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China: Authoritarian Rule at Home, Threat to Human Rights Abroad

March 11, 2018

In a near-unanimous vote on March 11, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, passed the proposed 21 amendments to the Chinese constitution. Among the most consequential are the removal of the two-term limit on the presidency and vice-presidency (Art. 79), and the relocation of the assertion of the political supremacy of the Communist Party of China from the Preamble to the text of the constitution (Art. 1). These amendments enable President Xi Jinping to serve for life with unfettered power and make the absolute rule of the CPC over China a constitutional imperative.  (The secret ballot vote was 2,958 for, 2 against, 3 abstained, 1 invalidated.)

“The constitutional amendments are a devastating move backward for China as a nation. Instead of providing ‘a powerful constitutional safeguard to national rejuvenation’ (为民族复兴提供有力宪法保障), as the state-run People’s Daily trumpeted, the amendments are also pushing China further toward a dangerous future,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “Ending the two-term limit ignores the painful lesson of the Mao era and exposes the Chinese people again to the massive human suffering, abuses, and national catastrophe that could result from unaccountable power concentrated in the hands of one person.”

“And as China aggressively attempts to export its model of ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics,’ the attempted legitimation of a dictatorship wrapped in domestic law poses a steepened threat to the integrity and effectiveness of the international human rights system.  Instead of China’s win-win strategy of political cooperation, failure to effectively address this threat will result in a lose-lose for everyone,” said Hom.

Two-term limit and the Reform era

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after Mao, initiated the Reform and Opening Up era that has focused primarily on economic reform. That new era has raised the standard of living and social mobility for many, especially in urban areas. It has also raised the hope among the people—especially among the middle class and the younger generation—that perhaps genuine progress toward greater political liberalization would also come soon to China.

The two-term limit was first written into the Chinese constitution in 1982, six years after the death of Mao Zedong whose dictatorship and absolute power resulted in major policy mistakes that dragged the nation through immense sufferings, including during the Great Famine (1959-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The decision to impose a finite tenure on the presidency, thus making it possible for power sharing, was derived from the painful lesson learned by Chinese leaders as China emerged from Mao’s disastrous rule.

The Xi Jinping era: ruling the country according to “law”

Many had harbored hopes that when President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he would be the leader to usher in that new era. But Xi Jinping’s first five-year term has brought only deepened repression—by means of law, police power, and compulsory ideological conformity—that has drastically narrowed civil society space and limited foreign support for independent domestic groups working constructively to contribute to social progress. It has targeted not only rights activists, but also intellectuals, legal professionals, and any individuals or groups simply asserting their rights, including raising social justice or corruption problems.

“By amending the constitution to provide a wrapping of ‘legality’ to a dictatorship and total ideological control, the leadership has not only torn off the thin veil of its claim to ‘rule the country according to law,’ but also exposed its naked use of the law as a tool to ensure ideological compliance and unquestioned loyalty to the Party,” said Hom.

Even as he builds a personality cult around himself, Xi has also tried to act the role of a “people’s” leader. A recent state-produced video shows an on-the-street exchange on February 18, 2018 between Xi and an elderly man who praised him: “President, you are our good leader.” Xi, in his response, made the priority of his rule very clear: “We need to guard the family property of the Communist Party” (我们要守住共产党的家业). In other words, everything belongs to the Party, not to the people or the nation.

“It should come as no surprise to anyone that the CPC wants to hold on to power.  However, notwithstanding its huge investment in its technological surveillance and censorship capacity, and the promulgation of a comprehensive Internet regulatory regime, Xi and the Party may be making a huge, risky gamble that Chinese people, with over 750 million online and connected—many of whom continue to demand government accountability—will meekly submit again to being victims of a dictatorship.”

Critical voices despite censorship

Immediately after the state-run Xinhua News Agency announced the proposed amendments on February 25, a sweeping ban on Weibo (Chinese equivalent of Twitter) posts that contain any of dozens of “sensitive” terms—including “disagree” (不同意) and the letter “N” (which can be used as a mathematical variable representing an unknown value)—made it largely difficult to gauge popular reactions. But netizens soon found ways to voice their opinions. Many used a car going backward (开倒车), in text and video, as metaphor for their dissent. And one user posted this question on the popular community Q&A platform Zhihu (知乎): “What can bus riders do when a tired bus driver refuses to change shift (如果客车司机疲劳驾驶不换班,乘客能怎么做)?” (On March 2, the authorities ordered the removal of the Zhihu app from app stores for seven days.)

Some young people have also found ways to make their views known. On March 7, students at the prestigious Tsinghua University used the occasion of “Female Students Festival” (女生节) to hang banners with messages mocking the lifting of the term limit disguised as love messages to female law students. One said: “As a nation cannot stand without a constitution, I can’t be without you” (国无宪不立,吾离你不行); and “My love for you has no limit, but if there is, just delete it” (爱你没有期限,如果有,那就把它删掉). And overseas Chinese students at many universities—including those in European countries, the U.S., Canada, and Australia—have taken advantage of the freedom of expression online to tweet their message of “Xi is not my president” through a Twitter account with the handle @stopxijinping.

One early voice of dissent among intellectuals came from Li Datong (李大同), the former editor of Freezing Point (冰点), a section of the China Youth Daily (中国青年报). In an open letter dated February 26, he urged the 55 Beijing deputies to the National People’s Congress to reject the amendments. He wrote: “Removing term limitations on national leaders will subject us to the ridicule of the civilized nations of the world. It means moving backward into history, and planting the seed once again of chaos in China, causing untold damage.” (Translation by China Media Project.)

Threat to human rights abroad

As China aggressively seeks an expanded global leadership projected through the image of Xi as strongman and despite the assertions of the Chinese government, what happens within its own borders can no longer be regarded simply as domestic affairs. In recent years, China has continuously stepped up its efforts to export its illiberal values and mode of governance. One of the major arenas where its attempts unfold is the international human rights system, through its participation in UN Human Rights Council sessions and engagement with UN human rights treaty bodies and special procedures.

Yu Jianhua, the Chinese ambassador to the UN at Geneva, in a recent speech at the Human Rights Council, pushed for the establishment of “a fair, just, open, and inclusive system for global human rights governance,” one that is based on development. While the delivered speech, calling for cooperation and “enhancement of the representation and voice of developing countries,” may sound reasonable, the subtext and real intent of the speech is clearer in the Chinese text version posted on the embassy’s website: “Development is the key that can solve all problems. . . . There are no standards in this world that are applicable universally; the path of human rights development of each country cannot be prescribed by one single authority.” (发展是解决一切问题的钥匙 . . . . 世界上没有放之四海而皆准的标准,各国人权发展道路不能定于一尊。) This is a direct refutation of the universality of human rights and is a proposal to replace the international human rights system with a new “human rights governance” system—one that shifts focus from accountability, compliance, and implementation of international obligations to a state-centric “governance” approach.

Indeed, just two days ago, on March 9, China introduced a draft resolution at the Human Rights Council that largely echoes the message of the speech. Titled “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause Through Win-Win Cooperation,” it calls for cooperation—through dialogue and technical assistance—among states but completely sidesteps the imperative of holding states accountable to protecting human rights as per their international human rights treaty obligations and in accordance with international standards.

“A gutting of the principle of the universality of human rights led by a dictatorial China featuring Xi Jinping as the strongman global leader is no longer far off in the future,” said Hom. “The international community is facing a critical moment: to stand by and let it happen, or to act to safeguard human rights principles that protect all of humanity, including the Chinese people,” said Hom.

In the face of China’s stepped up attacks on the foundational principles, institutional processes, and functional bodies of the international human rights system, HRIC urges the international community to stand firm on international human rights standards and universal values.  Specifically, we urge stakeholders to do the following:

  • In multilateral and bilateral engagements with China, governments must express strong and clear support for the domestic rights activists striving to contribute to a more open civil society in China, and of the family members of individuals detained or imprisoned for their rights defense work.
  • All member states of the Human Rights Council must use the opportunity of the upcoming review of China’s implementation of international human rights obligations—namely, in its next Universal Periodic Review—to firmly express their concern over and respond to China’s attacks on universal human rights values, the rule of law, and the rights of its citizens.
  • All members of the international community must resist and reject the Chinese government’s attempts to avoid accountability through its strategies of deflection, including charges of “politicization” and bias, and the introduction of new terminology such as “human rights with Chinese characteristics” in efforts to supplant existing international human rights standards.

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