Skip to main content

China is not ending its human rights abuses

By Steve Tsang
updated 1:10 PM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
A paramilitary policeman stands before a portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
A paramilitary policeman stands before a portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Tsang: It's good that China ending one-child policy and system of labor camps
  • He says it would be naive to think that this will erase human rights problems
  • He says the changes do not include outlawing other serious abuses
  • Tsang: Changes are meant to reduce objections to rule of the party

Editor's note: Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute and professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.

(CNN) -- President Xi Jinping made a splash by announcing that China will ease its one-child policy and end its notorious policy of re-education through labor camps.

This is good news and represents an important step forward in reducing human rights abuses. But it would be naive to think this effort will seriously address the human rights problems in China.

If human rights were the primary concern, more specific actions would have been taken. Xi and the Communist Party have other priorities.

Steve Tsang
Steve Tsang

Under the new family planning policy, couples will be able to have two children if one spouse is an only child. Until now, both spouses need to be only children or they must be from the ethnic minorities to be allowed to have two children. This is a modest change that will mainly benefit the upwardly mobile middle class living in cities.

The easing of the one-child policy cannot end the main abuses associated with it since it does not put an end to forced termination of unauthorized pregnancies, even at very late term. Nor does it remove power from the local authorities in enforcing the one-child policy, who have regularly been responsible for abuses.

The changes introduced are meant to deal with the projected decline in population, which would threaten China's capacity to sustain its economic growth. They're also meant to lessen the burden on the state in looking after the aging population before China becomes wealthy enough to handle the demands of its "pensioners."

Why did China ease its one-child policy?
Impact of China easing 'one child' policy
What does China's announcement mean?

The abolishment of the system of "re-education through labor" camps is a much more significant move.

The existing policy gives local law enforcement agencies the power to detain "undesirables" -- people who are considered social misfits, prostitutes or troublemakers for authorities. The government can jail these people for several years and force them to work at next to no wage -- all without going through the judicial process and without receiving a conviction. There is absolutely no place for such a policy in any country in the 21st century. It's about time that China do away with it.

However, if the Communist Party were committed to tackle human rights abuses, it would have also outlawed other similar practices.

Many of those jailed in labor camps are individuals who had grievances and tried to seek redress. Some of them were simply petitioners. They were deemed by local authorities to have challenged their power, or they were seen as destabilizing elements in society.

Unless the practice of putting petitioners in "black jails" (informal detention facilities) is abolished, ending the labor camps will have limited effect in reducing human rights abuses. There is no indication other similarly repressive measures will be terminated.

What the party will achieve is removing a source of discontent toward the government. By doing so, Xi projects himself as a reformer who is going beyond where his predecessors were willing to do.

But so far, he has done nothing to allow ordinary citizens to challenge the Communist Party's monopoly of power in any way, or acknowledge that the rights of dissidents or petitioners must be protected.

What is obvious with these Xi reforms is that they are really meant for one purpose only. It is to strengthen the capacity of the Communist Party to govern more effectively and to reduce the reasons for the Chinese population to find the party's rule objectionable.

These changes will not alter the nature of the political system at all. China's political system is anti-democratic in nature and is first and foremost dedicated to keeping the Communist Party in power.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Tsang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT