Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-CHINA: Path to Modernisation Disastrous – Charter 08

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Feb 9 2009 (IPS) - When China’s human rights record comes up for review before a key United Nations panel on Monday, this nominally communist country will have two contrasting accounts of its human rights situation.

A report submitted by the government appraises human rights progress in China as a continuous improvement of people’s living standards and their economic betterment.

The enormous reduction in poverty the country has made over the past decades is highlighted as the core of its human rights achievements. "The Chinese people who once lacked basic necessities, are now enjoying relative prosperity," the document states.

But a petition signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals, ordinary people and even some government officials, calls the world’s attention to China’s lack of human rights, claiming "the decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional".

"The Chinese government’s approach to modernisation has proven disastrous," the manifesto titled ‘Charter 08’ says. "It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century?"

Inspired by Charter 77, a plea to the communist government of the former Czechoslovakia to respect basic human rights – made by that country’s intellectuals in January 1977- China’s charter was released online on Dec.10th on the 60th anniversary of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has since been signed by more than 4,000 people.

A trio of countries – Canada, Nigeria and India – has been chosen to scrutinise China’s human rights record and hear the attacks on Beijing’s rights abuses and its defence.

The U.N. periodic human rights reviews were initiated by the U.N. Human rights Council in 2007 and are meant to ensure all U.N. members are accountable for human rights abuses in their territories.

But few ordinary people here are aware of the hearings taking place today in Geneva. State-sanctioned press has reported little on the human rights review process and authors of the government’s report have solicited little public input.

"One of the positive aspects of this process is to push governments to engage seriously with domestic NGOs and activists in preparation of their U.N. submissions," says Roseann Rife of Amnesty International.

"By not doing so, China has lost an important opportunity to tackle the country’s serious human challenges," she adds.

Rights groups say the government’s submission to the U.N. panel is a whitewash.

China’s 20-page report omits a series of issues that have continuously sparked criticism around the world. These include the crackdown in Tibet, the harsh treatment of the Uighurs, China's ethnic Muslim population, media censorship or the ongoing persecution of various religious practitioners, including Falun Gong members.

Responding to criticism, foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said at a news briefing last week that China "has always respected and protected human rights".

"It is normal that countries would have differences of opinion on human rights issues and we hope, on the basis of dialogue, to narrow our differences and expend our consensus", Jiang said. Beijing hopes its record will be considered "fairly and objectively", she added.

Dissent to government views on human rights though has been smothered inside the country. The dissemination of the politically sensitive Charter 08 has been banned and scores of the original 303 signatories to the document have been summoned to demand their retraction.

"As U.N. members prepare to debate China’s rights record, they should remember that this opportunity is one chronically denied to the vast majority of Chinese people," says Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

The house arrest of Liu Xiaobo, a prominent literary critic and government critic, believed to be a main force behind Charter 08, has internationalised the domestic call for democratic reforms.

Late December, foreign intellectuals, including Nobel Prize winning writers Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka and Seamus Heaney, sent a joint letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, calling for Liu’s release.

Unnervingly for China’s leaders, Charter 08 links the 1989 Tiananmen "massacre of pro-democracy student protesters" with China’s failure to live up to the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The signatories are calling for an end to one-party authoritarian rule and laying out a vision for a rights-based society where leaders of all levels of government are elected, peasants enjoy the same rights as city-dwellers and freedoms of speech, expression and religion are protected.

"The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change," the charter says.

Authorities are especially touchy this year as it marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, as well as sensitive anniversaries for Tibetans and Falun Gong adherents.

The communist leadership is worried that the worst economic downturn in two decades and rising unemployment could spark massive social unrest that would threaten its monopoly on power.

"The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave," public security minister Meng Jianzhu reportedly warned China’s leaders in January, according to state media.

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