Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Engaging on Human Rights at the Central Party School in Beijing

On September 26, I spoke on "Human Rights Education, Citizenship, and Social Cohesion" at the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Party School in Beijing. On September 27, I spoke on "Constitutional Guarantees of Human Rights Protection and Civil Society" at the Chinese Communist Party Sichuan Provincial Committee Party School in Chengdu.

I did because I feel a sense of moral imperative to not simply stand idly by and not speak out frankly about concerns over human rights in China. At the Central Party School one is pretty close to being able to "talk to the boss" there, but I don't harbour any illusion that my words can lead to change from within. Political systemic reform will probably only come to China in response to a crisis or a perception of a looming crisis. Talk is cheap.

There is a tension between the Chinese Government's desire to adopt a "united front policy" to deflect and neutralize criticism of China's lack of compliance with China's international obligation to fulfil the specific articles of UN Human Rights Covenants on the one hand, and on the other very real concerns on the part of Chinese intellectuals and policy makers that unless China engages in meaningful political systemic reform, in years ahead as economic and social transformation continues apace, the current ossified political system could itself be a threat to political stability as it fails to respond to growing problems of corruption and increasing gap between rich and poor, rural and urban, coastal and interior. It is a conundrum for the Communist Party as it seeks to come up with a basis for maintaining its power and its role as the sole existing political establishment. Everybody recognizes that the "social harmonious society" formulation is too lacking in meaningful substance to be sustainable in the long term. But no Chinese participant can state this directly. One Chinese participant stated quite boldly that "a multi-party system with separation of the powers of the executive and legislative branch and an independent judiciary and a de-politicized military is "very difficult". The elephant in the room was the dominating role of the Chinese Communist Party over every aspect of Chinese politics and law. Only outsiders could bring this up, but privately I was told by Chinese participants that they agreed with with everything I said and were grateful that I had made these points frankly and by using appropriate Chinese language. A key in this kind of engagement is to be respectful, good humoured and never condescending. But that being said one gets more respect by not mincing words.

The Central Party School is an ideal place for this sort of engagement because it provides in-service training for very senior Chinese officials and also has a mandate to prepare policy reports for the Chinese Communist Party leadership. At our day-long symposium there were also people from CASS and People's University who work with Party School staff among the 40 or so people participating which included some young grad students from the Party School.

The discussion was very stimulating as it took place in Chinese in an enthusiastic and lively atmosphere. It was evident that there was a significant split in opinion over the need for political systemic reform. On hard-liner in the group took considerable offence at pretty much everything I had said, making these points:
1. I am speaking from a Western perspective. China is an Eastern country with different culture and traditions. There is not one standard for democracy.
My reply was to reject the idea of "east" and "west" pointing out Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. I said there is a standard as defined by the UN human rights covenants all of which have been signed by China and most of them ratified as well. There is nothing in the articles of those covenants at odds with Chinese culture and history.
2. China will become democratic eventually but it will "take a long time." If China adopted independence to the judiciary the country would be unstable (luan) for 20 years
My reply was to cite the example of Eastern European nations such as Czech Republic, Poland, etc. who have made transformations from Leninist systems in a matter of a few years. The Party first broached political systemic reform in a comprehensive way under Zhao Ziyang in 1986 and then similar initiatives were proposed under Jiang Zemin 10 years later. 21 years have passed with no meaningful progress --- the political system is still the same. Is he suggesting that any fundamental change will occur within our lifetimes? if so, when will it be started?
3. I am racist and look down on Chinese
This comment caused the faces of most of the other participants to wince even more than through the earlier part of his comments. He tried to recover by saying that Chinese are racist too by referring to outsiders as "foreign devils." This kind of "rant" really brought the dynamic of the debate into focus. Basically the issue is between those who want no political systemic change and the much larger group who understand the need for it but despair as to how to bring it about.

Anyway I hope to return to the Party School next year. I am thinking of focusing on the merits to China's overall stability of a free press and opening up an NGO sector. I think these are more do-able in the short term than suggesting that the Party should allow an independent judiciary (which would immediately threaten the Party's continued leading role).

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