule of law" in China and the dangers of conducting research into sensitive subjects.

I would like to provide the Committee with a few examples to illustrate the depth and breadth of the current crackdown.

On November 23, 1998, former premier Li Peng issued a statement that effectively banned opposition political parties. The following month, the courts gave heavy sentences to three leading members of the China Democracy Party (CDP), an open, peaceful opposition Party that had announced its formation prior to President Clinton's visit to China in June 1998. Veteran dissident Xu Wenli in Beijing, Qin Yongmin in Hubei province, and Wang Youcai in Zhejiang were sentenced to thirteen, twelve and eleven years respectively for "conspiring to subvert state power." The government's largely successful attempts to destroy the CDP have resulted in long prison sentences for its members in Beijing, Shanghai, and at least eight other provinces. In all, some twenty-five China Democracy Party members have been sentenced since December 1998 after trials lacking adequate procedural safeguards and closed in all but name. Others have been tried but not yet sentenced; at least a dozen more are still in detention.

Other attempts to organize groups outside official control have also been stifled. In November 1999, Aun Jun, an attorney who formed an organization called "Corruption Watch" to expose local corruption, was put on trial. The verdict has yet to be announced. He had attempted to legally register the organization with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, but it was banned. The China Development Union, set up to promote political and environmental reform, was quashed and its leader, Peng Ming, was sentenced last February to an eighteen-month term for allegedly soliciting prostitution.

Throughout China, leaders of worker and peasant protests calling for workers rights have been detained. Also, those trying to organize workers, or protesting against exorbitant fees and taxes, corruption, or fixed local elections have been arrested and given sentences of up to ten years. It's worth noting that China has not ratified key ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions protecting the rights of free association (87), the right to organize and bargain collectively (98), or on the abolition of forced labor (105). Of these, I might add that the U.S. has only ratified the ILO convention on forced labor.

Restrictions on religious freedom have increased. The crackdown on Falun Gong clearly violates China's commitments to respect internationally-guaranteed rights of freedom of belief, expression, association and assembly. Members of Falun Gong were detained by the thousands for reeducation after the group was officially banned on July 22, 1999, though most have since been released. Millions of Falun Gong books were confiscated and destroyed. At least 111 Falun Gong members, according to China's State Council, have been formally arrested though few details are known at this time. Sentences officially confirmed have ranged from three to eighteen years. President Jiang has made it clear that the suppression of the Falun Gong remains a high priority as part of the government's broader effort to control all organizations. The number of Falun Gong members -- between two and seventy million in China -- their ability to organize, and their use of modern tools of communication have made the Falun Gong movement especially threatening.

In early January 2000, Premier Zhu Rongji and State Councillor Ismail Amat gave speeches stressing the importance of control of religion to the stability of the state, and resistance to "hostile foreign forces" which they say use religion to undermine China's solidarity. Throughout the past year, there have been sporadic reports of arrests and detentions of Catholics and Protestants. Campaigns to register Catholic congregations in Hebei and Zhejiang provinces forced many worshipers into hiding. In an attempt to reaffirm the independence from the papacy of the official Catholic Church in China, the government's Religious Affairs Bureau and the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China arranged the ordination of five bishops last month, without seeking papal approval. At least ninety-five Protestant house church leaders were detained early in 1999.

Controls on the Internet:

The government's attempts to control the Internet have ominous implications for U.S. businesses seeking to expand operations in China under the terms of the new U.S.-China trade agreement. In January 1999, new regulations were issued requiring bars and cafes with Internet access to register and inform the police about their customers. By May, the Ministry of State Security was able to track individual E-mail accounts through monitoring devices on Internet Service Providers. Bulletin boards came in for round-the-clock monitoring; several were closed for hosting political discussions or postings critical of government policies.

Last month, Shanghai took the lead requiring corporate Internet users to register with the police, or face a fine. On January 26, 2000 new regulations retroactive to January 1 prohibited the transmittal of state secrets on the Web or through E-mail. The restrictions make both users and Web site owners liable for infractions. The broad language of the state secrets law invites selective application against anyone out of favor with the government. In addition, new regulations prohibit websites from independently compiling news or interviewing reporters; instead, they can only carry news already compiled by domestic newspapers.

I should add that the publishing and print media have also been more tightly supervised. Last fall, local newspapers and magazines were put under Communist Party control. And the State Press and Publications Administration banned foreign investment in wholesale book publication and distribution, and limited the right to distribute textbooks, political documents, and the writing of China's leaders to a handful of enterprises.

Recommendations to Congress and the Administration:

We urge the Congress and the Administration to couple efforts to make China a more reliable trading partner with serious parallel pressure on China to comply with its international human rights obligations. The WTO process itself can be a useful source of leverage, along with other channels of pressure.

1) Permanent NTR:

Mr. Chairman, China has lobbied for several years for an end to the annual review of its trade status under the Jackson-Vanik amendment of the Trade Act of 1974, and as part of the WTO deal President Clinton has pledged to give China permanent Normal Trade Relations status. We believe that in exchange for PNTR, Congress should insist on reciprocal concrete steps on human rights by China.

The Congress should set concrete, meaningful and realistic human rights conditions that China must meet before receiving permanent NTR. The president should be required to certify that these conditions have been met, and this could happen any time following China's accession to the WTO. For example, China should be required to:

-- ratify the two United Nations human rights treaties it has signed: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed in October 1998, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;

-- take steps to begin dismantling the huge system of "reeducation through labor," which allows officials to sentence thousands of citizens to labor camps each year for up to three years without judicial review. A commission could be established for this purpose, and the U.S. and the U.N. could offer to provide support with technical assistance and rule of law programs;

-- open up Tibet and Xinjiang to regular, unhindered access by U.N. human rights and humanitarian agencies, foreign journalists, and independent monitors;

-- review the sentences of more than 2,000 "counterrevolutionaries" convicted under provisions of the Chinese law repealed in March 1997, with a view towards releasing most of them.

Getting China to meet these conditions is possible, Mr. Chairman, if the Administration engages in the kind of intensive, high level negotiations with Beijing it conducted to finalize the trade agreement last November.

To replace the annual trade status review, we would strongly support creation of a new mechanism, such as a special commission appointed either by both houses of Congress or jointly by Congress and the executive branch, to report annually on China's compliance with human rights and labor rights norms. This should be more than a pro forma process. An annual report should trigger, at a minimum, debate and recommendations for U.S. bilateral and multilateral policy initiatives.

2) U.N. Commission on Human Rights:

We applauded the Administration's decision last month to sponsor a critical resolution on China at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, which convenes on March 20. In announcing this decision, the State Department correctly noted that "China's human rights record has continued to deteriorate...Our goal in sponsoring a China resolution is to foster increased respect for human rights in China."

Indeed, when confronted with a credible threat of a debate and vote in Geneva in the past, China has taken limited but important positive steps on human rights. It has also expended major effort worldwide to keep any critical resolution off the Commission's agenda -- including by threatening to cut off trade deals or investment opportunities to governments that might support action. This effort has been stepped up since 1995, when a China resolution came within only one vote of being adopted. Last year, the Administration put forward a resolution, under Congressional pressure, only at the very last minute. The European Union (EU) refused to sponsor the measure, and China succeeded in squelching any debate by getting the Commission to adopt a "no action" motion (twenty two to seventeen, with fourteen abstentions.)

In order to have any chance at getting a debate and vote this year, the Administration will have to engage in serious, high level lobbying of other Commission members and potential cosponsors, such as Canada, Australia, and Japan. The European Parliament recently adopted a strong resolution calling on the EU to cosponsor action in Geneva. The European Union is likely to make a decision later this month. Between now and then, we hope President Clinton will match his commitment to WTO with a similar commitment to wage an effective campaign in Geneva.

At a speech on WTO and China at the Wilson Center on February 2, Sandy Berger, the president's national security advisor, said that Mr. Clinton will be "actively and deeply engaged" in the WTO fight. We urge the president to be just as actively and personally engaged in lobbying other governments at the highest levels on behalf of the U.N. Geneva resolution. This is vitally needed to counter a diplomatic and media campaign China has already begun to defeat it.

Members of Congress can also play a key role by contacting officials in other governments to urge their support at the Commission.

3) Code of Conduct for Companies:

China's entry into the WTO, and the implementation of the new bilateral agreement with the U.S., will lead to greater American private investment in China. We urge Congress to enact legislation originally introduced as early as 1991, and most recently in the House in 1995, outlining principles for a "code of conduct" for U.S. companies operating in China.

The legislation should express the sense of Congress that U.S. companies should, among other things, prohibit the use of forced labor in their factories or by their subcontractors in China, prohibit a police or military presence in the workplace, protect workers' rights of free association, assembly and religion, discourage compulsory political indoctrination, and promote freedom of expression by workers including their freedom to seek and receive information of all kinds through any media -- in writing, orally, or through the Internet. The "code of conduct" bill should contain a registration and reporting procedure, and require an annual report to Congress and the OECD on the level of adherence to the principles by U.S. companies.

4) Labor Secretary to China:

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman was invited to visit China by her counterpart, the Chinese labor minister, when he came to Washington, DC last March. We hope the Committee will urge her to travel to China this spring in order to conduct a high-level dialogue on China's labor practices, including protection of key worker rights, the cases of detained workers and labor organizers, and the creation of social safety nets. She would be the first U.S. labor secretary ever to visit China.

For Further Information:
Mike Jendrzejczyk (Washington, DC) 202 612 4341