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George Washington University Law School

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

CECC releases 2010 annual report on human rights and the rule of law in China

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China has released its annual report; it's available in PDF format here.

The CECC has developed a reputation for doing solid, carefully sourced work, and this report is no exception. Of course, if you disagree with the basic premise that a government should be in the business of producing this kind of report about what goes on in other countries - a premise that the Chinese government apparently supports, by the way - then you won't like this report, but I don't see it making wild and unsubstantiated claims. (I confess I have not read every line carefully.)

The report makes an important observation worth quoting in full:

Chinese officials appear to have adopted a new rhetorical strategy with respect to China’s compliance with international norms. In the past, Chinese officials often argued that it was necessary to carve out exceptions and waivers to the application of international norms to China. While stating their embrace of international norms in the abstract, for example, on free expression and the environment, they sought to make the case that, in practice, China deserved to be treated as an exception, due, for instance, to its status as a developing country. Now, however, official statements increasingly tend to declare the Chinese government’s compliance with international norms, even in the face of documented noncompliance.

This rings true to me. Take the example of black jails (illegal detention facilities for petitioners). It's not a state secret that these exist, and there is plenty of material on black jails not just in the more daring Chinese media outlets, but even in outlets under pretty tight control (e.g., the People's Daily Online site). In November 2009, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, "I can assure you that there are no so-called black jails in China." Earlier that year, Southern Weekend had reported about a case of rape in a black jail, and a Beijing court was trying the accused at the very moment Qin Gang was making his statement. The China Daily was happy to use the term "black jail" in its report on the incident. And just a few days after Qin Gang made his statement, Oriental Outlook magazine, published by the official news agency, Xinhua, produced an investigative report on black jails. So we are not exactly talking about slanders cooked up by hostile foreign forces here. But instead of arguing that China is different, or that the West is imposing its values on China, the government has adopted a strategy of simple denial.

This is going to pose some problems for Western apologists for the government's human rights record, who until now have talked about China's right to be different, cultural imperialism, etc. It's going to be a lonely journey on the S.S. Cultural Relativism now that even the Chinese government has apparently jumped ship.

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