China Human Rights: Why the Country Could Be the Next Myanmar


With the end of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress over, we know who the top brass are for the next ten years. But the one thing most international observers aren't sure of is the question of whether or not human rights reform will take place in China between now and 2022.

In all likelihood, significant human rights reform is not very likely given the complexity and multitude of the policy challenges that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang face, alongside their fellow Standing Committee colleagues, on top of the much neglected matter of human rights.

The question, therefore, is whether or not any significant changes can emerge within the next decade. Human rights activists certainly believe that this important issue cannot and will not be ignored by China's seven new helmsmen.

Reform, Reform for Who?

In the recent issue of The Economist, reform was noted as a high priority issue after "the dust settles" during the the power shift. Li Keqiang, the premier in waiting, was noted making a speech that "could be summed up in four syllables, they would be 'reform, reform.'" The only problem is that the contents of the reform will probably not be centered around human rights.

In their inaugural speeches, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang both recognized that China was entering an era of uncertainty and increasing social pressure from corruption, wealth disparity, living conditions, and crowding from state monopolies. On the one hand, Xi's speech focused on the need to root out corruption and improve living conditions. On the other hand, Li focused on reforming the system in general and in the economic arena.

In short, China's primary leaders recognize the need to reform, but do not place human rights as their focus for the enterprise of reform. This seems contrary to how the Chinese human rights community in exile feels about the importance of human rights.

The Impetus of Human Rights Reform

In the wake of the all-important CCP Congress, Chinese human rights activists have touted the importance of human rights to the new Standing Committee should they want to keep their chairs from being pulled from under them. The most prominent of these activists is the blind lawyer, Cheng Guangcheng, who urged Xi and company to move forward on human rights.

Chen noted, in light of his nephew's arrest in recent days for resisting Chinese government agents entering his home, that Xi should follow Sein Thein of Myanmar's example by leading human rights reform with the liberation of political prisoners, to allow for China to peacefully shift toward becoming a democracy.

He also stated that: "Whether [Xi and the Standing Committee] will follow the call of heaven and the people to carry out [human rights] reform, or kidnap the government and maintain the power of the Communist Party is a matter of whether China will have the transition in a peaceful way or a violent way".

The unfortunate truth is that the CCP and its top brass are unlikely to acquiesce to the demand from Chen and others to loosen the Party's control in the name of human rights reform.

The Central Kingdom's Priorities

Like the human rights activists, China's new helmsmen know that improving the human conditions of the ordinary citizenry in the Central Kingdom is essential to ensure that the CCP continues to rule supreme.

The only problem is that the reforms that have the attention of China's new managers are only peripherally related to human rights. China plans to become a knowledge economy that is based on strong free market values by 2030 - an ambitious plan that requires complex and substantial reforms in both the economic and political spheres.

In the economic sphere, there are the matters of introducing market reforms to allow more private companies to climb up in the Chinese economy to balance out the domineering status of state-owned-enterprises (SOEs). One such way of doing so is phasing out subsidies for SOEs and giving more leeway to private companies in how they choose to operate and manage their economic affairs.

There is also the matter of furthering reforms in the social safety net that has been taking shape during the Hu Jintao Administration - public healthcare, social security, and government subsidies.

Meanwhile in the political sphere, the corruption in the CCP needs to be confronted to secure the legitimacy of the CCP's right to rule under its "Mandate of Heaven.". China is currently working to root out corruption in the private sector and the public sector.

Labor policy also needs to be addressed to allow for stability among the working class that has been showing signs of unrest due to grievances over working conditions in the heartland of China's industrial regions.

The dispute over land rights will also prove to be a major source of woes and is area in need of reform from the new helmsmen. As the incidents in Wukan and elsewhere show, people are indeed upset over the unilateral government policies over land use and are willing to use open, civil disobedience to get their point across. Therefore, the CCP top brass need to make reforms to adjust to the situation.

Human rights is tagentially related to many of these priorities in the Central Kingdom, but they are not a top priority by any measure, especially those that are political in nature and involve the release of dissidents clamoring for the downfall of the CCP-led political system in China.

The new management have a full plate before 2022 swings around and human rights is, at best, only a peripheral issue that can be addressed through reforms in the economic and political arenas using tangential avenues.