The United States introduced a resolution last week in Geneva at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) conference, advocating human rights in China. However, few countries chose to take a stand on this issue and the resolution was tabled once more. It seems as if China’s troubling human rights violations are too far away for people to take notice.
But to get a sense of how real these atrocities are, we at Yale need look no farther than the prestigious Tsinghua University in China, which President Richard Levin visited last November. According to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, more than 300 Tsinghua students and faculty have been detained, sent to forced-labor camps, or jailed for practicing the Falun Gong meditation. The persecution of Falun Gong was launched by the Jiang Zemin regime in 1999 to suppress this popular practice and it continues today.
The persecution continues because the Chinese government goes to great lengths to cover it up. Deaths resulting from police brutality, for example, are reported as suicide, according to FalunInfo Center. At Tsinghua University, or any other Chinese university, students are most likely unaware that their classmates have been abducted and imprisoned for meditating or handing out a flyer.
Those students are just like us, so imagine how we would feel — or react — if one of our classmates or roommates was abducted and tortured. Falun Gong is just one targeted group. Underground Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, students for democracy, AIDS researchers, SARS physicians, Internet users, and journalists all have their own stories to tell.
If the facts are so compelling, then why are countries unwilling to press China for real changes in its human rights record? One common excuse for shoving human rights concerns under the red carpet is China’s economy. The argument goes that China’s economical growth and booming commerce will usher in a new age of freedom and democracy in China. So don’t give China a hard time now, wait for 30 or 40 years and it will inevitably change.
This is a very tempting and comforting thought — and China’s trump card. Not surprisingly, many of the countries that vote against U.N. human rights resolutions on China have some form of trade connection or economic interest in China. However, the real crux of the problem is that a prospering economy not only benefits the people but also empowers the government. The Chinese government is already using its economic muscle to strike down human rights resolutions, intimidate other countries, manipulate the media, and suppress dissent. A richer Chinese government may be more powerful, but it is unlikely to be gentler or more aligned with Western values simply because of its GDP growth. On the contrary, despite China’s official claims of improved conditions brought about by the improved economy, its human rights record has in fact worsened in the past year. The Chinese government now has more money at its disposal and license to do what it wants. As it gains more power, fewer countries will dare to stand in its way. Human rights have become a sensitive topic for Chinese leaders, who would not easily risk their political capital by “caving in” to “subversive ideas” from foreign countries. As a result, any attempts at dialogue with China over human rights have failed.
Publicity and international pressure, on the other hand, have brought many concrete — albeit incremental — changes. After presidents Clinton and Bush made personal inquiries about several high-profile prisoners of conscience, they were soon released. Furthermore, when the demise of Hong Kong’s political autonomy seemed inevitable with Beijing-appointed Tung Chee Hwa’s determination to pass Article 23, a sweeping anti-subversion law, half a million people in Hong Kong took to the streets in protest and the bill was, incredibly, postponed indefinitely. And in the face of international pressure and media glare, the Chinese government itself was forced to confess that it has been hiding news about the SARS epidemic.
So changes in China’s human rights can happen, but it takes genuine commitment and courage from the international community. As the UNCHR voted for the 11th time in favor of “no-action” for the U.S. resolution on China this past Friday (the vote was 28 for, 16 against, 9 abstain), it is a harsh reminder to the world that unless people like you and me pay more attention to China’s human rights, China is going to take “no-action.”
Hao Wang is a freshman in Morse College.