The Wall Street Journal
September 27, 2010, 3:12 PM HKT
Ask American politicians to explain “human rights” and you’re likely to get the usual litany of time-worn liberal democratic abstractions: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, habeas corpus.
Ask a Chinese politician and you get…car ownership?
In an extensive whitepaper released over the weekend, China’s State Council Information Office argues authorities in Beijing have made significant progress in protecting human rights over the past year. Entitled “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2009 (full text), the paper features a cornucopia of statistics and arguments that throws into stark, and sometimes amusing, relief the different ways Chinese and Western governments define the concept.
Take, for example, the automobile. While few Americans would consider car-ownership a fundamental right, the whitepaper gives it prime billing as a measure of rights protection. In the second paragraph of the first section, “The People Rights to Subsistence and Development,” it notes that car ownership increased 28.6% year-on-year to 31.36 million by the end of 2009, adding that private car ownership had grown even more quickly at 33.8%. The paper returns to the subject in a section on judicial guarantees of rights by highlighting a change to China’s driver’s license law that loosened driving restrictions on people with hearing and physical disabilities.
To the Western reader, the paper comes off less like a human-rights report and more like a summary–packed with numbers and rose-tinted analysis–of the country’s progress in general.
In Section 4 (”Economic, Social and Cultural Rights”), the paper happily notes that in 2009 television broadcasts reached more than 97% of the population. It neglects to mention, however, that virtually all of those broadcasts came from government-run TV stations.
Elsewhere, in a section on civil and political rights, the paper argues that “the Internet is given full scope in China.” While noting that nearly 29% of China’s population, or 384 million people, have access to the Internet, it fails to address blockage of popular online services like YouTube and Facebook or censorship of online news and discussion forums.
Human-rights advocates in the West are less than impressed. In an Associated Press report, Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson calls the paper “at best a missed opportunity and at worst a clumsy whitewash.”
Among the omissions Richardson finds particularly galling is the persecution of dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, the author of a bold pro-democracy manifesto called Charter 08 who was imprisoned last year on charges of subversion.
But China’s leaders have always argued that material rights should take precedence over political rights, a position the whitepaper makes clear on the very first line: “The year 2009 was the most difficult one for China’s economic development since the beginning of the new century.” From there, the paper goes on to document all the government has done in service of its subjects’ economic well-being: Four trillion yuan, or $586 billion, in stimulus; a record grain output of 532 million tons; 9.1% GDP growth. And then there’s this:
In 2009 China appropriated 42 billion yuan for the increase of job opportunities, a rise of 66.7 percent over the previous year. In 2009, 11.02 million new job opportunities were created and 5.14 million laid-off workers were reemployed in urban areas of China; the registered unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in urban areas; the employment rate of that year’s college graduates reached 87.4 percent; and the number of rural migrant workers totaled 145 million, an increase of 4.92 million over the previous year.
While Western leaders aren’t likely to accept car ownership, or even employment rates, as a measure of human-rights progress any time soon, numbers like this could take a little swagger out of the finger-wagging in Washington.