Human Rights Watch World Report 1999: China and Tibet Beijing Spring Turns to Winter
Statement on Human Rights in China before the House Committee on International Relations
Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director, Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, January 20, 1999

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the invitation to appear this morning before the Committee.

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Your decision to hold this hearing comes at a crucial moment in U.S.-China relations, as the Clinton Administration struggles to develop an effective response to one of the worst crackdowns against political dissent in China since 1989. Thus far, it is not clear that the Administration has any strategy to address such issues of freedom of expression and association that goes beyond public statements and condemnation. Statements such as the one made by Secretary of State Albright last week, strongly condemning the recent crackdown, are certainly useful. But they not likely to have much impact unless they are backed up with significant political and economic pressure. The Administration seems unwilling to in any way disturb or undermine the progress it feels it made in establishing better U.S.-China relations this past year. In fact, it is human rights that is being held hostage by the Administration's China policy, not the other way around.

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The Administration should not have been surprised to hear Chinese President Jiang Zemin denounce "subversives" seeking to organize a peaceful opposition party. Despite President Clinton's laudatory comments about Jiang following his June visit and a period of relative openness earlier this year, it is clear that China's leadership is determined to crush any direct challenge to Communist Party rule. In a hard-line speech on December 18, the anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, Jiang declared, "From beginning to end, we must be vigilant against infiltration, subversive activities and separatist activities of international and domestic hostile forces." These activities, he ordered, should be "nipped in the bud."

Chinese authorities seem to be increasingly worried about growing social unrest, and the possible re-emergence of a pro-democracy movement that links intellectuals and activists with disaffected workers. They seem to be especially concerned about sensitive dates coming up on the calender: June 4, 1999 marks the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and October 1 will be the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Social dislocation and a slowdown in the economy are expected to continue and perhaps worsen this year. The official China Daily reported on January 17, 1999 that a record 30 million Chinese citizens will be unemployed or looking for work; the Chinese publication Business Weekly said that some 16 million city residents will be out of work. Combined with the millions of rural unemployed, the jobless rate could reach as high as 17 percent, if not higher. Premier Zhu Rongji, meanwhile, has promised to preserve a minimum standard of living for millions of laborers laid off from the state-run enterprises, with Beijing giving them back pay in order to head off more workers' protests.

There are continuing reports of peasant protests and riots against corrupt local officials and high taxes. The most recent incident occurred in Hunan province on January 8, 1999 when some 3,000 villagers and farmers gathered outside a government office near Changsha. Police and soldiers were brought in to break up the protest, and there were reports of arrests, beatings, and one death. Authorities have taken action against some officials engaged in corruption. However, an attempt by activists to organize an unofficial corruption monitoring organization in several provinces was quickly thwarted by the government and the group was banned in October.

While there are community-based organizations emerging in China, their survival appears to depend on being not seen or heard. Once they challenge authority or have any contact with international media, their days may be numbered. The limits on freedom of association are clear, despite the fact that this freedom is guaranteed by two key UN human rights treaties that Chna has recently signed, the International Covenant on Economic Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Mr. Chairman, while welcoming positive steps such as the signing of the ICCPR, the Administration should also view somewhat skeptically the commitments and comments made by Chinese government officials. Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor stated last week, "The success of our dialogue will be measured by China's actions, not just its words." But thus far, Beijing has been successful in trying to deflect international pressure by offering bilateral human rights "dialogues" to various governments in exchange for dropping multilateral criticism of China's human rights practices. The agreement to engage in dialogues was aimed especially at sponsors of past resolutions at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights-- including the U.S., European Union (EU), Australia, Canada, and Japan.

Last October, ostensibly to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Beijing organized its own international human rights conference with participants from twenty-seven countries. It used the event to make the old argument that interpretation and implementation of international human rights standards vary with cultural and historical factors and the level of economic development, as well as to reject so-called "Western" definitions of civil and political rights. All the seminars and discussions that the Chinese government has taken part in on human rights have not served to move it any closer to adoption of international standards. Rather, they have given Beijing new opportunities to reiterate an old political line in a new setting and to underscore its unwillingness to change.

Human Rights Watch favors discussion and dialogue on human rights, and supports engagement at both official and unofficial levels. But engagement must be accompanied by serious pressure to ensure that China fully respects and implements its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which it signed in October 1997. I would note here that the National People's Congress (NPC) has not yet ratified either covenant, so that neither is legally binding (and the U.S. Senate's failure to ratify one of these covenants makes it harder for the U.S. to press Beijing.) We understand that the Administration has yet to be given a precise timetable or schedule for ratification, nor an indication of which provisions China may take exception to by attaching a reservation. However, diplomats from the EU and other governments have been told by Chinese officials that they will likely attach reservations to key provisions such as Article 19 of the ICCPR on the right to free expression and to articles guaranteeing the right to organize free trade unions. In making these reservations, the Chinese government will no doubt draw attention to the fact that the U.S. has attached more reservations to the ICCPR than almost any other government.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has submitted both covenants to the Standing Committee of the NPC which will decide when ratification will take place, after giving "in-depth study to relevant (unspecified) problems" related to their implementation. In the meantime, "the Chinese government will resolutely do things according to the spirit of the conventions," according to Xinhua, the official news agency (January 14, 1999).