The yin and yang of human rights in China

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The only lady vice minister in China’s Foreign Ministry is Fu Ying, a well-coiffed, mild-mannered 57-year-old, an ethnic Mongol who speaks flawless English, who has served as ambassador to the Philippines, Australia and Britain, and who is known for her media skills.

A few weeks ago, those skills were fully on display when she gave an interview to Die Zeit, a highly respected German weekly newspaper. Not surprisingly, the subject of human rights in China was discussed. Interestingly, the subject of human rights was introduced not by the interviewer but by Fu.

Asked to compare Europe and Asia today, the veteran diplomat recalled that three decades ago when she was an interpreter “human rights was always on the menu in our dialogues.” Now, she said, “China has moved on, and the world has moved on. So much has changed.”

“In 2004,” she said, “protection of human rights was incorporated into China’s constitution.” Yet, “European delegations still come to China with the same old attitude. They accuse and interrogate China in a condescending way. I really don’t hear much mentioning of China’s human rights progress.”

It isn’t clear if she is genuinely puzzled. Of course, putting protection of human rights into the constitution was a positive gesture — one that was reported by the international media. But the question is the extent to which this has made a difference on the ground.

The Chinese Constitution is full of high-sounding principles and declares unambiguously that China is a country governed by law. But the promise in the constitution has yet to be realized.

For example, after the Lhasa riots in 2008, defendants were unable to be represented by lawyers of their choice. Lawyers who volunteered their services were warned to stay away.

The current Chinese Constitution, promulgated in 1982, guarantees the Chinese people a host of rights, which include “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

Indeed, similar rights were proclaimed even before the formal establishment of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. On Sept. 29, 1949, two days before the PRC came into existence, a Common Program was published that became the temporary constitution. Article 5 of that document declared that the people “shall have freedom of thought, speech, publication, assembly, association, correspondence, person, domicile, change of domicile, religious belief and the freedom of holding processions and demonstrations.”

But where are these rights today? Surely, Fu cannot say such words were forced on China by the West. These were China’s own words.

Indeed, as the foreword to Charter 08 — a dissident manifesto issued two years ago and whose main author, Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year prison term — put it, China “has a constitution but no constitutional government.”

Fu was careful not to name any names in the interview, but she characterized people like Liu Xiaobo as “political extremists” who “put forward demands impossible to meet.” Liu and other signatories were simply exercising the freedom of speech guaranteed by the constitution. How can that be construed as making demands impossible to meet and deserving of imprisonment?

However, the lady diplomat was not totally negative. She divided China’s attitude toward human rights into three chronological stages, beginning with the end of the Qing dynasty, when prominent scholars tried to reform the Chinese feudal system. At the time, she said, “Westerners were unwilling to make Chinese their equals in human rights. The first wave of China’s human rights movement went nowhere.”

The second wave, she said, was actually embraced by the Communist Party, but because of the blockade against China instituted in 1950, “many Western concepts including human rights were rejected.”

Now, she said, China is in the third — and most successful — wave. Many laws have been introduced such as the Labor Law and the Property Law, and while they may not be perfect, they “still represent a big step forward in the development of China’s legal system.”

China, she said, is not rejecting the idea of human rights but is “learning gradually and absorbing ideas that can be planted and grown on Chinese soil.”

So, while human rights are still regarded as an alien concept that should not be imposed on China, there are aspects that can be transplanted that may flower on Chinese soil. Such a theory does not explain why rights promised to the Chinese people more than 60 years ago remain nothing but promises.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com).