China and Human Rights

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

On this page:

  1. China’s lack of political freedoms
  2. Opinion towards China brings mixed agendas
  3. Tibet crackdown, 2008
    1. China’s poor attempt to deflect attention
    2. Resentment of Chinese economic policy not benefiting locals
    3. What is a Free Tibet?
    4. Lack of international unity, despite statements by media and world leaders
    5. China’s actions fuels the very thing it says it tries to fight
  4. China and Africa; concerns over rights and exploitation
  5. More information

China’s lack of political freedoms

Since the Communist Party gained power in China and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, authoritarian rule has been the norm.

Around the late 1970s, as the first generation of Communist Party leaders were replaced by a second, some reforms provided a foundation of rapid economic development (it is now an economic superpower). The political reforms away from authoritarian rule has remained elusive.

For example, the government continues to exert its absolute control over politics, and is often looks to eradicate domestic threats to stability of the country through excessive use of force and authority.

Imprisonment of political opponents and journalists critical of the government has been common. The press is tightly regulated as is religion. Suppression of independence/secessionist movements is often heavy-handed, to say the least.

For example, months of campaigning by students and others for more democratic rights and freedom of speech culminated in the Tiananmen Square protests of 19891, a violent crackdown by the Chinese military with 15 days of martial law. The after-effects also resulted in government crackdown of sympathizers. For example, foreign media were banned for a while, local media were strictly monitored and controlled, and Communist Party members who sympathized with the protesters were placed under house arrest.

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Opinion towards China brings mixed agendas

Interestingly, around the time of that massacre, Western opinion turned against China and has had an effect to this day when it comes to discussions of China’s human rights situation.

In summary, up to the end of the 1980s, China was seen as a reforming country moving towards market economics and an ally of the West to counter the then-Soviet Union, which China also feared despite being Communist as well.

The collapse of the Soviet Union around the same time, as well as this Tiananmen massacre, changed that view; China’s political value to the West lessened due to the demise of the Soviet Union and political critique of China could therefore become more pronounced.

There is tremendous commercial interest by outsiders with China, and some of that may explain the economic-friendly-but-politically-neutral-or-weak front that many Western countries and their businesses have with China.

To this day, many raise concerns in the political, commercial, social, and environmental concerns. Some are happy to point out problems in China, while overlooking problems in their own countries (or not realizing how large their own may be), for example.

Others may be afraid of the rise of China and see it as a threat to their jobs.

Leaders of some nations such as the US, UK and Australia, also hint that populous countries such as China and India may be more to blame for climate change than themselves, even though that is often spin or diverting attention from their own contributions2 that have gone on for much longer.

These things can all combine in various ways. In economic downturns, these factors can sometimes combine and result in racist attitudes towards Chinese (and other ethnic minorities).

This is certainly an oversimplification as there are issues ranging from the economic, to political to environmental and social that all attract differing views from outsiders towards China from China-bashing to China-supporting, and is not in the scope of this particular article here.

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Tibet crackdown, 2008

Tibet, which China considers part of its territory, has also seen problems.

Demonstrations marking the anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule resulted in the killing of numerous demonstrators. Chinese authorities claimed a low number of deaths, while Tibetans and international media, a higher number.

The Chinese government crackdown has included closing off the country to the outside world and shutting out or controlling most media, including Internet media and sites used to show video footage of what happened. The military and police presence has also swelled.

There have been protests in the past in Tibet, such as in 1987 and 1989, but these were only in the capital, Lhasa, and involved mostly monks, intellectuals, and students. In contrast, the 2008 riots have spread to other parts of Tibet and included peasants and workers.

China’s poor attempt to deflect attention

The Chinese government has been keen to show in their own video footage that Tibetans have turned against Chinese people living in Tibet. As with so many conflicts, while propaganda strategies try to highlight issues such as race and ethnicity, the root causes are often economic and political in nature and are typically less discussed.

The Chinese government, already under increasing scrutiny as the Beijing Olympics draws closer, has opted for strength and force, instead of dialog. The influential spiritual leader of Buddhists and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, exiled from Tibet since 1959, the Dalai Lama has been blamed by the Chinese government for being behind the recent riots3, which the Dalai Lama has denied and suggested that there should be an international investigation of this claim.

Resentment of Chinese economic policy not benefiting locals

The Chinese government believes Tibet is backward and needs modernizing. China has therefore attempted a policy of rapid economic development in Tibet.

However, without any political reforms to accompany this process, the social tensions have increased as local Tibetans see little of the prosperity and growth, while ethnic Chinese, who have also been encouraged to emigrate there, have seen their wealth generally increase.

What may fundamentally be economic problems (of participation and benefits from the policies, etc), a political problem has manifested (issues of political freedoms, repression, and autonomy or independence—discussed further below). Certainly, Western mainstream media’s reporting typically concentrates on the harsh crackdown by the Chinese authorities.

Inter Press Service captures both the importance of the Dalai Lama in this, as well as the underlying economic causes:

Wang Lixiong, a Beijing-based writer whose research works on Tibet have been circulated within the communist party, says the current crisis should serve as a wake up call for Chinese leaders that their rapid economic development policy in Tibet is a failure.

… Wang reflected that Beijing’s politically-motivated investment in Tibet is fueling economic growth that widens social inequality and creates discontent.

Calling the visible signs of development in Tibet a pretense of modernization, Wang describes how the dramatic rise in living standards among the Tibetan elite is in a stark contrast with the impoverishment of the overwhelming majority of Tibetans who remain rural, illiterate and poor.

If the current leadership doesn’t reconsider its Tibet policy, in ten or twenty years time, the Tibetan fight will become even uglier, he reckons. They must now recognize that imposed economic prosperity would not erase the significance of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan hearts. The Dalai Lama is the key to the Tibetan problem because he is their ultimate spiritual leader and also an international symbol of the Tibetan identity.

Antoaneta Bezlova, CHINA: Under Pressure to Rethink Tibet Policy4, Inter Press Service, March 21, 2008

Pema Gyalpo, official representative of the Dalai Lama in Japan from 1975 to 1990, in an interview5 with Inter Press Service notes that The Chinese are putting money into Tibet, but it’s … only being used to bring in more Chinese. Even the railroad was built to transport these settlers.… Bringing in more Chinese is a tool to exploit the Tibetan economy. Unless the Chinese change their past policies there will no solution to the Tibet problem.

What is a Free Tibet?

To different people, a free Tibet means different things. Most assume that the majority of Tibetans are for independence away from China.

Even the Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama of leading a separatist movement/agenda.

Yet, the Dalai Lama has long insisted that he is for autonomy, not independence, as noted in this excerpt from an interview by Amanda Bower in 2006:

  1. Amanda Bower:

    Two weeks ago, the Chinese government said it would allow you to visit your homeland, which you fled in 1959, if you abandoned your pursuit of independence for Tibet. But haven't you long said that you want autonomy, not independence, for Tibet?

  2. Dalai Lama:

    Oh yes. The world knows the Dalai Lama is not seeking independence. The world knows. Still the Chinese do not know. [Laughs]

  3. Amanda Bower:

    Do you have any heaviness of heart about giving up hope for Tibetan independence?

  4. Dalai Lama:

    No. It’s not necessary.… today, the common interest is more important than each individual nation’s sovereignty. Tibet is a landlocked country, a large area, small population, very, very backward. We Tibetans want modernization. Therefore, in order to develop Tibet materially as a modern nation, Tibet must remain within the People's Republic of China. Provided Chinese give us a full guarantee of preservation of Tibetan culture, Tibetan environment, Tibetan spirituality, then it is of mutual benefit. [Besides] foreign affairs [and] defense [are] all the things which Tibetans can manage by themselves. Tibetans should have the full autonomy.

Dalai Lama: Tibet Wants Autonomy, Not Independence6, Interview by By Amanda Bower, Time Magazine, 16 April 2006

(More recently, reflecting the March 2008 violence, the official web site for the Dalai Lama also notes the media has misquoted him a few times7 and clarifies that On the issue of independence, [The Dalai Lama] reiterated that what he is seeking is meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people.)

Lack of international unity, despite statements by media and world leaders

On the surface, there is near-unanimous condemnation of the way the Chinese government has handled the situation. Yet, as Inter Press Service notes, in reality, the impasse at the United Nations Security Council shows that nations have their own interests that affect their judgment on whether or not to penalize China in some way for its heavy-handedness:

The killings and human rights transgressions in several of the world’s trouble spots — including Palestine, Burma (Myanmar), Sudan, Chechnya and now Tibet — have failed to trigger any punitive action or mandatory sanctions against any of the governments or miscreants.

The United States, Britain and France have continued to protect Israel (against the Palestinians) while Russia and China are currently protective of the beleaguered governments in Sudan and Burma.

All five countries continue to manipulate the 15-member Security Council to their advantage primarily because of their veto powers.

Thalif Deen, Tibet Bypasses Security Council Scrutiny8, Inter Press Service, March 18, 2008

Thalif Deen continues, noting that Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Asian diplomat said that the Security Council is being run on a politically selfish principle: You scratch my back, I will scratch yours.

Deen referred to the example of Palestine where Israel’s recent use of disproportionate force there killed many more civilians than that believed to have been killed here in Tibet, and yet, because the US backs Israel, China — usually a supporter of the Palestinian cause — did not want to antagonize Washington. Washington, for its part, Deen added, did not even mention China in the US State Department’s recent annual human rights report.

China’s actions fuels the very thing it says it tries to fight

The policies of China, of trying to modernize Tibet, but excluding Tibetans in the process, is undermining the situation. At the moment, it seems most people are angry and frustrated because they are not receiving the benefits of economic growth while their cultural, personal and religious freedoms are restricted, as the Dalai Lama feels:

Whether it was intended or not, I believe that a form of cultural genocide has taken place in Tibet.… Tibetans have been reduced to an insignificant minority … as a result of the huge transfer of non-Tibetans into Tibet. The distinctive Tibetan cultural heritage … is fading away.

… In reality, there is no religious freedom in Tibet. Even to call for a little more freedom is to risk being labeled a separatist. Nor is there any real autonomy in Tibet, even though these basic freedoms are guaranteed by the Chinese constitution.

I believe the demonstrations and protests taking place in Tibet are a spontaneous outburst of public resentment built up by years of repression in defiance of authorities that are oblivious to the sentiments of the local populace. They mistakenly believe that further repressive measures are the way to achieve their declared aim of long-term unity and stability.

Dalai Lama, Press Release9, March 18, 2008

There will also be all sorts of organizations around the world supporting the cause of the Tibetans. Some will be encouraging complete freedom/independence from China for whatever reason (anti-China reasons, legitimate belief in independence of Tibet from China, etc).

Some will want to exploit the current problems for a broader goal than that of the Dalai Lama. Researcher Michael Barker, for example, fears that some organizations supporting Tibetan’s have questionable pasts10.

Whatever it may be, it is perhaps also ironic that China’s fears of separatist movements comes about because it might be fueling it.

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China and Africa; concerns over rights and exploitation

Criticism of China’s human rights is (predictably) increasing in the West, as China rises. Some of the concerns are genuine, while others may hide political agenda. Common criticisms are over areas such as human rights, environment, and labor standards. As Chinese enterprises expand overseas, especially in Africa, criticisms of exploitation are increasing.

For example, China’s silence on the Sudanese government’s policy in Darfur suggests that China is not concerned about human rights; just about its own economic interests. In Angola for example, where there are lots of oil interest (not just from China), some Chinese companies have been accused of ignoring local issues, for example by importing many materials from China rather than sourcing it locally, and even hiring Chinese only, excluding local Angolans.

A BBC television report in early July 2007 even noted that at an African/Chinese conference, the West was not there, implying the West could perhaps have been able to tame Chinese attempts at exploitation. Nothing was mentioned about the decades of Western exploitation of Africa that continues today albeit more benignly.

A BBC web site forum even asked, Is China Africa’s new master?11, perhaps not realizing that by saying new, it appeared to acknowledge a role that the West currently attempts to fill.

It seems that there may be some double standards here.

As detailed on this site’s section on Africa12 and trade, economics13, and poverty14 issues, these western nations are the very ones that have exploited Africa for many decades. Some of these nations have even overthrown potential or fledgling democracies, favoring brutal dictators that have bled their countries.

For example, the economic policies of the IMF and World Bank, backed by Washington and Europe have been very detrimental to Africa. From Structural Adjustment Policies15 to economic dumping16 (often called food aid) to other aspects of unfair aid, debt and trade deals presented as historic positive deals for Africa17, these issues seem to have been ignored when raising concerns about China’s involvement (or, as the previous link also notes, are ignored even when discussing Africa).

Firoze Manji, editor of the popular pan-African social issues web site, Pambazuka News, also raises the important point that in comparison to Europe and the US, China in Africa is still a small player18.

It is worth quoting Manji at some length:

… in comparison to Europe and the US, China in Africa is still a small player. While keeping an eye out on China, Africans should not be distracted from paying attention to the West's continued exploitation of the continent including the use of military might to protect its economic interests.

Open any newspaper and you would get the impression that the African continent, and much of the rest of the world, is in the process of being ‘devoured’ by China. Phrases such as the ‘new scramble for Africa’, ‘voracious’, ‘ravenous’ or ‘insatiable’ ‘appetite for natural resources’ are typical descriptors used to characterise China’s engagement with Africa. In contrast, the operations of western capital for the same activities are described with anodyne phrases such as ‘development’, ‘investment’, ‘employment generation’.

China’s involvement in Africa has three main dimensions: foreign direct investment, aid and trade. In each of these dimensions China’s engagement is dwarfed by those of US and European countries, and often smaller than those of other Asian economies.

Firoze Manji, China still a small player in Africa19, Pambazuka News, March 27, 2008

After going into further detail (worth reading) Manji concludes that China offers potential for Africa which some Western countries finds threatening, but at the same time is taking advantage of the more open environment:

China has the advantage of never having enslaved or colonized the continent. China has also not made any false promises coated with neo-liberalism. While the West, the IMF and the World Bank put conditions that only aid in their fleecing of Africa, China has so far been willing to provide unconditional aid and invest in infrastructure. At the same time, however, it freely takes full advantage of the opening up of markets that neo-liberal economic policies over the last 25 years have offered, unencumbered.

And so far, unlike the US, China has not sought to establish military bases in Africa to protect its economic interests, which the US has sought to establish through AFRICOM.

Firoze Manji, China still a small player in Africa20, Pambazuka News, March 27, 2008

Many western news outlets and campaigners are quick to point out that China offers aid with no strings attached, whereas western nations offer aid with conditions tied to human rights. While there is some truth to this, it is often overlooked that a lot of conditions by western countries are not about human rights21, but about opening up African economies and it is these conditions that are often criticized.

Inter Press Service (IPS) noted some problems with a huge deal between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 200822. The deal involved China pledging a $9 billion loan as well as building massive new copper and cobalt mines, 4,000 km of roads and railways, upgrading Congo’s beleaguered mining sector, as well as build schools, hospital and clinics. In return, Beijing secured copper and cobalt concessions that over 25 years would supply Chinese manufacturing with 6.8 million tons of copper and 620,000 tons of cobalt.

It was dubbed by Kinshasa as Congo’s Marshall Plan, but the IMF and Western powers didn’t appear to like it, pressuring (and succeeding) Congo to renegotiate for $6 billion under the threat of losing aid from the IMF and the West. Some bonus money ($23 million) from Chinese companies to their Congolese counterparts seems to have gone missing leading to a lot of criticism of China. The amount of criticism this generated led China to wonder if the West was trying to undermine its presence there.

When interviewed by IPS Shen Jiru, an expert on international relations with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences argued that China was providing free-interest [sic] loans and aid and we are a reliable backup for Africa’s economic development.

According to IPS, in 2009, China pledged to give Africa 10 billion dollars in concessional loans over the next three years, and is accelerating its drive to pour vast sums of money into developing infrastructure in many African nations. This has been welcomed by African leaders. For instance, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, speaking at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Tanzania in May 2010, said China’s interests were consistent with those of African countries striving to overcome the legacy of reliance on commodity exports and move towards industrialization.

It made sense for China to spend in Africa, Zenawi felt, because its massive foreign exchange reserves are largely denominated in dollars, and Beijing needs to diversify those assets. It’s in their interest to spend tens of billions of dollars in Africa and it’s in our interest to have access to those tens of billions of dollars.

So, it seems that Africans should be cautious about China’s interests in Africa, but also be aware that criticism levied against China by others such as various Western countries may also have double standards and be part of a wider agenda whereby the rich countries are feeling threatened by the rise of a potential economic competitor. Western standards of human rights and raising those as issues are a good thing, but their own aid policies have often been with their own interests in mind, so caution is probably warranted for anyone bearing gifts.

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More information

Detailing the various human rights issues and violations in China is a gargantuan task, and not in the scope of this web site. Here are some organizations that have done just that:

  • The Human Rights in China23 (HRIC) web site. With the 10 year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, on June 4, 1999 the HRIC compiled a new list of evidence24 detailing the crimes committed in 1989.
  • Amnesty International25 reports
  • Human Rights Watch26 reports

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
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Document revision history

Added a small note about China’s interest in the region
Added some additional notes about China’s interest in Africa and associated human rights concerns
The last update to this page was back in September 4, 2000. This update is a rewrite.