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Human Rights Now

Six ways China's new leader could be the reformer the Chinese have been waiting for.

Published in: Foreign Policy

As China's newly appointed chairman Xi Jinping took power Thursday, the leadership transition itself remains opaque: Not only have the Chinese people been excluded from the process, it is virtually impossible to understand what the leadership selection process entailed, given the lack of information about intra-party fighting, or glean a sense of what the new leader of the world's largest country cares about.

But one thing is clear: Aspirations for basic freedoms, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law have grown exponentially among Chinese people.

Xi's predecessors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin pursued reformist agendas designed to give people modest amounts of freedom so long as they did not challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Under Hu Jintao, this process stopped; since the 2008 Olympics, he has further narrowed the space. He stepped up abuses of human rights defenders and lawyers, reined in vocal civil society organizations, broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans, and employed legally baseless tactics such as house arrest to silence critics. The state has made some key concessions, including amending the constitution in 2004 to acknowledge the obligation to protect and uphold human rights. But while GDP has risen roughly four-fold, there have been no commensurate jumps in human rights protections, or surges in respect for the rule of law -- and increasing numbers of Chinese citizens are aware of this, thanks to the Internet.

As a result, Xi, who stands at center of the collective leadership, inherits a much more fractious China. He and his colleagues face not only gross and pervasive corruption, apocalyptic environmental conditions, and an economic slowdown exacerbated by a housing bubble and large amounts of non-performing loans, but also an increasingly impatient and skeptical public.

Will Xi kick the can down the road and hope the problems will either disappear or be smothered by the security apparatus, or will he answer growing public demands for greater freedoms? Let's hope it's the latter. Here are six human rights reforms Xi should adopt in order to ameliorate growing public discontent and demonstrate real commitment to, rather than lip service towards, the rule of law.

1. Set the Courts Free

In a system that denies ordinary citizens participation in political decisions, those facing abuses have few places to vent their anger or seek redress. Unless the Communist Party relinquishes control of the legal system -- from the Supreme Court to the bar association to the accreditation process for lawyers -- there will be no reliable mechanisms for resolving grievances. If people cannot take their grievances to court, they will increasingly take them to the streets: Official estimates suggest there are more than 100,000 protests per year.

Creating independent entities whose highest loyalty is not to the party but to the law itself would go a long way towards stemming corruption and renewing some of the waning faith in the system. Xi could abolish the party judicial committees that dictate some court rulings, and allow for the establishment of a truly independent bar association and for lawyers to operate according to their professional judgment rather than local officials' political concerns. Such changes will invariably mean more prosecutions of party members and challenges to various laws, but a wiser leader would prefer to see these play out in a courtroom than face public ire and international embarassment.

2. Liberalize the Press

While Chinese leaders clearly see one advantage in the rise of social media -- as a means of understanding which issues are most profoundly angering people -- they still deploy extraordinary resources and anachronistic censorship policies to stifle the media. Xi and other fifth generation leaders should realize that they need a free press to govern effectively: Not only would this make the government more accountable to the people, it also ensures that lower-level government officials and agencies are accountable to the leadership and vice-versa.

The Chinese constitution already provides lip service to freedom of expression, but the rise of the Internet has made censoring and controlling media content an endless and ultimately losing battle. Yes, a free press will mean embarrassing scandals and criticism of the government, but this is already happening. The benefits to the government of good information from China's many excellent journalists and the opportunity to explain government initiatives devoid of propaganda could temper the discomfiture of exposure.

3. Eliminate the Hukou System

One of the biggest challenges to political stability in China is internal migration, as 220 million workers who move between the countryside and the city are increasingly vocal about the discrimination they endure. The workers who toil in China's factories face state discrimination through the outdated hukou, or household registration, system. This set of rules and policies ties people's access to public benefits such as schools and state health care to their place of birth, meaning that migrant workers registered in the countryside but living in the cities don't have access to the same quality of schools, hospitals, or housing as their urban counterparts; some have no access to these services at all. By 2011, nearly one-fifth of the country had effectively become second-class citizens.

The central government has argued that it is not financially possible to accommodate workers and their families to the coastal areas where most migrate (China, remember, is the second largest economy in the world). And by 2012 Chinese economists began to link the vexing failure to increase domestic consumption to the uncertain tenure of migrant workers -- in other words, giving people unambiguous access to public services and secure tenure in cities would prompt them to save less and spend more. Abolishing the hukou system, as many party officials and academics have long suggested, would acknowledge a reality of modern China: People no longer spend their whole lives in the same place.Equally important, it would abolish one official form of discrimination and ensure all people access to public benefits regardless of where they were born.

4. Revisit the Tiananmen Massacre

Xi could demonstrate a certain political maturity by addressing one of the most sensitive issues of China's recent past. The massacre of unarmed civilians and pro-democracy protestors on June 4, 1989, remains an unhealed wound, implicating past and current leaders and leaving some victims and their family members to face ongoing persecution. What happened in Tiananmen Square remains systematically expunged from the history books. But we know from history that a failure to address past abuses compromises citizen confidence in the state and its ability to function in an accountable manner. In a February 2012 open letter to China's legislature the National People's Congress, the Tiananmen Mothers, a human rights organization that petitions for the government change its position on June 4, drew parallels between impunity and human rights abuses and the downfall ofMuammaral-Qaddafi.

Xi could finally announce an investigation into the massacre, instruct that victims and their family members be compensated for their suffering, and allow those who sought refuge outside China to return. Xi could also declassify the government's files, or dang'an, on individuals, which remain off-limits; doing so would allow people to know what information the government has about them and their family members.

5. Improve Treatment of Ethnic Minorities

Beijing's policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, which constitute about half of China's territory, may be its greatest human rights failure over the last decade. Massive investment and infrastructure development have done little to offset the anger and despair of Tibetans and Uighurs forced to endure ever-tightening restrictions on their culture, language, movements, and religion. In the wake of protests in Tibetan areas in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009, the central government did not address underlying grievances, instead responding with enforced disappearances and harsh sentences. Since that time, access to both regions has been heavily restricted. It should be a source of profound shame and sense of failure to Beijing that at least 62 Tibetans have chosen to protest these policies by setting themselves ablaze, and it is hard to see the disproportionate indictment of Uighurs on state security charges and the razing of ancient parts of the Silk Road city of Kashgar as anything other than a grim indications of Beijing's strategy for these regions.

Xi should call for adherence to the autonomy laws that govern China's west, ideally with input from local and international experts, as a step towards a more durable and desirable solution than maintaining extraordinarytroop presences in the western third of the country. Failure to treat Tibetans and Uighurs as citizens with full rights and reasonable aspirations risks a social and political explosion akin to the protests of 2008 and 2009, not to mention a protracted security challenge on China's western border.

6. Earn Legitimacy

China has fallen behind other parts of the world by continually denying its people the right to genuine and periodic elections and to formal participation in political processes.Xi should draft a new kind of five-year plan: one that charts a course for the Communist Party to receive its political legitimacy from the people. Some China observers now argue that increasing factionalism within the party creates a rough equivalent of inter-party competition; that village elections allow for low-grade political participation; and that the government is increasingly responsive to public opinion. But not since the beginning of the reform era in the late 1970s has Beijing seen such intense infighting amongst the leadership. The recent turmoil with the party's process of choosing leaders, coupled with plummeting public confidence, suggest that the current strategy is failing to produce the smooth, confidence-engendering transitions senior officials seek.

The rocky run-up to the leadership transition makes any bold policy initiatives in the coming year highly unlikely. But if Xi advances similar but less controversial reforms, such as finally abolishing the "re-education through labor" system, or allowing exiled Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng to return, bolder steps might follow. The cost will be high, and he will certainly face significant opposition from many of the interests now deeply vested in the status quo of impunity, censorship, and persecution. But the people of China cannot afford another decade like the last one.

Sophie Richardson is China Director at Human Rights Watch.

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