In China: Rightful Resistance and the UN Human Rights Council

This article was originally published under the headline Internationalizing rights-based resistance in China: the UN Human Rights Council and the citizen at openDemocracy.net on 15 November 2013. But in light of today, UN Human Rights Day, it seems appropriate to share again.

On the morning of 22 October, special envoy Wu Hailong led Beijing’s delegation in Geneva as China began its once every four year Universal Periodic Review (UPR) under the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). On 12 November the UN General Assembly voted to fill 14 vacancies on the Human Rights Council and China was elected to a third three-year term on the council. The country served two consecutive terms from 2006 to 2012 but was ineligible to run again until this year. After Jordan announced the withdrawal of its candidacy, the four vacant seats for the Asia Pacific region left Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, The Maldives, and China uncontested. But many analysts have remarked with frustration that even before Jordan’s surprising withdrawal, China’s bid had little chance of defeat due in large part to its permanent status on the Security Council – despite strong objections from rights groups. Considering the egregious record of these four countries, their entry to the rights body could mark an atavistic turn for the council.

Leading up to the Universal Periodic Review and China’s UN Human Rights Council election, one source of testimony has been conspicuously absent from China’s official reporting. Despite efforts by certain NGOs and international organizations, and shallow consultation by the Chinese government, input and participation by Chinese civil society in these important mechanisms for monitoring and upholding their country’s human rights obligations has been withheld. The Chinese government has acted to block civil society participation and engaged in reprisals against civil resistance geared to these international human rights mechanisms. It appears that when Wu Hailong’s delegation announced that, “The Chinese are in the best position to know the situation of human rights in China,” he wasn’t referring to the hundreds of notable Chinese citizens and groups who have been learning to frame their dissent in the language of international human rights as well as those who have been directly campaigning for broader civil participation in the drafting and international reporting on China’s human rights.

In the months leading up to the late July deadline for China to submit its official report to the HRC and the review itself on 22 October, Chinese activists organized a series of actions in multiple locations around the country culminating in a sit-in at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in Beijing beginning on 18 June. The organizers, who chose an area around the East Gate of the Ministry building because of its proximity to the Human Rights Division, had planned to maintain the demonstration until 22 October.

The organizers, among them Cao Shunli, claimed that the principal grievances behind the sit-in were the ongoing refusals by the ministry to respond to a series of open information disclosure requests, eventually leading the ministry to claim that the UPR process was a matter of state security. At the high point, the sit-in attracted around 200 participants, mostly women. Cao Shunli remarked to Chinese Human Rights Defenders that, “We just want to have all the participants in the sit-in to have a dialogue with officials, to know how the country’s human rights report is produced and who should be part of the process.”

On 1 July, the first of three police raids dispersed the demonstrators. Around 9 a.m., hundreds of officers descended on the gathering and rounded them up in two groups. Activists from Beijing were taken away in one vehicle, while those from outside of Beijing were removed to separate locations in four different police vehicles. After 12 hours of interrogation, with some reports of physical abuse, almost all of the activists were released. Many of them returned to the ministry to resume the sit-in. The police would clear the sit-in two more times, on 22 August and on 3 October, holding activists separately by region and subjecting them to exhausting questioning.

Similarly, seizing the spotlight of the UPR – a common tactic among Chinese activists, to capitalize on sensitive dates and anniversaries – many have campaigned against China’s inclusion in the Human Rights Council. In Hangzhou, dissident writer Chen Shuqing and fellow organizers Lu Gengsong and Gao Haibin circulated an open letter denouncing China’s entry to the human rights body. The petition received hundreds of signatures from activists in over ten provinces. The organizers of this campaign were later detained on suspicion of ‘inciting to subvert state power.’ Similar campaigns took place in other parts of the country and some overseas organizations claim to have gathered over 10,000 signatures from Chinese both inside and outside of the country. International Chinese activists also staged actions in Geneva on the opening day of the Review.

During the UPR, Human Rights in China announced, that the Chinese government had continued to detain and question individual activists who had persisted in civil resistance pegged to China’s international human rights obligations, which prompted several Special Rapporteurs to specifically criticize China’s crackdown on peaceful assembly related to the UPR. The day before, on 21 October, Guo Feixiong, an outspoken rights defender from Guangzhou, was formally placed under criminal detention in reprisal for organizing a petition in March calling for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The ratification of this core instrument was a major issue during China’s first review in 2009. At the time of his arrest, Peng Lanlan, a Tujia minority and human rights defender from Hunan, had already been under criminal detention for a year under charges of ‘obstructing official business.’ Reportedly tortured in police custody, Peng Lanlan was the first activist to be arrested for pushing for civil society participation in the UPR and challenging the country’s entry to the Human Rights Council. She was targeted after several years of activism. In addition to relying on open petitions such as Guo Feixiong, mentioned above, Peng Lanlan utilized China’s 2008 Freedom of Information Act, also commonly relied upon by Cao Shunli and others.

On 14 September Cao Shunli was taken into police custody at the Beijing International Airport. Meanwhile, at about the same time, over two thousand kilometers to the South, fellow MFA sit-in organizer Chen Jianfeng was apprehended by airport security in Guangzhou. The two women had been on their way to Geneva to attend a training program on the UPR and other international human rights mechanisms. Although Chen Jianfeng was eventually released after intimidating questioning, Cao Shunli remained disappeared even after the UPR had begun. Activists involved in demonstrations related to the UPR told multiple sources that during interrogations police were forceful in questioning related to Cao Shunli, apparently working to contrive charges against her. Front Line Defenders has noted that state tactics of repression are increasingly relying on the manipulated prosecutions of activists.

Like Peng Lanlan, both Chen Jianfeng and Cao Shunli had been engaged in campaigning for transparency in UN reporting and civil society participation in China’s domestic and international human rights since before the first review in 2009. In addition to collective action and open information requests, the women had previously gone so far as to sue relevant ministries over transparency issues. Unlike the majority of her fellow demonstrators, Cao, who exhibited a sophisticated understanding of international human rights, had filed a report with the HRC under the name of the Rights Campaign, based out of Jiangsu Province. Her submission, which called attention to the persecution of civil society demands for participation in human rights plans, was included in the official UPR stakeholder analysis, a fact that has very likely contributed to maximizing her reprisals by the state, which understandably seemed less concerned with acts of collective action that generate limited attention than those generating more official condemnation.

Government reprisals against activists campaigning for broader civil society participation in China’s human rights implementation and reporting demonstrate that the Chinese government is at least somewhat concerned by the possible content of independent reviews of its internal human rights. That Chinese activists are gradually strengthening the framing of domestic grievances with the vocabulary of international human rights marks a departure from locality-specific episodes of contention. Although issue and locality-specific activism and rights defense remains the norm, activists such as Guo Feixiong and Cao Shunli are gradually turning to international norms and seeking training by international human rights experts, when unimpeded by the authorities, in addition to contained tactics like sit-ins and petitions.

Although a number of actors in civil resistance, such as at the MFA sit-in, still participate to draw attention to individual grievances or merely to express general disgust with the government, increasing exposure to concepts of international rights will have an impact on the development of their resistance in the future.

It exhibits an innovation in the framing and substance of civil resistance in China that challenges the often repeated claims of the Chinese government, when their human rights record is criticized, that universal values are incommensurate with Chinese values. On the contrary, it could be that the more Chinese activists become aware of universal rights the more they will include them in the framing of domestic civil resistance to counter attempts by the government to manipulate the discourse from within the Human Rights Council.

Foreign Journalist Reprisals in Beijing

Yesterday ChinaFile published a short collection of responses from journalists, academics, and politicians expressing their analysis and illustrating what they see as the correct path forward regarding the non-renewal of journalist’s visas in a piece called:

Will China Shut Out the Foreign Press

Here is my immediate reaction:

I think Bill Bishop‘s remarks are the most sensible, while the gut reaction of visa reprisals seems like a strong move it could inadvertently produce negative externalities, thus escalating the situation. However, if the government does follow through and other tactics from abroad do not succeed at either forestalling or, in the short term, reversing this decision, I feel that more punitive measures could be in order.

It is also largely about framing. Because of how the Chinese government has framed, or refused to frame, this chain of visa procrastination qua denials, it speaks clearly to its true intentions, as Paul Mooney notes. Equally, if other tactics fail and in several months there is no movement toward reinstating visas then a well framed punitive response from the Like Minded Countries could produce a better effect. After all, this should not be treated as solely an issue of reprisals of US media but as part of a much larger trend, as Andrew Nathan points out.

I do disagree with him a little on the idea that China is influencing this fear-enforced conformity to the West, just look at what the US and UK are doing to AP or the Guardian when issues of “terrorism” are raised. Rather than treat this as part of a broader China approach, or perhaps in addition to that, I think this really needs to be honestly examined within the context of what Jeremy Scahill and like minded have rightly pointed out as a war on journalist, a war on the freedom of expression, being waged the world over. While it is no doubt an authoritarian model, the Chinese are not solely responsible for exporting it abroad; just look at the case of Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye and President Obama’s intrusion to his early release and countless other examples. But I tend to be a universalist or cosmopolitan, in the way Anthany Appiah uses it.

I hope the zero hour works and everyone stays put but if it doesn’t, seriously, a firebomb campaign of China Daily newspaper boxes across the US. This is the gut reaction to repay force with force but at the end of the day it is an unsustainable solution. By following through with Bishop’s suggestion it should encourage the deeper integration of not only the freedom of expression but human rights in general into trade agreements other international negotiations. This would, ideally, have positive multiplier effects far beyond a tit for tat visa arms race.

Some more background:

China’s Crackdown on Foreign Media: How to Respond? From China Digital Times

The Meaning of China’s Crackdown on Foreign Press From The New Yorker

The Thorny Challenges of Covering China From the New York Times

China’s Treatment of Foreign Journalists From the Congressional Executive Commission on China Roundtable, 11 December.

Deleted Twitter posts suggest Bloomberg may be targeting wife of dismissed China reporter From Shanghaiist

Bloomberg News is Said to Curb Articles That Might Anger China From the New York Times

New York Times and Bloomberg facing expulsion from China From The Telegraph

China Pressures US Journalists, Prompting Warning From Biden From the New York Times

Another American Reporter Banned From Beijing From China Law and Policy, part I in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone From China Law and Policy, part II in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship From China Law and Policy, part III in a series on journalist’s difficulties

Localizing Inclusive Institutions: Adaptive Governance in China

The common wisdom is that in the post-Mao years China has experienced unprecedented developments from the grassroots level to the  high echelons of power. Some observers cling to examples of minor achievements in political opening to bolster far flung claims that China is on a gradual path toward political liberalization. Such pundits, mired in now largely disproved neoliberal economic theory, cling hopelessly to the notion that economic liberalization inevitably brings political liberalization. Such arguments often point to village committee elections as the starting point of a bottom up initiative toward gentle democratization. The internationalization of the series of events collectively understood as the Wukan Incident is a good example of this fervor. However, a clear understanding of adaptive governance, outlined by Heilmann and Perry in their 2011 Book Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, challenges the conventional understanding. It encourages us to see village elections not as part of a democratizing mission, and may never have been, but as a directed effort by the central government in the 1980s to shore up inefficiencies and integrate itself by institutionalizing CCP authority at the grassroots. Furthermore, the procedural definition of democracy behind such narrowly optimistic appraisals as that trumpeted Wukan might actually contribute to forestalling more structural civil and political developments. This treatment of adaptive governance is especially germane to understanding the recent announcements of the Third Plenum.

Village Committees, An institutionalized Hoax

In late 1980 and early 1981 two counties in Guangxi (Yishan and Luocheng) began experimenting with village committees (cunmin weiyuanhui), then referred to as ‘village management committees’ (cun guan hui). This was an attempt to address the perceived impending crisis produced by decollectivization; as Naughton explains (2006, p. 89), the household responsibility system was effectively turning the collective into little more than a landlord. These early experiments in locally elected administration were done without the guidance or explicit knowledge of party representatives. Eventually, reports of Guangxi’s Village Committees reached Beijing. Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Peng Zhen lauded the ingenuity of the newly formed VCs and subsequently instructed the NPC and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to send investigators to Guangxi in order to gain a deeper understanding of what was happening. He encouraged other provinces to experiment with village committees. In a short time experimentation with locally elected village committees was spreading throughout China.

The following year, 1982, villager’s committees were written into the Constitution as elected mass organizations of self-government. Article 111 of the 1982 Constitution reads:

“The residents’ committees and villagers’ committees established among urban and rural residents on the basis of their place of residence are mass organizations of self-management at the grass-roots level. The chairman, vice-chairmen and members of each residents’ or villagers’ committee are elected by the residents. The relationship between the residents’ and villagers’ committees and the grass-roots organs of state power is prescribed by law. The residents’ and villagers’ committees establish committees for people’s mediation, public security, public health and other matters in order to manage public affairs and social services in their areas, mediate civil disputes, help maintain public order and convey residents’ opinions and demands and make suggestions to the people’s government.”

In 1986, a Circular from the Central Committee and the State Council on the Creation of Rural Grassroots Self-Governing Institutions defined village democracy as, ‘self-education, self-management, self-building-up and self-service,’ and urged village committees to actively engage in village campaigns (Baogang, 2007, p. 24). Deng Xiaoping encouraged investigation into village committees as a means of “political reform to overcome the systemic obstacles to his economic reform (Pei, 2008, p. 50).” The Organic Law of Village Committees was first promulgated in 1988. This preliminary version had 21 articles. The 1998 version, with an additional 9 articles, nationally mandated village elections. The current version, with 41 articles, was promulgated in 2010. These legal developments support an understanding of changing political perceptions of local level ‘democratic’ participation as the result of evolving central policies. What was at the core of these changing policies?

The village committee and its leader have significant local economic power, says Landry et al (2010, p. 766), to oversee the redistribution or lease of collectively owned village land, which since the 1980s’ rapid private development has become exceedingly valuable. This has seen a parallel increase in land rights related corruption. The committee is also tasked with, inter alia, mediating local disputes and for serving as liaison between township party officials. However, while the village committee may be entrusted with economic rights by law—implementation is another matter—the effective autonomy of the village committee to make political decisions or engage in the legislative process does not appear to have evolved since initial experimentation in the early 1980s, outside of potentially more competitive elections with higher voter turnout. I argue, in line with Nathan (2003) and Yan (2011), that village committees should be treated as the localized institutionalization of CCP authority, a far more believable objective behind central government support of initial efforts at village level self-governance.

Nathan (2003) explains that, while authoritarian regimes are generally fragile due to the prevalence of legitimacy crises, destabilizing coercive methods of control, an overly centralized power structure, and the predominance of factionalism, the Chinese model of authoritarianism has remained resilient. It has outlived most of the 20th centuries other totalitarian states, and has far outpaced its neighbor the DPRK in international integration and economic development, while maintaining fundamental power for the party. Not least of all because of the perfection of ‘input institutions.’ These are institutions that allow for a modicum of autonomy for Chinese citizens to notify the regime of their grievances. However, as Nathan (2003, p. 14) implies ‘input institutions’ may only beguile individuals into believing that “they have some influence on policy decisions and personnel choices at the local level,” while generating support for the central legitimacy of the CCP.

Yan (2011) uses different terminology to expand on the same analysis. Inclusive regime institutions (IRI), he states, are attempts by the regime to expand its internal decision making boundaries, and to integrate rather than insulate itself with non-regime members of society. IRI incentivizes participation in the regime-dominated system, although strictly demarcating the methods of participation, while at the same time preemptively stalling demands for more long term or anti-systemic changes. Although directly speaking of People’s Political Consultative Congresses (renmin zhengxie), Yan (2011, p. 54) offers a further beneficial description of IRI that fits an examination of village committees, in that IRI represent “important platforms for co-opting potentially threatening social forces” and “a mechanism for offering material benefits to the regime’s most loyal and trustworthy collaborators.”

These institutions empower individuals with clearly delimited rights and responsibilities that are never capable of challenging or even engaging equally with the regime. One might inquire whether village committees as an institution began with the reformist objective of greater democratization or as part of Nathan and Yan’s framework.  Deeper understanding of adaptive policy making in China will address this concern and further develop an understanding of village committees as nothing more than regime supporting institutions.

Unlike other authoritarian states, “Mao’s China exhibited a trademark policy style that favored continual experimentation and transformation (or ‘permanent revolution’) over regime consolidation (Heilmann and Perry 2011, p.7),” a regime feature that has not been abandoned in post-Mao China. I would argue that the trajectory of village committees from 1980 to 2010 can be seen as part of what Heilmann and Perry term the ‘experimentation under hierarchy’ approach, where “trial implementation of controversial or risky reforms in limited domains regularly precedes the enactment of national laws: risky policies are tried out first, spread to larger areas secondly, and only written into national law as a last step (Heilmann, Perry, 16).” Both the legal evolution and institutionalization of village committees proceeded, as part of a carefully choreographed effort by central party authorities to address overcentralization, without foregoing the efficiency of technical central decision-making, incrementally through a series of trial implementations, investigations, central discussions, and cautious extensions.

As noted above, Deng advocated measured ‘democratization’ as an effort to bolster his economic reforms. He may have noted, in 1979, that, “we have not propagated and practiced democracy enough, and our systems and institutions leave much to be desired… (Baum, 1996, p. 81).” But in 1987, when presented with ‘The General Outline on the Reform of the Political System’ (Zhengzhi tizhi gaige zongti shexiang), a report conducted by a task force for studying and discussing reform headed by Zhao Ziyang, Deng stressed, “we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed (Pei, 2008, p. 55).” For Deng, democratic reform was about little more than maintaining efficiency, which can be understood as a constituent concern of decentralization within Nathan’s typology of regime weakness.

“we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed.”

The regime logic behind the implementation of village committees should be seen as at least threefold, and part of the adaptive governance model. The first goal was maintaining efficiency, as explicitly noted by Deng. The additional goals, in line with Nathan and Yan’s regime institutions, are to generate greater support and legitimacy for the regime and to control local malfeasance among party and non-party individuals or provide material or symbolic support for collaborators, a concern for Chinese leaders with legacies stretching as far back as Imperial China. In this light we can understand village committees as inclusive regime institutions that, rather than having been hijacked from more democratic origins, began as experiments in localized party domination. If we accept village committees as the localized extension of party domination, then an over reliance on village elections, tout court, as the barometer of democratization must be unpacked as well. It presents a shallow and partial view that also benefits and legitimizes the authoritarian regime that, by nature, must firstly permit the election to take place.

Tilly (2007, p. 8) explains that procedural definitions fixate on a narrow range of governmental practices to determine whether a regime is a democracy. Adherents of this approach tend to focus their attention on elections, likely for reasons of observability and simplicity. He argues that the problem with procedural definitions is, “despite their crisp convenience, they work with an extremely thin conception of the political processes involved (2007, p. 8).” Tilly also elucidates the more sophisticated process-oriented approach. This approach is based on measuring five criteria: (1) effective participation; (2) voting equality; (3) enlightened understanding; (4) control of the agenda; and (5) inclusion of adults (Tilly, 2007, p. 9).

Adding critique to the procedural definition, Landry et al point out, “Officials who run authoritarian elections have strong political incentives to maximize turnout, and variation in turnout reflects not individual-level decisions but instead the performance of local officials as election organizers (Landry et al, 2010, p. 768).” Clearly, that elections are taking place in China, a procedural definition is more appealing for optimistic analysis, willing to shrug off the blocking of independent candidates at township level elections as outliers, but once a process-oriented approach is applied the degree of democratization represented by village committees is significantly diminished.

Speaking tangentially to a process-oriented approach, Pei notes that “the lack of effective channels for political participation and interest representation, creating an environment in which groups unable to defend their interests are forced to take high-risk options for collective protest to voice their demands and hope for compensatory policies (Pei, 2008, p. 15).” Pei’s reference to increasing contention points perhaps to the fact that the institution of village committees not only does not represent efforts by the regime to democratize but are also failing in their attempts to be inclusive regime institutions to bolster party support and promote local stability. In other words, while village committees may be nothing more than an extension of some Faustian bargain from the center, villagers are engaging in increased contentious politics demanding a more process-oriented, truly inclusive, approach to democracy that deeper research may reveal to be far more instrumental in democratization than any amount of village elections. Put a third way, self-organized contention by civil society is a far more robust indicator of democratization within an authoritarian regime than the hijackable village election.

Conclusion

Encouraging electoral politics at the grassroots level to ostensibly transfer the onus of regulating abuses and maintaining efficiency, by mildly increasing autonomy, through elections, may well be a more appealing strategy than the Maoist mass line and mass criticism, but it falls far short of democratization. The evolution of the village committee should, rather, be treated as a cautiously and centrally approved institution by the CCP toward the goal of localizing its legitimacy and control. Approaching village committees through a procedural definition of democracy will inevitably produce a flawed understanding based on a narrow conception of democratization that perpetuates a myth, framed in central policy dictates, that village committees are a sign of political liberalization in China.

Works Cited

Baum, Richard. (1996). Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

He Baogang. (2007). Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth. (2011). Embracing Uncertainty: Guerilla Style Policy and Adaptive Governance in China. In Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth (Ed). Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China (p. 1-29). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Landry, Pierre; Davis, Debora; and Wang, Shiru. (2008). Rural Elections in China Competition with Parties. Comparative Political Studies. 43 (6). p. 763-790.

Nathan, Andrew J. (2003). Authoritarian Resilience. Journal of Democracy, 14, p. 6-17.

Naughton, Barry. (2007). The Chinese Economy: Transitions and Growth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

O’Brien, Kevin J. and Li Lianjiang. (2000). Accommodating “Democracy” in a One-

Party State: Introducing Village Elections in China. The China Quarterly No. 162, Special Issue: Elections and Democracy in Greater China. p. 465-489.

Pei, Minxin. (2008). China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Development Autocracy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tilly, Charles (2007). Democracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yan Xiaojun. (2011). Regime Inclusion and the Resilience of Authoritarianism. The China Journal. 66. p. 53-75.