Is human rights evolving in China? Is democracy foreseeable?

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power is journalist and writer on international affairs



Following the overthrow of the last emperor in 1913 throngs of Chinese headed for the polling booths. In the annals of the 2,500 years of Chinese civilization it is the only time the Chinese have voted in a national election.

Under Mao Zedong, the communist leader who overthrew the Nationalist government, any pretence to voting was abandoned. Politics was outlawed and would be dissidents severely punished. Only at the politburo, the top level of Chinese politics, were votes taken. On occasions, Mao himself was outvoted.

When Mao died in 1976 some of the leadership of the communist party wanted to see some loosening up. For example in 1995 Tian Jiyun (politburo member) called for direct elections for government officials, and Li Ruihuan (politburo committee member) called for partial media privatization. And there were others.

Deng Xiaoping, who was an outcast under Mao, but who became the dominant leader after Mao's death, warned in 1980 of the dangers of bureaucracy, of the over concentration of power and life tenure in leading posts. Under Deng tightly controlled voting was introduced within the party. So was mandatory retirement age that included those at the top leadership position.

Courts were revived as semi-independent bodies. Citizens were given the right to sue the government. Military members of the Politburo fell from half to 10%. In 1987, village elections were encouraged. Even so local party representatives too often engineered their own election. Deng had once speculated that general elections could be held in China within the next 50 years. From when he spoke that would have been in around 2030.

But in 1989 all hopes for a china spring were dashed. Students who had gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest bad governance were brutally crushed by tanks sent in at the orders of Deng. Deng held no formal position but he held the last word in all major decision making. In 1989 he overruled the Party's General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who favored engaging the students and pushing forward with more openness. Shortly after the student uprising was put down, Zhao was forced to step down.

Many observers believe that because of the Arab Spring and the tense situation in Xinjian the rules against political dissent have been tightened up in recent years. Despite that, there have been ongoing reforms: educational institutions have more autonomy; and protests against misrule by local party officials and factory bosses have increased sharply and have often been listened to and demands met.

The legal world continues to be reformed. Last year the Supreme People's Court sent a letter to a top Chinese leader with information laying out why the courts were not working as they should. They were being meddled with and not allowed to do their job. Sometimes people were being convicted for crimes they had not committed. In November the Party's Central Committee announced that false confessions from victims of torture will not be upheld. The number of crimes punishable by death was reduced and the courts have become more transparent.

Although the notion of human rights is a relative novelty in China today, it is surprising how much teaching of human rights goes on in Chinese colleges. Sweden's prestigious Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights takes part in organizing human rights courses for a number of Chinese universities. At Beijing University human rights course features as a minor in a degree program. Over five Chinese universities have substantial human rights programs. Even Chinese police are getting in on the act. Wallenberg has laid out a program for them.

The Chinese professors that Wallenberg work with are knowledgeable and idealistic. They accept that given their subject matter they are unlikely to be promoted to the top of the academic tree.

The government doesn't care what you think. It only cares what you do.  Is the mantra of those concerned with human rights. Thinking within the four walls of the university is OK.

The government is prepared to pounce when that rule is broken. Xu Zhiyong got incarcerated for organizing the New Citizens' Movement that demanded that Chinese officials disclose their wealth, despite the fact that the government had mounted an anti-corruption campaign.

When it comes to human rights issues you can talk to your friends without fear of being listened to, travel abroad, sound off on social media or work quietly behind the scenes inside government and the legal system to advocate reform. But don't protest publicly, don't organize and don't write that the government must go. The time has not come for that. We may have to wait, as Deng said, until 2030 for democracy and freedom of speech to arrive.