An (im)practical approach to human rights in China

On Friday, June 15, 2012, in China, Recent, by Leslie Butterfield

In the days leading up to the 20th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has released its second National Human Rights Action Plan of China (henceforth, the Plan). Unfortunately, just like the 2009-2010 National Human Rights Action Plan of China released in response to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review, the 2012-2015 Plan suffers from a misguided approach and a questionable perspective on reality.

Unique to this recent Plan is an acknowledgment by the Chinese government of its limitations in actualizing its aspirations for human rights. In fact, the Plan’s introduction recognizes that China still “has a long way to go before it attains the lofty goal of full enjoyment of human rights,” a rare, but welcome admission that human rights in China are not yet fully enjoyed.

Unfortunately, this recognition of limitations also creates a cop-out in the interest of relativism. Under the guise of “practicality” the Chinese government excuses itself from its full responsibilities, noting that “proceeding from China’s national conditions and new realities…” it will “advance the development of its human rights cause on a practical basis” (emphasis added). Such practicality provides an excuse for the government’s egregious human rights violations in Tibet — after all, given the ‘national conditions’ of ‘instability’ taking place in Tibet, how can the PRC be expected to ‘practically’ respect human rights?

Such relativism comes into play as we evaluate the Chinese government’s proposed protections for Freedom of Religious Belief. Each promise of free belief comes under the conditionality that the religious belief be deemed “normal” by state authorities. Unfortunately for Tibetan Buddhists, many of their traditional practices including a devotion to the Dalai Lama have been deemed as not “normal” by the state. Instead of guaranteeing Tibetans free practice of religion, the state has recently taken to stationing Communist Party cadres inside monasteries to ensure that Tibetan Buddhism is practiced according to the law and under the watchful eye of security cameras and government officials. Who better than to regulate Tibetan Buddhism than an officially atheist government?

A similar relativism characterizes the promises to protect the rights of ethnic minorities. Following its theme of legality, the Plan asserts that the “state protects the lawful rights and interests of ethnic minorities,” which, unfortunately, without adequate opportunities for participation in decision making by Tibetans, means that the state determines the interests of ethnic minorities.

In regard to cultural rights, the Chinese approach equates to the state quantifying intangible cultural expression and deeming what expression is appropriate for Tibetans to express. The PRC’s policies of ‘protecting Tibetan culture’ have instead yielded disastrous results that the Dalai Lama has compared to “cultural genocide”. ICT has recently published a report detailing how these policies and practices have led to cultural destruction instead of cultural protection.

Given the ‘practical’ approach that the PRC is taking, what does the Plan mean for the next three years of human rights promotion in China? Unfortunately, it appears to be another unapologetic justification for continuing the status quo. Only now, Chinese government officials will point to the Plan and say that they are taking steps to improve the situation.

It is up to the members of the UN Human Rights Council, and other governments, to raise the facts about the human rights situation in China and Tibet in order to hold the Chinese leadership accountable and to encourage them to take a what could be considered a more practical approach to human rights — one that involves legitimate stakeholders and truly respects the rights and beliefs of all citizens.

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