China’s slow march toward a normal society

by Frank Ching

In the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics, there was much talk about the state of human rights in China. Some declared that human rights continued to deteriorate while others insisted that the situation had been improving for the last 30 years. Still others asserted that both sides are right and that it is like describing a glass as half full or half empty.

Actually, in some ways, China is like the proverbial elephant, whose proportions are so huge and whose parts are so different that they cannot be grasped by a single person feeling a single part of the animal.

Societies East and West have stories about blind men and an elephant. It is common to Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. In the West, it was popularized by a 19th-century poem by John Godfrey Saxe, “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” which goes:

It was six men of Indoston

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

Each man touches one part, and only one part, of the animal. Inevitably, each man draws different conclusions of what an elephant is like.

One man feels the side of the elephant and concludes that it is like a wall. Another, who touches its tail, says it is like a rope, while a third, basing his judgment on a tusk, says it is like a spear.

Still another feels a gigantic leg and avers that it is like a tree, while another who touches a flapping ear is convinced that it is like a fan. And the one who explores the trunk says, understandably, that the elephant is very much like a snake.

Each is correct in his own way, but it is necessary to put all the different descriptions together to get an accurate picture of the elephant. The subject of human rights in China is very much like that.

There continue to be egregious violations by the state of the human rights of individuals, such as journalists and lawyers. The courts, too, have been used by the government as an instrument of repression in political cases.

And as technology advanced, it has become more difficult to deny citizens access to all kinds of information or the means for them to express themselves. But the Communist Party and the government, too, make use of technology, with thousands of censors now patrolling the Internet, deleting what they consider offensive even as another army, this time of volunteers, posts the contents on other sites. The elephant, too, is changing.

Sometimes critics dismiss as little more than a cosmetic gesture such changes as China’s decision in 2004 to put into its constitution an innocuous line: “The state respects and preserves human rights.”

Internationally China has committed itself to abiding by human rights covenants including, recently, signing a treaty on the right of disabled persons.

Of course, without other changes in policy and legislation, constitutional amendments and adoption of treaties may not change government behavior. But these changes do raise the public consciousness so that the authorities can no longer expect a docile populace.

There is no doubt that in many parts of the country, local officials abuse their authority. But it is notable that these abuses tend to occur in more backward areas, not in big cities like Shanghai. So, as China prospers, such incidents should decrease.

Recently in remote Wengan county in Guizhou province, large numbers of people protested because they did not accept the police version of how a 15-year-old girl died, going so far as to burn down the police station, ransack government buildings and overturn cars.

In time, the government will realize that the raising of rights consciousness must be accompanied by the provision of additional channels for redress of grievances. Rights in theory must be honored in practice. That may take time, but it will come.

When the human rights provision was put in the constitution, another provision was inserted declaring: “Citizens’ lawful private property is inviolable.”

This, too, looked like an empty gesture. But last year the Chinese legislature adopted a law designed to actually protect private property rights. The law itself remains controversial but, at least, it is on the books.

China’s march toward a more normal society, with safeguards for rights and freedoms, will be a tortuous one but all signs are that the country is moving slowly but steadily in that direction. The elephant will continue to change.

Frank Ching is the author of “China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record,” published by Rider, a Random House imprint. July 2008. Frank.ching@gmail.com