Hu Jintao: A lot still needs to be done in China over human rights

What was the Chinese President talking about?

Question:

Would you say this statement is somehow significant or he probably just said that to please the crowd?

Answer:

Jackie Sheehan, Associate Professor in Contemporary Chinese Studies and Deputy Head of School, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham

I have been watching the Hu visit with interest. He will have known in advance that he wouldn’t have the option to say nothing about human rights – the Nobel Prize, and public expectations on the Obama administration to highlight the issue in a way it hadn’t done before December 10, made it inevitable for this visit. President Obama will have seen the comments in the media about his being the first US President to host a head of state who is keeping a Nobel Prize winner in jail, and so he couldn’t leave the human-rights issues to private talks.

But although both Hillary Clinton and Obama have spoken about the need for improvement in China, and the programme they arranged for Hu included taking questions from a limited number of reporters (Hu declined to answer a question about Liu Xiaobo, saying it was a “sensitive topic”), they’ve also given him a lot of “face” compared with his previous US visit. He’s had a full formal dinner, only the 3rd in Obama’s presidency so far, as well as a private White House dinner, whereas on a previous trip the Chinese side felt he’d been snubbed by only having lunch at the White House. (Chinese government officials attach significance to points of protocol, like whether they have to walk up or down stairs to get to an engagement, which seem so trivial to most westerners that even those in charge of arrangements often don’t realise that offence may be taken over them.)

So Hu can point to what the US side have offered him as a sort of quid-pro-quo for having to deal in public, to a limited extent, with the human-rights issue. He did repeat the usual line about non-interference in other states’ internal affairs, which is somewhat hypocritical considering the effort China put in leading up to the Nobel Prize ceremony to stop foreign diplomats from attending this prestigious international event in a third country, but I have not seen any public comment from him during the visit calling Liu Xiaobo a criminal, which is the usual response of Chinese government spokesmen.

And he conceded the universality of human rights, something he hadn’t done publicly until now, although Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has done so, and has tried to promote that view within China. Hu immediately followed it by saying that it had to be seen in the context of a country’s state of development and pointing to the size of China’s population and its being at a crucial stage of reform, with the implication that it couldn’t yet be expected to meet international, or universal, rights standards.

This would have been an acceptable line to take with most international opinion for much of China’s reform period, but it’s been more than thirty years now since that reform began, and really, you could have said at any point that China was at a “crucial stage” of reform. What I think the Chinese leadership will start to find, now that the country has a much higher international profile, is that this kind of answer will not be enough.

China can expect to get called on these claims in future, and asked why human-rights improvements have to lag so far behind other changes? China didn’t take 200 years to go from steam trains to bullet trains, or from ox-carts to electric cars, so why should legal guarantees for rights which were already in the Constitution 60 years ago be so difficult and so slow? I think Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize has been a big step forward towards the world’s loss of patience with these claims from Chinese leaders.

When Hu and Obama talk about changes and improvements in the human-rights situation in China, in my view, they are still not talking about the same thing. Hu, despite the universal rights comment, means that China has a way still to go before e.g. police and prison officers can be disciplined and ideologically pressured into obeying the rules against torturing detainees. Actually, most of these people are not sadists, but they are responding to the pressure from their superiors, the only people they have to please in order to get on in their jobs, for quick results and quick closure of cases, whether or not the right person is convicted. Hu sees it as a problem of making people behave properly within the system, but doesn’t see how the system generates the problem.

Whereas Obama, and outside observers more generally, see it more as a problem of the lack of an independent judiciary and a free press to expose wrong-doing and hold the authorities accountable for rights abuses. But this view essentially identifies the one-party state itself as the heart of the matter, and neither President Hu nor any other CCP leader is about to concede that, still less to try to do anything about it.

Jonathan Holslag, Research Fellow, Institute of Contemporary China Studies, Vrije University, Brussels

This isn’t a surprising statement. Chinese leaders have frequently stated the need for improving their country’s performance in developing the rule of law and reforming the political system. Rather than just accepting US criticism, Hu’s message in Washington was mostly that Western countries should not pressure China on the issue of human rights, and that they need to accept that China itself will decide on the reforms that are needed and the pace with which thy are implemented.  So the message is rather: “Yes, we still have a way to go, but mind your own business.”

Jane Duckett, Professor of Chinese and Comparative Politics, Director, Scottish Centre for Chinese Social Science Research, University of Glasgow

I think it is significant that Hu Jintao has said that ‘a lot still needs to be done’ on human rights in China. It is important that China’s top leaders engage in dialogue over human rights-which they have not always done in the past. However, Hu’s priorities may be to tackle human rights by improving the quality of China’s legal system, including its policing system. These are important areas in which there has been improvement in recent years. This does not mean, however, that we can expect to see political prisoners released soon or big changes to the way that political prisoners are handled in China.

Chun Lin, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

The simple answer to your question is that of course he meant what he said; the real point however is about how “human rights” is interpreted in China where for example the government is proud of its socioeconomic achievement in reducing poverty and so on.

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