Photo Credit: People's Daily
by Tyler Roylance
Earlier this month, Chinese authorities were forced to temporarily suspend trading of shares in the online unit of the People’s Daily newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. The price had soared so rapidly since the website’s April debut on the Shanghai Stock Exchange—giving it a greater market value than the New York Times—that it triggered regulatory rules aimed at halting speculative manipulation. This development is just the sort of absurd extreme that comes shortly before an economic bubble bursts.
May 11, 2012
Almost a year ago, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt declared before the UN Human Rights Council that the “same rights that people have offline … must also be protected online.” This was the underlying theme of a groundbreaking May 2011 report by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue. The report, which was endorsed by 41 governments, detailed how established human rights principles apply to the internet and made recommendations for putting these principles into practice. After a year of inaction, the time has come for a concerted, collective effort by democratic countries to carry out the recommendations of the La Rue report.
Technorati Tags: Ethiopia, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia, China, Freedom House, Freedom of Expression, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Russia, South Korea, Sub-Saharan Africa, Thailand
March 06, 2012
January 20, 2012
by David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington*
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal. At a minimum, we can say that developments in the Middle East touched off the most serious challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. While the challenges today are far more complex than in 1989, the basic theme of captive peoples seeking freedom after decades of oppression is very much the same.
Posted at 05:38 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Civil Society, Democratic Governance, Elections, Freedom House, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, Human Rights, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Religious Freedom, Rule of Law, Women's Rights
December 20, 2011
There is never a dull moment for the media sphere in China, home to the most elaborate censorship apparatus in the world. Drawing on nearly 40 issues of the China Media Bulletin, Freedom House staff have identified the following as the year’s worst and weirdest developments surrounding press and internet freedom in China.
Technorati Tags: Ai Weiwei, capitalism, censorship, China, China Media Bulletin, Chinese Communist Party, cyberattacks, detention, Freedom House, freedom of expression, human rights, internet freedom, media, microblogs, open internet, press freedom, thuggery
December 09, 2011
by Mary McGuire and Sarah Trister*
The year 2011 will be remembered as one of immense political and social change around the world, particularly the Middle East. On this International Human Rights Day, Freedom House looks back at a few of the best and worst developments of the year with respect to their long-term implications for the global state of human rights.
Posted at 02:32 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Modern Authoritarianism, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Corruption, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Isolationism, Middle East and North Africa , Minority Rights, Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Western Europe , Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
December 07, 2011
by Tyler Roylance
In a startling one-two punch, China’s Communist regime won accolades last week from high-profile representatives of U.S. business and labor writing in America’s leading national newspapers. In the Wall Street Journal on December 1, former service workers’ union president Andy Stern touted China’s “superior economic model,” and in the New York Times on December 2, prominent Wall Street potentate Steven Rattner offered his guarantee that China’s speeding economic locomotive would remain firmly on track.
Technorati Tags: Andy Stern, authoritarianism, censorship, China, China Media Bulletin, Chinese Communist Party, detention, economic model, economic successes, economic successes, Freedom House, governance, propaganda, SEIU president, Steven Rattner, Tyler Roylance, Wall Street, Wall Street Journal
November 23, 2011
by Melanie Dominski
Sr. Program Associate, Freedom of Expression Campaign
Two years ago today, in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, 100 armed guards overtook a civilian convoy and executed the passengers in what has become known as the Maguindanao massacre. Of the 57 victims, 32 were journalists, making the incident the deadliest single attack against journalists on record and earning the Philippines the second-place slot on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries for members of the media. In the course of this brutal attack, at least four female journalists were allegedly raped prior to being executed; virtually all of the female victims reportedly suffered genital mutilation, and many of the victims were beheaded.
Posted at 10:21 AM in Civil Society, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, United States, Western Europe | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Andal Amaptuan Jr. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Anna Politkovskaya, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, freedom of expression, human rights, human rights abuses, IFEX, impunity, International Day to End Impunity, International Freedom of Expression Exchange, journalist, Maguindanao massacre, Melanie Dominski, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, press freedom, Russia, Saleem Shahzad, Valentin Valdes Espinosa
November 21, 2011
It is a core belief of Freedom House that American foreign policy should be grounded on support for democratic values and the global expansion of freedom. Practically every aspirant to the American presidency would agree that the United States should remain the world’s beacon of democracy. But especially in an era of rival claims for global leadership and calls for fiscal austerity, the development of a U.S. strategy to propel freedom forward poses a serious challenge. Thus far, the presidential candidates have failed to grapple with the complexities of this challenge, and the discussion has been far from illuminating, to put it mildly.
Posted at 09:38 AM in Civil Society, Elections, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Middle East and North Africa , Russia, United States | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Asia, Bahrain, Central Asia, China, civil society, Cuba, democracy, Egypt, foreign aid, foreign aid budget, foreign policy, Freedom House, human rights, Iran, Libya, Middle East, Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama, Questions, Republican Party, Republican Presidential Candidates, Rick Perry, Russia, Sergei Magnitsky, Sergei Magnitsky Act, Taiwan, United Nations, Uzbekistan
November 16, 2011
by Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research
In a recent New York Times opinion piece entitled “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan,” Paul V. Kane advanced a scheme that he claimed would, among other things, fix the American economy and lead to a new and mutually beneficial relationship with China. The United States, he proposed, should jettison its support for Taiwan—firmly, absolutely, and forever.
In exchange, China would write off the over $1 trillion in U.S. debt it currently holds, which amounts to some 10 percent of the total national debt. Beyond that, Kane asserts that “this savvy negotiating posture” could also convince China “to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea, and Syria.” Such a deal would extricate U.S. foreign policy from outdated Cold War templates, he contends, and enable doves within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership to gain the upper hand over the hawks by removing the sensitive Taiwan issue from the table.
Technorati Tags: Arch Puddington, authoritarian state, Burma, China, Chinese Communist Party, Cold War, debt, democracy, economy, Freedom House, Freedom in the World, Internet freedom, Japan, New York Times, opinion, Paul V. Kane, South Korea, Taiwan, Worst of the Worst
October 11, 2011
by Sarah Cook
Senior Research Analyst, Freedom on the Net
*With research assistance provided by Maggie Shum
Since 2005, observers of the Chinese blogosphere have noted the presence of users who are paid to support the authorities in online discussions, often referred to as the “50 Cent Party” for the alleged fee they collect for each posted comment. Several incidents in recent weeks have once again drawn domestic and international attention to this effort by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to manipulate public debate. Last month, the Propaganda Department in a small county in Hubei Province accidentally posted online a video showing local officials training progovernment internet commentators. The media quickly took interest in the revelation, which stipulated commentators’ duty to guide public opinion in a “constructive” way and engage the internet as “an important battlefield of ideology.” Meanwhile, at a seminar in Beijing at the end of September, the vice minister of public security said that the police should use microblogs as a communication platform to “release correct information and dispel misunderstandings.”
October 04, 2011
by David J. Kramer
President of Freedom House
Guided by the findings of our surveys and reports, as well as the experiences of our staff members and partners in the field,
Freedom House has decided to launch a new blog that will offer comment and analysis on the state of, threats to, and prospects for global democracy. We are pleased to welcome you to the inaugural post of Freedom at Issue.
July 19, 2011
As governance in China has slid backwards in recent years, restrictions on the media and internet spheres have been a key feature of this dynamic, as evident from the findings of Freedom House’s 2011 Freedom on the Net report. Since early 2011, dozens of prominent activists and lawyers have been abducted by Chinese security forces. As this crackdown was taking place, the editors of the Freedom House’s weekly China Media Bulletin noted corresponding censorship directives and other restrictions that effectively reduced the detained individuals’ presence on the Chinese internet, a practice that might be termed “cyberdisappearance.”
To investigate this phenomenon in greater detail, the editors selected a sample of eight prominent activists, lawyers, and journalists, many of whom have used the internet as part of their activism. Freedom House staff then conducted searches for their names on Google.hk (a Hong Kong–based site that is largely free of Chinese Communist Party censorship) and compared the results to those produced by Baidu.com, the dominant Chinese search engine; Yahoo.cn, the China-based version of the U.S. internet portal; and the search function of China’s popular Sina Weibo microblogging service—all three of which are subject to Communist Party restrictions. Although Yahoo.cn represents less than 1 percent of China’s search-engine market, it was included because its performance demonstrates the censorship requirements imposed on foreign internet companies seeking to operate in China.
The aim of the test was to simulate the experience of an average Chinese user who has heard the activists’ names and wants to learn more about them. While both the censorship apparatus and netizens are often sophisticated enough to identify terms that refer to activists indirectly, without using their actual names, China Media Bulletin editors felt that a name-based test nevertheless provides some sense of the user experience.
The findings reveal not just clear evidence of significant restrictions, but also the nuance with which the Chinese censorship apparatus imposes those restrictions. Ultimately, they provide a window into the distorted version of reality available to most Chinese internet users, as well as the Communist Party’s extensive efforts to isolate activists who cross an ever-shifting red line and limit their access to large audiences.
At this link are brief profiles of the selected activists, followed by a chart summarizing the results of the search-engine tests. In addition to the results related to each individual, several broad trends emerged from the testing:
- Heavy restrictions on Sina Weibo. For seven of the eight names tested, Sina Weibo provided no search results on the activists in question. By way of explanation, users are presented with the following message: “According to related laws and policy, some of the results are not shown here.”
- Yahoo.cn matches or exceeds the restrictions on Baidu. Despite being part of a U.S.-based company, Yahoo.cn produces search results that are as heavily restricted and dominated by Chinese government links as those of Baidu, which holds over 80 percent of the domestic search market. In some cases, Yahoo.cn appears to be even more restrictive than Baidu.
- A nuanced spectrum of restrictions, corresponding to perceived political sensitivity. For those who have fallen seriously out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—like Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei, and Liu Xiaobo— search results are heavily censored, and there is almost no access to their writings. For others who have run into official repression but are not yet considered “enemies”—like Teng Biao, Jiang Tianyong, and Chang Ping—censorship is more nuanced. Chinese users may still have access to many of their writings, but the available material may be limited to topics deemed acceptable by the CCP. For example, their advocacy for Tibetans or Falun Gong practitioners would be proscribed, but their work on death penalty or corruption cases would remain online. Even for the activists considered to be more politically sensitive—such as Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei, and Chen Guangcheng—information about their careers before they ran afoul of the authorities may still be available.
- The number of search results on Google.hk or Yahoo.hk is far greater than on Baidu.com or Yahoo.cn. In some instances, millions or hundreds of thousands of results appear on the outside search engines, while only a few dozen or hundred appear on the mainland Chinese sites. Whether the difference is due to the companies’ respective algorithms or deliberate censorship, the effect is that Chinese people using local search engines have a much more limited range of information at their disposal, not only in terms of quality, but also of quantity.
Beyond the freedom of expression dimension, these findings and such extensive censorship targeting leading reformers also have implications for governance in China more generally. Indeed, in some respects, they are a reflection of some of the key governance challenges facing China today.
- First, the opacity and arbitrariness with which censorship decisions are made reflect the lack of transparency emblematic of CCP rule. The above-mentioned activists have no avenue for appealing the censorship of their writings or their names, nor did they receive any official notice explaining when or how they came to be included on such a blacklist.
- Second, censorship targeting the names of key democracy activists is only one of numerous methods used by the CCP to squash dissent and limit the possibility of an organized political opposition emerging in China, including via the use of social media tools.
- Third, the targeting of lawyers and other legal activists working to expose and seek justice for a range of human rights violations—from corruption to repression of minorities to torture—has far-reaching implications for the development of the rule of law. In many respects, these individuals are a microcosm of bigger problems in China. Suppressing information about them also translates into the cover-up of the severe violations suffered by their clients and a reinforcement of the cycle of impunity for the perpetrators of such abuses.
- Fourth, the collaboration of private companies in Chinese censorship—be they domestic firms like Baidu or Sina or international corporations like Yahoo—reflects how the CCP uses bureaucratic and economic carrots and sticks to coerce non-governmental entities to do its bidding, a governance strategy of the party that extends beyond the realm of the internet.
May 05, 2011
Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press survey was released this week in honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The results reveal a continued and troubling decline in freedom of expression across the world. While inspiring in many ways, the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” have demonstrated both longstanding and emerging threats to freedom of expression and access to information in emerging democracies—the unprecedented and complete closure of the internet in Egypt, crackdowns on social media across the Arab world, and bizarre state media responses to popular protests. As a global survey, Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence offers a broad look at the wide range of threats to freedom of expression across the world. As the summer release of Countries at the Crossroads 2011 grows nearer, Freedom of the Press findings illustrate some troubling trends in the countries featured in the 2011 publication. While Countries at the Crossroads 2011 will cover wide range of democratic governance issues in a set of countries that ranges in governance quality from Greece to Libya, the press results highlighted in Freedom of the Press are telling. Unfortunately, a regional overview shows striking uniformity in the direction of press freedom across the globe.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that freedom of expression came under fire in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. With the extent of popular discontent becoming obvious, it is clear that governments sought to suppress dissent in all forms, in part by constricting the space within which media outlets could operate. Libya and Syria, both of which have a long history of media repression, experienced score declines, in part because of crackdowns on independent media and arrests of bloggers. Egypt’s now-vanished Mubarak regime, however, was the source of the most dramatic regional change. Mubarak and the National Democratic Party’s decisive crackdown on virtually all forms of media prior to the November 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a downgrade of the country’s status from Partly Free to Not Free. As explored in this blog post, and elsewhere, the Mubarak regime shut down talk shows and newspaper columns, physically and legally harassed journalists and bloggers, and even suspended live television broadcasts prior to the elections to try to ensure that the widespread fraud and other violations that took place during the electoral season were not discussed publically. Of course, as subsequent events demonstrated, such increased pressure served only to tighten the lid on a pressure cooker that was primed to explode.
Freedom of the press was similarly restricted in Asia. Thailand’s government used the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to discourage critical discussion online, for example by demanding the removal of comments critical of the government, and continued to use its lèse-majesté laws to silence opposition voices by declaring any criticism an insult to the king. This resulted in a downgrade of the country’s press freedom status from Partly Free to Not Free. China, in addition to its regular practice of limiting coverage of a wide range of issues of public interest, clamped down yet further on its media after imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both countries, along with a set of states such as Pakistan and the Philippines, where tension exists between a vibrant press and a sometimes lawless environment, will be featured in the upcoming edition of Crossroads.
The only region with modest improvements was Sub-Saharan Africa, where at least three Countries at the Crossroads countries improved their scores over the course of the year. Senegal’s score improved after a decrease in advertising boycotts designed to silence opposition sources, and Mauritania’s score got better following a law enabling private investment in broadcasting. These gains, however, are marred by deteriorating press freedoms elsewhere in the region. Madagascar’s ongoing political instability provided an environment for the government to constrict independent media by harassing and expelling journalists and pursuing spurious criminal defamation charges. Eritrea, a perennial opponent of freedom of expression continued to jail independent journalists imprisoned without reason after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
The Latin American countries that experienced the most dramatic changes in press freedom – particularly Mexico and Honduras, which moved from Partly Free to Not Free – were featured in Countries at the Crossroads 2010. Of the countries in the upcoming edition, Bolivia and Ecuador continued a trend of decline in recent years. In Ecuador in particular, President Rafael Correa’s acute sensitivity and eagerness to vilify the press exacerbated an already polarized environment. On the other hand, Colombia and Peru, each of which had declined in 2009, managed to halt their slide (Peru) or experience a mild increase (Colombia). Venezuela, which will complete the set of Andean countries included in the 2011 edition of Crossroads, remained, after Cuba, the most restrictive country in the hemisphere with respect to press freedom.
This view of the state of freedom of expression in a set of countries that will be explored in greater breadth in Countries at the Crossroads 2011 suggests that press freedom continues to be under threat in emerging and consolidating democracies. Press freedom has occasionally been dubbed the “canary in the coal mine” as it relates to the democracy’s trajectory. Nonetheless, the broader context of threats against the media is critical, and it is precisely this context that will be explored in Countries at the Crossroads 2011. For example, the limitations in the rule of law and judicial systems that allow such attacks on journalists to go unanswered, as well as the political pathologies – personalized rule, corruption, etc – that create incentives to silence the press will be assessed. Conversely, for countries undergoing where the governance evolution has been positive, it will also demonstrate the centrality of a vibrant press to the democratic process. But as the results of Freedom of the Press 2011 make clear, far too many states remain subject to the unfortunate irony that those countries most unable or unwilling to ensure an open media environment are often the ones that most desperately need vibrant and diverse media coverage.
November 23, 2010
From a theoretical perspective, Amartya Sen is perhaps the best-known thinker to weigh in on the role of CP rights in economic development, most famously in his book Development as Freedom, where he stresses that the value of political freedoms does not have to be strictly tied to their effect on economic growth—CP rights contribute to economic development, he says, but that value is over and above their direct (“constitutive,” in Sen’s parlance) role. Indeed, Sen centers his definition of development on CP rights, arguing that development requires the removal of major sources of “unfreedom,” including tyranny, systematic social deprivation, and intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. In his view, development is not just about changes in economic status, but about the expansion of human capabilities. Most basically, then, the goal of development is to enrich people’s ability to choose how they want to live.
Sen’s holistic view of development demonstrates that it is not just economic growth that governments should pay attention to, but the ways in which development can enrich human lives more generally. By enabling people to have a say in the way that economic development happens, including the extent to which economic policy establishes safeguards for ESC rights, CP rights are an integral part of this enrichment. Political rights enable the expression of people’s preferences and priorities, which are important informational inputs to the policy process. The integration of more people into a political system channels more viewpoints into that process and increases ownership in political decisions, which can be important in ameliorating public discontent in lean times. CP rights do not guarantee, of course, that policy changes will be effective or easy, but they can be an important pressure valve to mediate grievances.
Similarly, in an early evaluation of the case for the prioritization of ESC rights at the expense of CP rights, Rhoda Howard argued that the costs of not allowing CP rights far exceed the costs of allowing them. Closed political systems prevent full input to the development process and, because there is little input from the majority of the country, it is likely that new policies will promote elite interests. (Note that the overlap between economic development and ESC rights is less-than-complete. Authoritarian governments tend to conflate specific metrics—particularly GDP growth—with expanding ESC rights. While it is true that economic growth is often the means through which broad improvements in living standards are obtained, the uneven and often inequitable nature of economic development means that GDP growth is not a synonym for increased ESC rights.) Distribution issues aside, popular input is also essential to the dignity of the people that economic reforms are intended to benefit. Howard quotes an anonymous participant in a 1966 human rights seminar in Dakar, in a statement that remains compelling almost 50 years later: “To sacrifice the liberties inherent in the human personality in the name of economic development…[is] to reduce the individual to the role of producer and consumer of goods, which…[is] far too high a price to pay for improving the material conditions of existence.” (490)
Moreover, more recent empirical research suggests that there is nothing mutually exclusive between the promotion of CP rights and attaining improvements in ESC rights. For one thing, there is no clear indication that authoritarian power and the political restrictions it entails make it easier to create economic growth. As economist William Easterly points out, for every case of impressive growth under authoritarian leadership (e.g., Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew), there are numerous equally distressing cases of stagnation and poverty (e.g., Cameroon, where—despite high revenues in oil wealth and foreign development assistance—the average citizen is poorer today than when President Paul Biya took power in 1982).
In a recent book, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way, economist Steve Radelet offers additional demonstration that economic development can go hand-in-hand with democratic political development. Radelet looks at a set of 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have achieved dramatic gains in economic growth, poverty reduction, and political accountability since the mid-1990s, including Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, and Cape Verde. To be sure, economic progress has not always been rapid or predictable, and the protection of CP rights in these states is not always ideal, but this group of countries, home to more than 300 million people, shows that one need not restrict or curtail CP rights in the name of economic growth.
CP rights can actually be an important part of the economic development process. Economist Dani Rodrik compares economic growth in democratic and authoritarian countries:
“[Democracies] provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.
Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.”
Adding to the empirical evidence, the recent book The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace takes aim what the authors call the "authoritarian advantage doctrine," deconstructing the myth that authoritarian states are better able to establish conditions for economic growth. The authors found that the typical authoritarian government's economic performance is terrible--in fact, they say, 95 percent of the worst economic performances over the last 40 years occurred in non-democracies. The Democracy Advantage identifies a set of 70 low-income countries that have clearly advanced toward democracy over the past two decades and finds that these poor, nascent democracies performed better than authoritarian governments in a range of indicators directly related to ESC rights, including literacy, access to clean water, life expectancy, infant mortality, and agricultural productivity. Echoing the analyses mentioned above, the authors argue that democracies’ traits of shared power, openness, and adaptability better position them to formulate nuanced policies. Though democracies and democratizing countries do not always achieve the dramatic gains that some authoritarian governments do, they tend to be more resilient in weathering the economic crises that often cause ESC rights to regress. The authors quote democracy scholar Adam Przeworski to sum up their findings: "There was never any solid evidence that democracies were somehow inferior in generating growth-certainly not enough to justify supporting or even condoning dictatorships."
Thus, given that authoritarian restrictions on civil and political rights are not necessary to build economic growth or to promote ESC rights, the touting of material gains by authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments should be viewed skeptically. In a world of scarce resources there are, of course, trade-offs in any government policy. And the debate over the relative importance of ESC and CP rights is a valuable one, as is the argument over the developed world’s responsibility in helping achieve improve ESC rights around the globe. But participants in that debate are well served by bearing in mind its real world manifestations – in particular, the abuse of the ESC-first argument by undemocratic states that impose unjustifiable limitations on core human freedoms. Even as these cynical leaders amplify the debate, they also cheapen it. In a context in which the advance of core CP rights has been on extremely shaky ground in recent years, it is critical that the engagement of analysts, activists, and policymakers around the world are appropriately grounded in both facts and principles about the basic rights that every human should enjoy.
November 11, 2010
More than sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the importance of human rights is well established in the international community. Despite this general acceptance, however, debate persists on the ways in which human rights should be protected and prioritized in different communities and cultures, particularly in the context of political and economic development. The division between civil and political rights, on the one side, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other, was first outlined in 1966 and continues to shape the way human rights activists, governments, and citizens approach these questions. This post is the second in a series about the interaction between these two categories of rights and the ways in which that delineation influences the global debate regarding political and economic development.
Continuing with the discussion from the previous post, while there is widespread agreement that ESC and CP rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated (see Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration from the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, disagreement continues over the interaction and prioritization of the two groups of rights. The debate over sequencing, responsibility for implementation, and urgency is both interesting and necessary, and given the diversity of cultures and polities, there is no definitive answer. However, there is one group of governments for whom the decision to vocally advocate for ESC prioritization is an easy one: authoritarian regimes.
The fundamental idea behind emphasizing ESC rights is that given the tradeoffs imposed by scarce resources, governments in underdeveloped countries must prioritize certain aspects of development; given the need to relieve poverty, ESC rights are defined as the most pressing. This claim essentially stems from the adage that “you can’t eat democracy,” i.e., that economic growth is urgent to combat deprivation of basic needs, and that CP rights are largely irrelevant in the context of dire poverty.
This perspective has been popular for decades and was prevalent in postcolonial governments struggling to build institutions and promote economic development. Tanzania’s first president, democratically-elected Julius Nyerere, eloquently captured the idea: “What freedom has our subsistence farmer? He scratches a bare living from the soil provided the rains do not fail; his children work at his side without schooling, medical care, or even good feeding. Certainly he has freedom to vote and to speak as he wishes. But these freedoms are much less real to him than his freedom to be exploited. Only as his poverty is reduced will his existing political freedom become properly meaningful and his right to human dignity become a fact of human dignity.” Ghana’s Ignatius Acheampong, a military leader who came to power in a coup d’état in 1972, was more direct: “‘One man, one vote’ is meaningless unless accompanied by the principle of ‘one man, one bread.’” (Both quoted in The Concept of Human Rights in Africa by Issa G. Shivji, p. 26.)
While Nyerere’s statement offers legitimate philosophical fodder, the potential for authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments to exploit the idea is evident, and indeed this is what many have done. Undemocratic regimes regularly divert attention away from serious repression of CP rights by disingenuously appealing to the internationally accepted discourse of ESC rights. This is not to say that governments in underdeveloped countries and elsewhere do not face difficult decisions in the implementation of human rights – though, as a subsequent post will show, economic research strongly suggests that there is no need to sacrifice one group of rights for another in the pursuit of economic growth – but it is important in evaluating the ESC-first argument to note that many of its most prominent proponents are authoritarian or hybrid regimes that are happy to talk about economic gains but less keen on discussing the CP rights they curtail.
China, for example, has aggressively emphasized ESC rights even as the ruling party’s repressive apparatus remains as robust as ever. This is clear in the recently-released, government-produced report, “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2009,” which highlights what it considers to be notable advances in domestic human rights conditions. The report emphasizes economic indicators: increasing numbers of phone users and car owners, gains in tourism, booming construction, etc. It does mention some fundamental ESC indicators, including improvements in access to clean water and healthcare and decreases in poverty, but the overall emphasis is heavy on consumption-related metrics and the ways in which the country has evaded the most negative effects of the global financial crisis. In fact, the study links shortcomings in China’s human rights record directly to the country’s still-low level of economic development, as opposed to any political policies: “China is a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion. Due to its inadequate and unbalanced development, there is still much room for improvement in its human rights conditions.”
What China’s report conspicuously lacks, among other things, is any discussion of the CP rights the government notoriously curtails. (For examples, see Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010, and the government’s extensive censorship binge and police crackdown following the announcement of political dissident Liu Xiaobo as winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Similarly, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez eagerly touts economic development under his administration, but responds to allegations that his administration has circumscribed political freedoms dismissively or with vitriolic denunciations of preceding administrations. In a rare interview with the English-language press, Chavez pointed to a range of economic indicators related to ESC rights, including halved unemployment and decreases in extreme poverty. Chavez angrily refused, however, to discuss charges that Venezuela has regressed on political rights, and resorted to personal attacks on the journalist who brought up the charges. Similarly, when the Organization of American States (OAS) released a report citing Venezuela’s attacks on freedom of expression and its harassment of opposition parties, Chavez condemned the organization as a “mafia” and threatened to withdraw. Ironically, the report praised the Venezuelan government for its progress in reducing poverty and illiteracy and increasing healthcare access.
Rwanda offers another example. President Paul Kagame has very publicly highlighted Rwanda’s post-genocide economic performance, and he based his recent reelection campaign in large part on Rwanda’s economic growth since 1994. Indeed, the Rwandan economy has made huge gains, more than doubling per capita income, increasing life expectancy by seven years, and improving access to education. In contrast, the outlook for CP rights is dramatically less rosy: the recent election period included the killings of an opposition leader and the deputy editor of an opposition newspaper, the arrest of one of Kagame’s electoral opponents, and suppression of opposition parties, among many other issues. Though the government denies having any role in the violent incidents, most observers of Rwanda – and even many of Kagame’s defenders – agree that CP rights in Rwanda are only present insofar as the president perceives them as not threatening his administration’s stranglehold on power.
Like Kagame, other leaders often described as “donor darlings” frequently embrace these ideas. During the 1990s, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni resisted international pressure for a multiparty political system by arguing that Uganda and much of Africa was not ready for full democracy because, without a thriving economy and a stable middle class, political mobilization would inevitably occur around ethnicity and other divisive issues, as opposed to political ideals. More than a decade later, Uganda still shows few signs of greater pluralism, even as the Ugandan political class is viewed as insular and corrupt. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has been happy to discuss the country’s impressive economic progress, but is stubbornly unwilling to complement the gains with genuine democratic reform. Indeed, whether the subject is economic vulnerability or corruption, the government prefers aggressive denunciation and indignant dismissal to engagement or reflection.
Each of these leaders has their excuses. Rwanda’s Kagame, echoing Nyerere and others, resists discussion of political repression by arguing that Rwandans are not interested in political freedoms until they reach a sufficient level of economic prosperity. As he said in one interview, "Democracy and human rights are niceties and are all important, but tell me, if somebody is wondering if they have anything to eat, they are not listening. It's a fact that when somebody has food, when you bring another message, then they listen." Left undefined is precisely when basic political freedoms become a priority; it is hard to believe, given the repeated attempts to form an effective opposition in Rwanda despite the government’s abuses, that these are issues that Rwandan citizens do not care about.
China’s economic success and its increasing visibility through investment in Africa and elsewhere have inspired ideas of alternative paths to development, many of them based on the premise that single-party rule and a strong state can avoid the instability associated with democratization while accelerating economic growth. And it is true that China’s economic development has produced clear benefits for many of its citizens and has increased access to some core ESC rights, as has growth in Rwanda, Venezuela (where economic conditions look increasingly shaky), and elsewhere. However, the inordinate emphasis on economic progress and the refusal to discuss political repression invites skepticism. For a leader who wishes to prolong his (seemingly never “her”) rule and establish his indispensability, it is certainly convenient for a country to need to reach some eternally-vague level of development and stability before CP rights can expand. Even assuming that many such leaders sincerely care about development (as opposed to true kleptocrats and sociopaths), the self-serving nature of these arguments is clear. The unwillingness to debate CP rights is also telling: if these leaders are truly so rights-oriented, what do they have to hide? A subsequent post will look at the interrelationship between CP and ESC rights, including evidence that the two are actually mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.
May 28, 2010
Photo Credit: Flickr user endworld
While Google’s departure from China generated the headlines and international attention, recent months have also witnessed other important developments related to the expansion and institutionalization of internet controls in China. The People’s Republic already has the most sophisticated, multilayered internet control apparatus in the world. In April 2009 Freedom House published a pilot study of digital media freedom in 15 countries. The findings on China highlighted the fact that not only is there pervasive filtering of political and religious content, but also extensive “outsourcing” of censorship to private companies and proactive “guidance” of online discussion by government-paid agents.Control is not absolute: in particular, one aspect of the internet landscape that contributes positively to free expression is users’ ability to anonymously post comments online. Despite the party-state’s sophisticated content controls, the sheer volume of internet traffic and the speed with which information can spread has created some space for exposés of local government malfeasance and open political discussion. In one case in August 2009, a local newspaper in Shaanxi published a short article about lead poisoning among children caused by pollution from a nearby smelting plant. The popular web portal Netease quickly reposted the story (portals are barred from producing their own content), drawing national attention to the incident. However, in response to this and other incidents where news reflecting poorly on government oversight spread quickly, both central and local authorities have taken steps to boost the effectiveness of internet controls.
Looking at developments in recent months, there have been several notable trends regarding the new media environment and regulatory framework:• Institutionalizing “outsourcing”: In practice, most internet service and mobile phone providers cooperate closely with the authorities to monitor users, censor content, and transmit private communications to security forces upon request. This is either because the providers are state-controlled or because they face license revocation if they do not comply. Nonetheless, as the system is not foolproof (in some cases, due to intentional “negligence” on the part of moderators), the government has taken measures to strengthen provider liability with the force of law. On April 29, the National People’s Congress passed an amendment to the state secrets law requiring internet service providers and operators to work closely with security officials on investigating leaks of “state secrets.” The new amendment states that internet companies must immediately block any leak they encounter and report the violation to state authorities or else face punishment. The amendments did little to clarify the vague and arbitrary process for defining “state secrets,” a term that has been applied to a wide range of content and used to sentence activists to long prison terms without due process.
• Increased restrictions on anonymity: For months, information has been circulating that news websites had begun requiring real name registration for users wishing to post comments on articles. On April 30, Wang Chen, head of the State Council Information Office (SCIO, one of the primary bodies overseeing internet controls), verified for the first time that major news and business portals had indeed implemented a new no-anonymous comment rule. He also announced that the authorities intend to extend the practice to other sites including online forums and chat rooms and are currently “exploring an identity authentication system” for such websites. In a similar development, a March 19 article in the Chongqing Evening News reported that the local political-legal committee was preparing to implement a new program that would subject microblogs, cell phone text messages, and some forms of instant messaging to monitoring. The plan would also reportedly require real name registration by users logging into such services. Though the full details and timeline of the plan are not yet clear, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, “this is the first time [real name registration] regulations are being applied to microblogs and QQ groups [a form of instant messaging], two of the most popular forms of online communication in China.”
• Creation of another Internet control agency: In mid-April, the Chinese government confirmed that it had created two new entities under the SCIO: Bureau 8, which would regulate foreign news and information outlets doing business in China, and Bureau 9, a new Internet News Coordination Bureau. The latter joins Bureau 5, which until now was the SCIO’s only arm dealing solely with online content. According to the New York Times, the old bureau will continue its work pushing the party line on domestic websites, while the new one will likely devote its efforts to monitoring user-generated content, particularly social networking sites and online forums, which have been harder for the government to control than news sites. An official statement announcing the bureau’s creation described its responsibilities as “’guidance, coordination and other work related to the construction and management of Web culture.’”
• Decentralization of online monitoring and manipulation: In addition to central agencies expanding their capacity to control online content, local governments—often seeking to limit exposure of official malfeasance—have been ramping up their own internet control apparatus. The above-mentioned monitoring plan in Chongqing is to be implemented by local police forces. Meanwhile, as officials realize that they cannot censor everything undesirable that appears on the web, a key element of their internet control strategy in recent years has been to proactively manipulate online discussions using government-paid commentators. These are often termed the “50 Cent Party,” a reference to the small payment received for each progovernment posting. According to David Bandurksi of the China Media Project: “Internet commentators…have now been trained up and used by all sorts of government units at all levels, and they are one of the most open dirty secrets of Internet control in China.” Bandurski goes on to describe how on May 18, several news outlets reported that Guangzhou’s corps of “city inspectors,” a security agency whose officers have been criticized for their sometimes brutal methods of enforcing order, would likely be receiving its own squad of internet commentators. The head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee, Li Yangui, was quoted as saying that the team’s goal would be to “track and analyze online public opinion, preventing the spread of undesirable information and thereby generating positive guidance of public opinion.” In a similar vein, Lanzhou’s Western Business Post reported in January that the Gansu’s provincial authorities had decided to establish a squad of 650 online progovernment commentators.These developments raise a number of questions related to governance – how much do these added resources cost? What public services might the funds otherwise be dedicated towards? How many users will be more likely to face retribution for their online writings given fewer possibilities for anonymity? How many items of public interest—from information about tainted food products to environmental disasters to the torture of petitioners or the harmlessness of Falun Gong practitioners—won’t be posted and circulated because potential authors fear repercussions if they must use their real names?
The answers to these questions are not easily found. But one governance-related point is certain – the authorities don’t necessarily want users to know about these new restrictions on privacy and free expression. Indeed, as an indication of the opacity surrounding censorship decisions in China, party and government bodies issued censorship directives to restrict comments and circulation of the very news items announcing the above developments.
On April 28, the government reportedly banned the media from “hyping content” referencing the internet-related amendments to the state secrets law and ordered that all such discussions be deleted from forums and news comment spaces. In January, shortly after its publication, the above-mentioned news story from the Western Business Post was quickly “expunged from the Internet.” According to Jonathan Ansfield of the New York Times, the head of the new bureau under the SCIO had participated in meetings with foreign diplomats and Chinese officials for weeks, but public acknowledgment of the structural change came only in early April after the Times queried the government about the new agency.
The officials’ desire to restrict publicity of the expansion of internet controls is not surprising. Beyond the Communist Party’s general tendency towards secrecy, such wariness responds at least in part to past experiences, when notice of new restrictions prompted significant popular backlash and ultimately, forced retraction of controls. One of the most dramatic examples was the Green Dam fiasco last year. In May 2009, the government announced regulations that would require the installation of censorship and surveillance software called Green Dam Youth Escort on all computers sold in China. Activists, lawyers, and ordinary users mobilized quickly to protest the directive. With added pressure from the international business community and human rights groups, the authorities were forced to withdraw the orders in June, though installation reportedly continued in schools and internet cafés.So what might the future hold? As Qian Gang of the China Media Project explains: “China’s Internet is a chaotic space. There are times when controls are more strict, and other times when controls momentarily relax. Some places in China are controlled more tightly by local party leaders, while others are more open.”
“The only true constant is the government’s determination to exercise control.”
October 16, 2009
Photo credit: Flickr user kattebelletje
As the world marked World Day Against the Death Penalty this weekend, Iranian officials announced that three protesters arrested in the country’s post-election crackdown have been sentenced to death. The verdicts were announced despite widespread international outcry over the sentencing of another protester, Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani, to death last week. Saturday’s announcement came the same day that Iran, in blatant violation of international law, hanged a man who was 17 when he committed a murder.
With a tally of at least 346 executions in 2008, Iran carried out more executions than any other country in the world besides China. Eight of these were juvenile offenders, according to Amnesty International, making Iran the only country in the world in which juvenile offenders were known to be executed (the United States, which occupied fifth place in the number of executions carried out in 2008, abolished the death penalty for juveniles in 2005). Meanwhile, China, the globe’s “first place” executioner with least 1,718 in 2008, sentenced six men to death on Monday for murder, arson, and robbery during the July 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang. In both of these countries, exact figures of the number of executions are not publicly available.
Although both countries log significantly higher-than-average capital punishment figures, governmental attitudes toward and application of the death penalty in the two countries differ notably.Cloaked in a language of morality, capital punishment in Iran is used by the government to prevent threats to the legitimacy of the country’s religion-based political system. In other words, the government conflates threats to the religious order with threats to the political order. Under Islamic law as applied in the country, a gamut of crimes is punishable by death. Homicide, rape, incest, homosexuality, adultery, and prostitution are capital offenses. Execution sentences are sometimes given out for drug-related crimes. The protesters sentenced to death last week were charged with mohareb, or “taking up arms against God.”
According to Amnesty International, a 2008 law widened the scope of capital crime in Iran to include pornography, and officials were proposing laws to include apostasy, heresy and witchcraft, as well as internet crimes that “promote corruption and apostasy” on the list of capital offenses.
In the case of murder, the family of the victim determines whether the person who committed the murder will face death or pay compensation – literally “blood money” – to the family. This allows the state to take a hands-off approach in determining the fate of those convicted of murder. In the case of Behnoud Shojaie, the young man who was executed this week for a murder he committed at age 17, the state responded to cries from the United Nations by noting that Iranian officials were “doing their utmost” to get the victim’s family to accept the blood money. Though Navi Pillay, the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the organization welcomes attempts to mediate between the family of the victim and the person convicted of the murder, such actions were “utterly insufficient” in satisfying Iran’s international law commitments.
In China, capital punishment is a way of combating disruptions of social and political, rather than moral, order. Its Communist secular law provides for perhaps an even wider range of capital offenses. Homicide, rape, and kidnapping are all punishable by death, as are non-violent crimes such financial fraud, smuggling weapons and precious metals, and counterfeiting currency. Unlike Iran, China prohibits the execution of a person who committed his or her crime before the age of 18. The widespread utilization of capital punishment in China is the continuation of the “strike hard” campaigns used to suppress criminality following the breakdown of social order during the Cultural Revolution. As discussed in the 2007 Countries at the Crossroads report, these campaigns are characterized by the rounding up and severe punishing of large numbers of people, especially young people, often through mass trials and executions.
Despite these differences, the justice systems are similar in failing to provide fair trials for those charged with capital crimes. These countries apply the rule of law unevenly. The Iranian court system is pervasively politicized. There is limited adherence to constitutional guarantees including freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right of access to competent courts, and the right to select an attorney or be provided with legal counsel. Lawyers who defend criminals accused of political crimes are at risk of finding themselves accused of acting against national security.
In China, the judiciary has almost no independence or autonomy from the Chinese Communist Party, and all courts are answerable to the National People’s Congress. Judicial officials are poorly trained. Suspects are not presumed innocent until proven guilty and many confessions are extracted through torture. As in Iran, defense lawyers are often treated as accomplices to suspects.
Barring any extreme political development, it is unlikely that these countries’ judicial systems will undergo significant reform or that the application of the death penalty will be narrowed. This raises concerns for both future and immediate developments. Though death sentences in Iran may be appealed to the Supreme Court, the recent protest-related convictions evoked fears about the fates of other protesters held in prison after this summer’s post-election crackdown. Apparently 18 other protesters received sentences last week, though these sentences have not yet been made public. According to the Guardian, there were more than 4,000 people arrested for their involvement in this summer’s protests, about 200 of whom are still imprisoned. Last week, Amnesty International called for Iran to lift the death penalty on Zamani, labeling the prosecution a “show trial” and a “mockery of justice.”Given the eminently political nature of these sentences, and the tense political climate in Tehran following June’s elections, the Iranian government may be courting a public backlash. This is unlikely in China, as the public, scarred by memories of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, generally supports harsh measures to keep social order under control. In the end, it is probably impossible to know if such common use of the death penalty functions as the authorities intend, as a deterrent to both crime and challenges to the established order. It is clear, however, that the shadowy process that leads to the firing squad or gallows in each country symbolizes the meagerness of individual rights in these authoritarian states.
August 05, 2009
Photo Credit: Flickr user infomatique
On July 17, Chinese government officials raided the office of the Open Constitution Initiative, a prominent NGO that has carried out research on sensitive issues such as corruption and government policies in Tibet, provided legal consultation to victims of government injustice, and engaged in legal activism. Officials claimed that the organization had failed to properly register itself with authorities and proceeded to confiscate all of its belongings. On the day before the raid, tax authorities had demanded that the organization pay a hefty 1.42 m yuan ($207,900) bill to compensate for unpaid taxes and fines. Nevertheless, the NGO’s closure was widely perceived as politically motivated. This attack on rights defenders came just days after the Beijing Justice Bureau officially reported that it had canceled the licenses of 53 lawyers for failing to apply for annual relicensing, which had heretofore been considered a mere formality. This initial list of disbarred lawyers included at least one high profile civil rights attorney, while at least 20 others have reported threats over potential loss of their licenses in recent months.
These attacks against the country’s lawyers are nothing new. Rather, they are the most recent episodes in the government’s broader campaign to stifle lawyers and other members of the country’s rights defense movement – thus highlighting the Communist Party’s lack of commitment to establishing the rule of law. In addition to bureaucratic obstacles, the Chinese authorities have also engaged in more forceful harassment of human rights lawyers by utilizing such methods as arrest and physical assault. For example, in early February, Gao Zhisheng, a prominent rights attorney and Nobel Peace Prize nominee who had defended a range of underprivileged clients and fought against religious persecution, was abducted by security forces and has not been heard from since. On May 13, Beijing lawyers Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu were beaten by local police, locked up in an iron cage, and interrogated at a police station regarding their defense of Falun Gong clients and attempts to investigate the death in a labor camp of an elderly practitioner. Ominously, these are only a few examples of the Chinese government’s direct assaults against lawyers in recent years.
The government’s harsh treatment of these lawyers is especially troubling due to the fact that their legal activity and advocacy efforts represent the best attempt to establish comprehensive rule of law in the country. In the context of a highly politicized legal system under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), these attorneys have embarked upon a dedicated effort to apply the laws and hold officials to account. China’s constitution, which as the result of a 2004 amendment now proclaims that China “respects and safeguards human rights,” upholds the fundamental rights of free expression, assembly, association, and religious belief. However, the constitution cannot normally be invoked in courts as a legal basis for asserting these rights. Some lawyers have attempted to challenge this, using constitutional provisions and other legislation in their efforts to defend clients, many of them on trial for their political views or religious identity. As Albert Ho, Chairman of the Human Rights Lawyer’s Concern Group, explains, “These lawyers are…only asking the government to fulfill its promise within the law.”
In the sphere of civil law, Chinese rights lawyers have also dedicated their efforts towards enabling the Chinese legal system to truly become a source for redress in cases of official corruption. For example, they have attempted to aid Chinese victims of injustice by filing civil lawsuits for such cases as the tainted milk scandal and the school building collapses that occurred during the deadly 2008 earthquake (the details of which we discussed in a previous blog post). In many cases, human rights lawyers have become avid activists dedicated to not only defending victims, but also raising public awareness of the rights protected in the constitution and international treaties that China has ratified, including the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In response to these attempts to apply and generate greater respect for the law, the CCP has adopted an aggressive approach. The party has directly undermined civil rights lawyers’ efforts by issuing a series of guidelines in 2006 that restricted their ability to accept cases on behalf of a large group of clients and, more recently, pressured them not to take action on behalf of those affected by the contaminated milk powder.
Despite the government’s rhetoric of doing things “in accordance with the law” as well as the passage of dozens of new laws each year, the degree to which the central government is truly attempting to construct the rule of law remains highly questionable. As the 2007 Countries at the Crossroads report on China notes, the interests and preferences of the CCP prevail over the official law in most legal matters, and especially in political cases. Indeed, the judiciary remains strongly under the control of the CCP, with the courts being answerable to the National People’s Congress and verdicts being directed by the party, often via a nationwide network of bodies known as political-legal committees. Notably, as the 2009 Freedom in the World report notes, a party cadre with no formal legal training was appointed as chief justice in 2008. As a result, due process guarantees oftentimes exist more in theory than in practice, with few criminal defendants being granted access to counsel, especially in the trials of political dissidents accused of “inciting subversion of state power.”
The government’s recent assault against the country’s most prominent lawyers points to the CCP’s continued disrespect for the rule of law and intolerance of any authority that may be independent of the party’s control and manipulation. As Albert Ho argues, "With the opening and liberalization of China, it needs to build a system of law and a sound legal system. The government and the governing party shall abide by the law. But they are very, very concerned that the law may cause an obstacle to the control of the people." It is not as if Chinese citizens never receive a fair trial – though the more straightforward non-political cases still are affected by corruption. Overall, however, developments in recent years suggest that Party leaders are as unwilling as ever to relinquish genuine authority to independent judges and lawyers. Such a policy will continue to have troubling ramifications for the quality of governance in China. Beyond enhancing the arbitrary and corrupt aspects of the system, such actions by the Party also signal to citizens that the legal system is not a source of redress for their grievances. At a time of growing rights consciousness among the pubic, the only recourse left to discontented Chinese people is to resist the system through protest, which is already contributing to and complicating the growing social instability in the country.
June 04, 2009
Freedom House has just released a new report, Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians, describing the efforts of authoritarian states including China, Russia, Venezuela, and Iran to sustain their autocratic models and even advance alternatives to democracy in other countries. The report explores how these leading authoritarian regimes are threatening democratic development by promoting repressive policies and manipulating and distorting democratic discourse. Their efforts to redefine – and ultimately empty out – the concept of democracy have not only been pursued within their borders, but have also been exported abroad.
Among the tools that these regimes have used to further their interests internationally, the promotion of “win-win” economic arrangements and “no-strings-attached aid” stand out. In April, we addressed this issue in a blog post about China’s aid policy towards Africa in particular. At the time, we discussed the dangers of championing China’s unique development model, along with the pernicious effects that China’s offers of unconditional aid can have for governance. Because Beijing’s foreign assistance isn’t conditioned on the adoption of reforms and a general respect for human rights, it opens the door for corruption and neglect of the rule of law. Undermining Democracy includes a more comprehensive analysis of China’s foreign assistance efforts, along with those of other authoritarian regimes, analyzing the modern strategies and methods used to project authoritarian influence.
As Undermining Democracy explains, China’s is systematically developing its own brand of “soft power.” After becoming aware of the necessity of increasing its clout in an increasingly interdependent international system, China began to ramp up efforts to promote its own model of political and economic development in its international relations. Due to China’s impressive economic development, the model is often touted as a superior alternative to Western prescriptions.
As it happens, Undermining Democracy has been released on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. An article in the Financial Times last week traced China’s political trajectory since the crackdown, explaining how China’s Communist Party weathered both extensive criticism and countless predictions of its demise to propel its country to a leading role in the world sphere. As it notes, Chinese officials have ceased to adopt an outwardly apologetic stance towards their more repressive political policies, instead becoming increasingly confident in their model’s superiority over its Western counterpart. Most importantly, it argues that China’s remarkable ability to persevere and prosper can be attributed to its willingness to adapt and modernize. In other words, whereas mere repression might not have been enough to counteract the pre- and post-Tiananmen calls for change, China has survived and flourished due to its policy of economic opening. While these reforms have boosted growth and ameliorated some citizen complaints, more fundamental reforms of accountability and transparency have been absent.
China’s economic success has created a major dilemma for advocates of good governance. This success has obvious appeal as a formula for economic prosperity for struggling developing countries. Nevertheless, there are some important points to consider. First, by championing the undemocratic Chinese model, the benefits in terms of basic ethics and justice of democratic rule in comparison to China’s oppressive political regime are ignored. The coercive nature of China’s political regime cannot be underemphasized. China is a highly repressive state, which is evidenced by the regime’s dismal human rights record. China has, every year, by far the highest number of executions of any country and has consistently and arbitrarily applied state power to restrict basic freedoms including freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Secondly, it is important to realize that the Chinese model of adaptation is not the norm. As the Financial Times article notes, China was successfully able to learn from the Soviet Union’s mistakes and to become aware of the need to “adapt and change or atrophy and die.” If any lessons are to be learned from the past, however, China’s adaption method is the exception: authoritarians are often drawn to the repressive part of the model while ignoring the technocratic, adaptive element. Some but certainly not all developing countries will be able to follow China’s trajectory. For example, in the past few months, Hugo Chavez has frequently praised the comparative advantages of the Chinese model over the Washington Consensus at the same time that he has ramped up his efforts to curb trade union autonomy and freedom of the press in the country. In addition, Kremlin officials have frequently evoked the Chinese success story to justify Russia’s autocratic policies. In addition to providing these leaders with validation for their despotic ventures, the opportunities the model provides for corrupt practices are extensive, as is evidenced by China’s ranking of 72 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Moreover, it is not just the model in conceptual terms that is a threat to the democratic order, but also China’s means of promoting it. Most notably, China has sought to facilitate the model’s advancement by offering “win-win” economic arrangements to foreign countries and coupling its aid provision with a promise of “non-interference” in domestic affairs. Apart from the African countries listed in our previous post, China has provided unconditional assistance to numerous Latin American countries and several Asian countries, most notably Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, many of which have questionable or downright execrable human rights records. As we noted in our previous post, the negative consequences of providing unconditional aid are a real threat to democratic governance. As Undermining Democracy argues, these arrangements also threaten democratic development on a greater scale. By framing these new economic relationships in “win-win” terms, China seeks to tarnish the legitimacy of the Western development model, and more particularly the traditional Western requirement that aid be conditional upon reform and respect for human rights standards.
Other contemporary authoritarian regimes have used foreign assistance of one sort or another to exert influence. Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, for instance, have used their oil wealth to court developing nations, leading them to ignore governance reform. While these active efforts are providing new competition to reform-based assistance, the authoritarians’ approach is not perfect. As Undermining Democracy notes, China’s increasingly powerful position – and even more so the other states – has its own inherent flaws. The global economic crisis, along with other factors, could hamper its efforts to propel the new model; alternatively, discontent at home could herald a loosening of the authoritarian reins. In any case, 20 years after Tiananmen, the Chinese authorities have modernized their authoritarianism and, for the time being at least, offer a serious challenge to the notion that economic growth in China would inevitably lead to political liberalization and sounder governance.