The Real China
A First-Hand Perspective on Human Rights in Today's China
Dr. George Koo
Harvard International Review, Summer, 1998

In autumn of 1993, the chief executive and the executive vice president of sales and marketing of a small Tennessee firm visited Shanghai with me to explore a business relationship with a local company. Early during our stay, I took them for a walk on the famous Shanghai Bund by the banks of the Huangpu River. The walkway along the river was full of local Chinese enjoying the warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. Young couples wandered aimlessly or simply stood shoulder to shoulder to gaze across the river without really seeing the busy river traffic below. Children out with their parents ran around shouting, chasing after balls, or simply letting out their exuberance and delight. Senior folks sat in twos and threes watching the lively scene and sipping tea or eating a frozen dessert purchased from the many vendors stationed nearby.

While these American executives, visiting China for their first time, were soaking in the surrounding good cheer, I asked them if the scene before their eyes showed any signs of a police state that had been depicted by the American media at home. They had to admit that what they saw bore no resemblance with their preconceived notions about China.

In October 1996, another Chinese American and I were invited to Xian, the ancient capital of China, to lecture. Over a casual lunch hosted by local government officials with an official from Beijing in attendance, the conversation was informal and lighthearted. One of the senior officials reminisced about how he was successful in persuading some of the student leaders to tone down their protest during the "June 4 movement"--Chinese euphemism for the Tiananmen protest. Thus their political activism did not lead to arrests even though they were blacklisted from pursuing careers in government. Instead the students directed their energy elsewhere and became highly successful entrepreneurs, as the official noted with a touch of paternal pride.

While sightseeing in the countryside, a funeral dirge wafted from the public announcement system of a nearby village. One of the accompanying young officials in our group said, "This is the funeral music played whenever somebody important dies. May be it is for Lao Deng,"--familiar but hardly respectful reference to Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader. Another member of the group replied, "Probably not. Nowadays anybody can use that music, including anyone in the village." Sure enough, at the conclusion of the solemn piece, the village disc jockey said that he simply played it for enjoyment. The official who took the music to heart became the butt of some good-natured ribbing from his colleagues.

These are casual conversations that could not have taken place a few years earlier. Conversely, such conversations are no longer noteworthy today because they have become common place--indicating how relaxed a place China has become. Americans with the opportunity to visit China invariably return home saying they saw the vitality of a purposeful people but did not see or feel the presence of an authoritarian state. Sadly, not enough Americans can go and see for themselves and must depend on the words of pundits and politicians, many of whom have been harshly critical of China ever since the Tiananmen protest in 1989.

Twenty Years of Change

My first visit to China was a personal visit with family members in 1974 when China was still tightly controlled by infamous Gang of Four. China then was drab--nearly everyone wore the same blue or white shirt. While the people were friendly, they were guarded in what they said. Friends did not socialize except on the rare occasions, such as welcoming a returning classmate from abroad.

When I started to advise American companies on doing business in China in 1978, China was just beginning to emerge from the uniform drabness I had previously observed. There were no high-speed expressways, only a few locally made "Shanghai" sedans; there were no traffic jams, no fancy Hongkong-style restaurants, no 5-star hotels, no high class department stores with shelves of imported luxury goods, no McDonalds, and nobody wearing anything that could be described as colorful much less fashionable. Thanks to China's nearly double digit economic growth since it instituted reform in 1979, all of those things have become common place. Twenty years ago, foreign visitors shopped in government designated "friendship stores" that were off limits to local people. Today those same friendship stores are fighting to survive against the proliferation of fancy department stores that are joint ventures with outside partners. Local citizens are no longer barred from friendship stores but prefer to frequent the high fashion stores operated by owners from Hong Kong or Japan.

The one constant about China over the last twenty years is change. Nothing stays the same and economic reform has been the driving force. While the economic change is easiest to spot, the change has been accompanied by widespread social and political changes. While the China bashers in the West dwell on and are fixated by the images from Tiananmen on June 4, 1989, China has moved on.

At the national level, the National People's Congress (NPC), formerly known as a rubber stamp of the Chinese Communist Party, has been taking more independent action and getting away with it. In April 1995 for the first time, an unprecedented one-third of the delegates rejected Jiang Chunyun for vice premier notwithstanding that he was Chairman Jiang Zemin's nomination. In the latest pro forma election of Li Peng, the sole candidate for president of the Congress, over three hundred (about 11%) showed their disapproval by abstaining or voting against him. The willing disclosure of this embarrassing shortfall from lockstep unanimity for the second most powerful position in China's hierarchy is in itself a noteworthy step toward increasing transparency. In early 1997, NPC drafted and passed amendments to the criminal procedure code greatly liberalizing the provisions handling criminals. These procedures were passed despite opposition and displeasure from the Ministry of Public Security.

On the local level, China has shown further liberalizing tendencies. Elections have been held in the countryside in recent years; the most recent ones have been observed by representatives from the Carter Center, sent from the U.S. The essential point of these elections is not whether they meet Western standards --probably most do not-- but that they are taking place. Eventually elections will be held at the township and county level and perhaps will continue even higher. The countryside still accounts for 75% of China's population. Taking the rural population through the democratic process is an important step toward true political reform. Rural populations in developing countries are not usually well educated. When a country with a predominantly rural population adopts elections in haste without proper preparation, the country is merely practicing sham democracy, a sham because a largely uneducated and ignorant population is easily manipulated by a crafty and corrupt few.

American impatience

The recent progress in China has been scarcely noted in western media and over shadowed by the focus on the human rights abuses as perceived by the West. For example, most of the U.S. public do not know that China's former Minister of Justice, Xiao Yang, has publicly stated that China needs to govern all its affairs by the rule of law. He also admitted that China is not there yet. In the June 18, 1996 issue of China Daily, the quasi-official English daily of the Beijing government, Xiao indicated that "the aim [of the Chinese government] is to ensure [that] over 80% of the villages, 80% of State-owned enterprises and 70% of other institutions conscientiously administer affairs by law by year 2000."

Upon hearing about Xiao's remarks, the most likely American reaction would be: If China recognizes the need for rule of law, why not 100% now? Such an expectation typifies the American's lack of understanding of the complexities of today's China. Accompanying the economic reform has been a steady loosening of control by the central government. No longer can Beijing rule by edict and expect instant or total compliance. On the other hand, the rise of regional control is uneven, as is local commitment to the rule of law. Some local courts are fair and professional while others are still not trained in the subtleties in the rule of law and may be partial to local parties regardless of the merits of the dispute.

America's impatience at China's pace of reform overlooks its own history. The United States has been a free republic since 1776, but it was not until 1865 that slavery was abolished, not until 1920 that women were given the right to vote, and not until the 1960s that civil-rights legislation began to seriously address racial discrimination. Compared to the U.S. experience, China's progress over the past twenty years has actually been lightening quick.

Chinese Values of Human Rights

Impatience aside, China's priority on human rights also differs from that of the West. While the U.S. considers the rights of the individual sacred, China along with many other Asian nations prizes the stability of the entire society over the welfare of the individual. For example, in Zhengzhou recently, a former head of public security, equivalent to the chief of police in the U.S., was executed for driving under the influence of alcohol and killing a 15 year old boy by hitting him and dragging him for a distance and then driving off without rendering assistance. No doubt this is considered a harsh sentence from the American perspective. Even worse, at China's current imperfect state of applying the law, I am certain a similar incident in another locale would not end up with the same sentence. On the other hand, most visitors to China would agree that the roads congested with many inexperienced but reckless drivers could stand a strong dose of law and order. If the execution has the desired sobering effect on the drivers of Zhengzhou, why not let the traffic fatalities prevented outweigh the hapless life of one drunk?

China also looks at human rights at a more fundamental level which includes such provisions as the right to life, freedom from starvation, the right to shelter and clothing, the right to an education, and right to employment and means of self support. When individuals are deprived of these basic rights, and many in economically backward countries do suffer from such deprivation, they are not going to care about voting and having the freedom to express their opinion. With economic growth, the general population begins to enjoy a higher standard of living. Only after they have their basic human rights satisfied, then and only then do they start to look for more and demand more. They expect more alternatives and choices in lifestyle if not for themselves then for their children. The progressive liberalization that follows may not be part of the plans of the political leaders, but is inevitable.

U.S. critics, however, insist on dwelling on the treatment of a handful of prominent dissidents, to the exclusion of an objective evaluation of the total picture in China. A particularly extreme demonizer of China has been the so-called human rights activist, Harry Wu, who has long been making some of the most outlandish comments and outrageous statements about China, none of which stand up to even perfunctory scrutiny. For example, Wu claimed to have personally videotaped the removal of kidneys from prisoners in China's prison before these prisoners were led away to be executed. He never explained, however, how he was invited to take such pictures. Wu devoted a great deal of space in his article in the Winter 1997/98 issue of Harvard International Review to Hitler and Nazism for no obvious purpose except as a feeble attempt to associate today's China with a target that the U.S. public hates.

Wu has been making a big deal about China's "laogai," a Chinese abbreviation for their prison system based on "reform through labor." He has been campaigning tirelessly in the West to depict China's prison system as hell on earth. Yet the U.S. has 565 prisoners per 100,000, ranking highest in the world and more than five times the reported incarceration rate in China. The failure of the U.S. prison system is well known--recidivism remains over 40%. The only response from U.S. government officials has been to enact laws which attempt to reduce recidivism by imprisoning criminals longer, and thus ensure the building of jails as a new growth industry. China claims to have one of the lowest recidivism rate in the world at between 6-8%. Someone more objective than Wu is needed to make a determination on whether the U.S. has something to learn from China's approach to reforming convicts.

Finally this year, the Clinton administration has decided to forego the futile annual attempt to censure China through the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Last year the effort ended in dismal failure when countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany and Japan declined to join the U.S. backed resolution fronted by Denmark. This year even Denmark has decided to abstain from this foolishness. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi promptly criticized the Clinton decision as one motivated by money interests at the expense of American values in human rights. The representative from San Francisco couldn't be more wrong. I believe western participation in China's economy has done far more for improving China's human rights than all the carping and posturing about human rights abuses.

The Role of the West

Apart from helping to raise the standard of living in China by investing in China, multinational corporations insist on clear guidelines that would protect their investments. Consequently, Beijing's drive for joint ventures with foreign companies has led to the formation of laws and regulations on foreign owned ventures. These laws are not perfect but represents a huge step in getting China accustomed to the benefits of the rule of law. Similar economic pressures have also led to the formation of laws protecting intellectual property and subsequently the enforcement of such laws. The drive to put economic laws on the books spilled over to the establishment of a host of new civil and criminal laws in China. In fact, China today has become the only country other than the U.S. where the courts will hear class action suits.

Joint ventures with western partners are also important stimuli for change. By having Americans working in China and training some of the Chinese staff abroad, the Chinese gained an opportunity to directly witness and appreciate the typical U.S. egalitarian attitudes, concerns for the environment, views on equal opportunity, sense of fair play, and respect for due process. With daily contact, the joint ventures provide a means to introduce Western values by example, rather than by rhetoric, and to exert a positive influence on the Chinese people.

Of course, I am not suggesting in any way that China is free from human rights problems, but I do believe that China's problems will become increasingly similar to the problems experienced in the U.S. Economic boom has led to a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Consequently, there are now as many as 100 million migrant workers from the rural areas seeking work in the cities. They frequently sleep in hovels or in the open as do the homeless in the U.S. With the threatened wholesale closing of inefficient state-owned enterprises, prospects loom of a huge unemployed workforce clashing with the migrant workers. Unscrupulous outside investors have already taken advantage of the cheap migrant labor and porous regulations on labor protection to set up sweat shops operating under inhumane and unsafe conditions. With the loosening of government controls, drug addiction is on the rise, a problem thought to have been eradicated when the Communists took over.

Will familiarity of China's human rights problem bring about American sympathy instead of castigation? It is useful to bear in mind the observation made by Professor John Bryan Starr, in his recently published book, Understanding China: "In looking at conditions in another country, Americans often measure real conditions abroad against an idealized vision of conditions at home, and thus seem blind to violations of human rights in their own society at the same time that they ferret out evidence of violations elsewhere."