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China eases gingerly into an era of cautious openness


Human rights improving slowly

By Catharin Dalpino

(CNN) -- Measured against the standards of human rights protection in advanced democracies, China's human rights record is often discouraging.

Government crackdowns against groups perceived to be threatening -- most recently the large faith-healing movement known as the Falun Gong -- have drawn international criticism and concern. They also demonstrate the depth of the regime's distrust of any group, however loosely based, which has the potential to mobilize citizens against the ruling order.

In relative terms, however, China has moved away from the totalitarian rule of the Maoist era to an environment of soft authoritarianism. Human rights are slowly improving as a result, although progress is not always straightforward.

Personal freedoms, such as citizens' rights to choose their employment and residence, are at unprecedented levels. Economic reforms of the past two decades have created new distance between state and society and have transformed some key institutions.

For example, urban neighborhood committees, which once were the essential unit for the "thought police," are undergoing conversion to community service agencies.

Growing legal system

A Beijing court made history in July 1998 when it allowed a trial to be broadcast live to the Chinese people  

In this climate of cautious openness, China is beginning to build the scaffolding for improved human rights protection.

Two elements are key to this task: movement toward a rule of law to codify and enforce rights, and development of a civil society that provides checks and balances between citizens and the government.

A new legal and judicial order is gradually taking shape as changes in criminal law procedure strengthen the rights of defendants.

Judicial officials have recently opened trials to the public, except those involving state security, and new administrative laws permit citizens to sue the government for abuse of authority. Between 1996 to 1997, citizen-state lawsuits rose by 48 percent, and two-thirds of the judgments were decided in favor of citizen-plaintiffs.

Legal aid clinics are proliferating, and the Chinese legal sector is growing by quantum leaps. In 20 years' time, the number of lawyers in China has grown from 2,000 to 100,000, with an increasing number in private practice. At present there are more than 100 law schools; in 1979, there were two.

An embryonic civil society

An embryonic, non-governmental sector has also emerged in China and is becoming progressively more complex.

Fast-growing Internet is China's new 'Democracy Wall'

However, this phenomenon bears little resemblance to Western concepts of civil society, which stress assertive institutions that confront as well as cooperate with government authorities. Nor does it resemble civil groups in Eastern Europe in the 1980s that developed for the explicit purpose of challenging Leninist rule.

Instead, private citizens are forming voluntary organizations that seek to address social needs that are unfunded or ignored by the state. These include care of the disabled, environmental protection, help for battered women and eradication of illiteracy.

Some social service groups are cautiously acquiring advocacy functions and are even sought by government officials and legislators for their views on policy reform.

Many activists in China today take an instrumental rather than ideological approach to political change, seeking a more active role for citizens in social and economic policy. They believe that this approach will help establish and entrench freedoms of association and expression more effectively than the overt political protests of the Tiananmen Square movement a decade ago.

Friction will continue

Flood rescue
Rescue workers aid victims of the 1998 flood  

The Chinese government's response to this new civil phenomenon is ambivalent. It acknowledges that non-governmental groups can be more efficient than official bureaucracies in some capacities. During the floods along the Yangzi River last year, for example, civil organizations played a pivotal role in delivering assistance.

But the government is also mindful of the potential power of a strong civil society and seeks to regulate it. Non-governmental organizations allowed the greatest autonomy are those that are perceived to be the least threatening to the regime. New regulations promulgated last year could impose further restrictions, although some Chinese believe that the intent is to outlaw new political movements and will have little real impact on non-political groups.

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Human rights issues will continue to cause friction in China's relations with advanced democracies for some time. However, if China continues to experiment with legal and social reforms, rights will become increasingly central in the political and social fabric.

The challenge for the international community will be to recognize and support these promising, if gray, areas of change while continuing to urge China toward international standards of human rights protection.

Catharin Dalpino is a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution. From 1993 to 1997 she was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights.

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