China’s human rights record

One of my favorite reporters in China, Peter Ford, strives to provide some balance and perspective on this complex and emotionally charged topic. Although nothing he tells us is new to those who keep up with what’s happening here, it could be useful to the majority of human beings whose perceptions are formed by fiery op-ed columns, online forums and 30-second news clips on TV.

The question it addresses is simple: Have human rights improved in China over the past 25 years, and if so, how? The conclusion is predictable, but only because it is true: Of course human rights have improved, but Mao set the bar so low that even vast improvement is not enough; China still gets failing grades when it comes to rule of law, freedom of speech, and its oppression of groups such as Falun Gong, Uighurs, unauthorized churches, etc.

“Nothing we do today was possible 25 years ago. Compared with then, the human rights situation in China has improved like never before.”

And that enthusiastic assessment comes from a man who was fired from his job in 2006 as editor of a Communist youth newspaper for publishing an article that contradicted the party line, Li Datong.

But the baseline, he points out, was pretty low. “In 1983, I would probably have been arrested.”

Twenty-five years ago, Chinese citizens were not free to choose their jobs: The authorities assigned them work for life. Farmers were forbidden to live anywhere but the village where they were born. Nobody was allowed to travel abroad, except on government-authorized business. Nobody could dream of owning a car, let alone a house. Food was rationed. Nobody was allowed to set up a business. Western movies and books were banned.

Today, all that has changed. And as the state has relaxed its control over the minutiae of daily life, citizens have also felt freer to express themselves to each other. Among friends and neighbors, Chinese say what they think about everything, from their political leaders to rising prices to their country’s medal chances at the Beijing Olympics.

The dark side then follows, but the conclusion is clear: yes, human rights have improved for the majority of Chinese, and no, the reforms to date don’t go nearly far enough. Of course, to the polarized factions who dwell in the comments, simply acknowledging any improvement of any kind in China is to be a communist shill. And to others, bringing up the oppression of Falun Gong or Uighurs means “you don’t understand China” and “why don’t you just go home?”

Meanwhile, Peter Ford isn’t a shill for the CCP and I think he does understand China. It is hard for some to grasp, but you actually can hold contradictory opinions about China. You actually can reconcile your dislike for much of what the CCP represents with your finding some benefits (even – gasp – enjoyment) in living here. Just as I was able, when I moved back to the US in 2003, to reconcile my loathing of George Bush with my appreciation of the many freedoms we enjoy in America. My living there and enjoying my work and saying so did not make me blind to America’s evil or a shill for George Bush.

How can you reconcile the jailing of Hu Jia with your firm belief in fundamental freedoms? How can you reconcile the thousands of executions each year with your viewpoint that capital punishment is abhorrent? I can’t speak for anyone else. But I can say that for me, it is often very difficult. But just as when I lived in America, I saw the good of the people and the hope and, for many in China, the improvement in the quality of life, and I made the choice to be here, to observe, and to make my contribution by speaking out and condemning actions that I see as obscene and immoral. Like Hu Jia. Like the “cyber-dissidents” rotting in jail. Like Shi Tao and so many other journalists imprisoned for telling the truth.

It isn’t easy but it can be done, and doing so does not make someone evil. If so, then I have many, many, many evil friends, only I can promise you, they are among the most splendid people on the planet.


Michelle Maolkin


I’d follow her anywhere….

The post from which I stole this is wickedly funny, though totally devoid of any reference to China. Check it out, and don’t miss the comments. I was literally laughing out loud.

I know, I said I wouldn’t be posting until around May, but my schedule just got re-arranged so you’ll just have to deal with more frivolous bantering until I go away, around April 20.


John Pomfret’s new blog

Wow – off to a flying start, at least in terms of igniting a firestorm. John is one of the best and brightest when it comes to China (my own blog probably links more to his articles than those of any other journalist). Will blogroll this now.

Link via Danwei.


Hillary Clinton and her call for a boycott

This is quite simply a must read.

This, too, is quite insightful. Doesn’t take a pro or con stand, but looks at the new political importance of the Olympic Games and how the current talks of boycotts differ from those we heard in 1980 and 1994.

Update: And another must-read.


Another visa crackdown rumor

And away we go…again.

Chinese authorities have stopped issuing multiple-entry visas and slowed visa processing in Hong Kong, a major gateway for travel to the mainland, until after the Beijing Olympics, local travel agents said Tuesday.

The Chinese foreign ministry, however, denied there was any change in policy.

Hong Kong-based travel agent Forever Bright Trading Ltd. said on its Web site that multiple-entry visas were suspended from March 28 until Oct. 17. The Beijing Olympics are scheduled to take place Aug. 8-24.

Travel agent Luk Tak said Chinese authorities are now only issuing single- or double-entry travel visas to foreigners in Hong Kong, scaling back a visa program that used to issue multiple-entry business visas that lasted up to three years.

I know many people here in Beijing take advantage of the Hong Kong border run to renew visas, a key option as there have been increasing reports about difficulties with visas at the PSB center here in Beijing and in a few other cities.

Anyone in the loop know more about what’s going on? Any recent visa stories to share?



Inspired by Seinfeld, this may soon become a blog “about nothing.” That’s just the way it is, at least through the first week of May. The next three weeks are the home stretch; May will be a lot easier.

Meanwhile, all I have time to say is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a mess of misconceptions, pre-conceived notions, hysterical reactions and mass obfuscation as I’ve seen over the past few weeks when it comes to Tibet – and that applies to all sides. It is almost impossible to read the newspapers and blogs (except this one) and come away with anything even faintly resembling the truth. I think the only truth we’d nearly all agree on is that when it comes to perceptions, the Party messed it up big-time and it may not recover; the shadow of Tibet could cast its pall over what was supposed to be the most crapspectacular demonstration of harmony and joy the world had ever experienced. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Open thread (if anyone’s still here).


Insider’s Guide to Beijing 2008

Insider's Guide to Beijing.png

I was sent this book to review months ago and I got so caught up in work I put it aside and all but forgot about it. Then one day last week I needed to find a restaurant fast and I remembered I had a new book on Beijing buried in my bookcase. After a little excavation I dug it out and started thumbing through it. I soon realized this isn’t your everyday tourist guidebook, the kind that lists only restaurants that tourist buses flock to or that pushes you toward annoying tourist traps. It’s not really a guidebook, but more of a survival manual for living in Beijing. And for uncovering all that Beijing has to offer.

The best think about this book is that it truly lives up to its title: its chapters are written by Beijing’s best and brightest like Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo – people who not only know Beijing like the proverbial back of their hand, but who actually tell you stuff that is useful, stuff that you simply won’t find in your everyday guidebook or survival manual. Great restaurant reviews, descriptions of the best museums and art galleries and musical events in town, and tips for every conceivable activity, from starting a business to getting a driver’s license to finding a language school. And it’s told with context and insight, not just laundry lists and one-line descriptions.

I try to avoid superlatives, but this 700-page encyclopedia is the best city guide that I’ve ever seen. Beijing is so huge and complicated, so hard to navigate, and when you first get here (and even after) so many of the great things going on here are hard to find if you don’t have an insider telling you where to go. This book unlocks it all, giving you the keys to the kingdom. It’s great. I just wish I’d opened it up earlier.


Hu Jia Sentenced to 3.5 Years

It’s a story that is going to receive a lot of coverage (already has actually) but I think the best piece so far is by John Kennedy at Global Voices Online. John’s post captures both the tragedy and the complexity of Hu Jia’s case and includes a number of useful references and important links. Here is a too brief excerpt:

Playing Captain Kangaroo may work in Zhongnanhai, but the reality that Hu and Zeng and their supporters have chosen to live in goes more like a Kanye West song. When Hu was first kidnapped around this time two years ago, Zeng Jinyan started a blog on which she documented the bureaucratic games she saw being played as she ran around Beijing trying unsuccessfully to find out what had happened to her husband, who was dropped off miles from home and with no notice over a month later.

When Zeng herself soon became subject to constant surveillance, she slammed on the brakes and started getting in their face.

Placing Hu under ongoing house arrest in 2006 effectively put an end to the environmental protection and AIDS awareness work for which he had already become quite well-known, and so trapped at home with little more than an internet connection, he not only created a whole new approach to activism, which some are calling Tiananmen 2.0, he switched gears to become a social worker of sorts, enabled by technology to keep constant track of a whole range of cases, and where possible, enabling others [zh] to do the same.

In 2007, Zeng Jinyan was chosen by TIME Magazine as one of the most influential people in the world.

This will no doubt go down as a landmark moment in Chinese history, but to this day anyone looking to China’s largest search engine for more information needs to be prepared for disappointment. In the China of today, though, someone like Hu Jia just doesn’t quietly disappear, and when state agents abducted him again last December, near-blind family friend Zheng Mingfang went straight to the streets and did what she could, walking up to strangers and explaining Hu’s situation, collecting signatures for a petition calling for his release. Early last month, however, Zheng too was arrested.

Words fail.


“Happy life of a Tibetan”

That is the actual title of this Xinhua article, which borders on parody. I can just see some party hack with a checklist of key messages ticking them off one by one. Only one item is missing from his checklist, however, and that is newsworthiness. Since when does someone being happy qualify as news? Then again, the article’s subject probably exists only in the imagination of a low-payed copywriter. The whole thing:

Happy life of a Tibetan man

LHASA, April 2 (Xinhua) — Living in a village of Xietongmen County in Tibet, Dolag looks forward to every weekend when his daughter comes home from the boarding school in town.

His nine-year-old daughter enjoys free education, room and meals at the primary school, a policy the central government has offered to resident students from the region’s agricultural and pasturing areas in the stage of compulsory education. The policy was initiated in 1985, earlier than many parts of the country. The sponsoring fund per head has risen to the present1,450 yuan from 353 yuan 23 years before.

“The government not only provides free education for my daughter, it also helps us to build new houses,” said the plump middle-aged man. Dolag, whose life revolves around a pasture in northern Tibet, enjoys watching his daughter coming back home from school in a merry mood. For him, it is a return to a happy life.

The 41-year-old man was heartbroken when his two other children were killed by floods while herding sheep in 2004. But he still has a daughter.

Unlike most parts of the country, Tibetans in rural and pasturing areas enjoy special policies that put no limit on the number of births the couples can have.

Dolag has gradually stepped out of the shadow. Last year, he spent more than 100,000 yuan (about 14,000 US dollars) to renovate his house, backed by nearly 20,000 yuan of subsidy from the local government.

Tibet started an unprecedented house renovation program for the farmers and herdsmen in 2006, which has helped 570,000 Tibetans move into new houses.

The government has allocated more than 1.7 billion yuan as subsidies in the program.

Zhoinlag, Dolag’s 66-year-old mother, now lives with her other relatives in Shigatse, where the famous Tashilhunpo Monastery (meaning “heap of glory”) is located.

Her daily life is occupied with turning the prayer wheels, a special ritual of reading the mantras for Tibetans, and paying visits to the temple.

“I wish I could take my mother to other temples and monasteries in Tibet,” said Dolag, who plans to buy a car for the purpose. His mother’s ultimate wish is nothing material – she only hopes that all her children are healthy.

Next year, Zhoinlag will be 67, the average lifespan of today’s Tibetan farmers and herdsmen. The lifespan was only 35.5 years half a century ago.

Dolag is confident that his mother will live a long life because of the better living conditions and medical care.

Nearly 98 percent of the 2.8 million people in Tibet were covered by basic medical insurance, the local health authority said in October last year. Starting from 2007, the poverty-stricken people can receive a maximum of 30,000 yuan in medical aid.

Dolag has two brothers, who are both civil servants. One of them graduated from a teachers’ school while the other from a university.

According to statistics of the regional Bureau of Statistics, the per capita annual income of Tibet farmers and herdsmen has kept a two-digit growth for five consecutive years, reaching 2,788yuan in 2007.

To help farmers and herdsmen in difficulty, the regional government established a system in 2007 to ensure these people enjoy a minimum standard of living, benefiting farmers and herdsman with annual income below 800 yuan.

If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was a press release manufactured by the government to make itself look good.

Can anyone reading this actually not see through it instantly from the headline alone?”

[Update: For an interesting and very different article about Tibet, go here now. And no, I don’t agree with every word, but it sure made me think. A couple of sentences also made me wince.]


Are direct democratic elections unsuitable for China? — the case of Taiwan

Interesting opinion piece by Huang Wenxue and translated by Heather Saul at China Elections and Governance run by the Carter Center.

Huang argues:

The media reported that “the election of Taiwan regional leadership was peaceful and orderly.” This means that direct democratic and popular election of government leadership has already taken place in Taiwan, a region with a population of more than twenty million. This is a resounding slap in the face for those who say “China is ill suited for direct democratic elections,” and that “China does not have the proper conditions for direct democratic elections.” Of course, what works in one region cannot be applied universally to all parts of China. However, what we have is a case of successful Chinese direct democratic elections. In this context, the continual promulgation of the idea that “direct democratic elections are unsuitable for China” not only belittles China, but also implies that Taiwan is not a part of China. As of now, when Mainland China will start allowing the direct election of township leaders is not the point. What is presently important is that Chinese leaders admit that Taiwan, as a part of China, is a successful case of direct elections and that other regions in China may have similar conditions of suitability for this kind of democracy.

For as much as mainlanders like to occasionally snicker at the boisterous and raucous world of Taiwanese politics, the system is maturing rapidly. I strongly suggest reading the essay in its entirety. The original Chinese-language text can also be found here.

H/T Danwei.