Despite Flaws, Rights in China Have Expanded

Copyright The New York Times
August 2, 2008
SHANGHAI — For the past two decades, China’s people became richer but not much freer, and the Communist Party has staked its future on their willingness to live with that tradeoff.
New flexibility in rules that dictate where people live has allowed Song Daqing to escape poverty in Sichuan to sell vegetables in Shanghai.
That, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But as the Olympic Games approach, training a spotlight on China’s rights record, that view obscures a more complex reality: political change, however gradual and inconsistent, has made China a significantly more open place for average people than it was a generation ago.
Much remains unfree here. The rights of public expression and assembly are sharply limited; minorities, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang Province, are repressed; and the party exercises a nearly complete monopoly on political decision making.
But Chinese people also increasingly live where they want to live. They travel abroad in ever larger numbers. Property rights have found broader support in the courts. Within well-defined limits, people also enjoy the fruits of the technological revolution, from cellphones to the Internet, and can communicate or find information with an ease that has few parallels in authoritarian countries of the past.
“Some people will tell you, look at the walls, and say they are still pretty high, while others will tell you that there is a lot of space between the walls,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China specialist at Human Rights Watch. “Both things are true.”
Chinese who try to challenge the one-party state directly say authorities are no more tolerant of dissent than they were in the 1980s, and in some cases they are tougher on citizen-led campaigns to enforce legal rights or stop environmental abuses.
On the other hand, the definition of what constitutes a political challenge has changed. Individuals are far less likely to run afoul of a system that no longer demands conformity in political views or personal lifestyles.
The shift toward a more diverse society helps explain some anomalies in perceptions of life inside China. Amnesty International, the human rights group, reported this week that the rights situation had deteriorated significantly in the months before the Olympics despite China’s pledges to improve its record as a condition for hosting the games.
But a survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project this spring and issued last month found that an astounding 86 percent of Chinese said they were content with their country’s direction, double the percentage who said the same thing in 2002. Only 23 percent of Americans polled in the survey said they were satisfied with their country’s direction.
The speeches of China’s leaders, with their gray imagery and paternalistic phrasings, have changed relatively little, emphasizing unity, harmony and economic growth under party rule. The reality on the ground, though, has been transformed, partly because a more dynamic economy necessitates a more dynamic society, partly because money gives people options they did not have when they were poor.
Arguably the most dramatic change in the freedoms enjoyed by most Chinese has been the gradual erosion of a population registration system that tied people to their places of birth, preventing internal migration or, at its height, even tourism.
China has not formally abandoned the system, known as hukou, and it can still prove a nuisance. But as hundreds of millions of people have moved from the inland provinces to wealthier coastal cities in search of economic opportunity, authorities in one place after another have found themselves making concessions to this new reality.
Song Daqing, who lives in a single-room home here with his wife and three children, counts himself as a beneficiary of these changes. Born into poverty in Sichuan Province, he worked as a cattle herder, bricklayer and coal miner, earning as little as 60 cents a day before coming to Shanghai in 1998. His early years in this city were marked by frequent mass roundups of migrants by the police, and he was twice held in crowded detention centers before being expelled from the city.
“Now we all have residence permits,” said Mr. Song, who supports his family by selling vegetables. “The police don’t check our paperwork anymore, and even if they found you without a permit, they won’t arrest you, but rather would suggest you get one as soon as possible.”
Reality Trumps Ideology
The relative flexibility the government has shown in allowing this to happen is more a matter of pragmatism than any overt ideological shift, a grudging concession to economic reality.
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