Until the time of the “Open Door” policy, the Chinese people lived according to the motto, “Do what the people upstairs let you do.” For the ordinary Chinese, how to live and work was all decided by the government. Individuals had no power of self-determination; they were mere instruments to carry out the political objectives of the party and the government. To the average Chinese, their will, opinions and rights did not even come into consideration in their day-to-day living. Common sense and experience told them that it would be wiser to build relationships with those “upstairs” than to fight for one’s rights.
As the market economy gradually took hold in China, moderation and the boundaries of acceptable behavior began to be influenced by the rule of law, particularly with relationships in the economic domain. Law became an important part of the daily life of the Chinese. Free competition, within the boundaries of the law, not only spurred the development of the economy, but it also stirred the consciousness of the rights of the consumers and spurred the protection of these rights. This became an important part of the daily life of the Chinese. Of course, this consciousness was driven by profits and losses which was obvious for everyone to see. The “protection of the rights of consumers” movement was felt deeply by everyone since each individual, in the final analysis, is a consumer. So for the Chinese, the inroad to the protection of human rights was the protection of the rights of consumers.
However, in other areas such as speech, press, religion and establishing social organizations, the situation remained not much different from that of twenty years priorrights were nonexistent. From a legal standpoint, individuals had little freedom in these areas. When contradictions arose that were outside the boundaries of the economy, rule of law was nonexistent, and decisions were basically carried out by officials according to rules laid down by the party or the government. Everybody had to follow party leadership.
Occasionally some officials would, for whatever reason, do something beneficial for the citizens at large. However, most of the time, individuals seldom enjoyed the rights promised by the constitution in the domains unrelated to the economy.
After many failed attempts to obtain human rights, people began to wish for some “heavenly boss” figure who would truly work for the people with integrity and fairness. Many Chinese movies and dramas depicted such figureheads and expressed the people’s wishful thinking. Since they felt that they could never obtain human rights, the people were willing to put their hope in a person and basically yield their individual rights to the good consciences of some officials. The quality of their lives would then depend on certain officials rather than on law and the system in place.
Today, the Chinese people’s understanding of human rights is changing in a significant way. They have begun to realize that human rights and their protection have to be demanded by the citizens themselves. Since enjoying the protection of their consumer rights, the people have begun to appreciate the notion that protection can only come from the rule of law and not from any man. This must be the bedrock of any modern society.
Lately, there have been some successful efforts in demanding individual rights. During the SARS rampage in 2003, Dr. Jiang, of Beijing, stood up and declared that the people had a right to know the true situation. This had the effect of changing the government’s handling of the crisis and broadened the scope of media coverage saving lives in the process. Soon after, some people in the legal profession spoke up for the rights of human freedom and freedom of movement after Mr. Sun, a college graduate working in Guangzhou, was wrongfully detained and placed in a custody and repatriation center. He was beaten to death there while his trial was pending. After Sun’s death, Internet users engaged in a very heated discussion protesting the arbitrary custody and repatriation process where public security officials would detain migrants, and then ship them back to their home areas. As a result of the large public outcry over this death and the courageous actions of these law professionals, the State Council convened a cabinet meeting and revoked the custody and repatriation regulations.
In June 2003, some people from private, nongovernmental circles attended a meeting in Qingdao to discuss possible amendments to the Constitution, especially with regard to noneconomic issues. Speeches suggesting over twenty amendments covered freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion along with other vague statements related to the basic rights of individuals. The protection of private property ownership topped the list of recommended amendments. Early in 2004, at the National Peoples Congress, an agreement was made to incorporate into the Constitution two of the items that were discussed at the Qingdao meeting, namely the protection of ownership of private property and a general pledge to guarantee human rights. The Qingdao meeting was the first successful public attempt to seek comprehensive political-legal reforms that would protect individual rights.
Within the religious domain, religious adherents have begun to seek protection of their rights through the legal process, addressing issues such as recovery of property, wider scope of religious activities, greater access to the media, permission to construct new religious facilities and more lenient conditions for registration. These efforts are beginning to draw the attention of lawyers and the legislature, as well as the religious affairs bureau. The right to believe and to practice one’s belief has been shifted from a political issue to a human rights issue.
Any change in China would require a lengthy process given that China is a large country of 1.3 billion people. However, as long as human rights are considered to be gifts from the government, any laws that are enacted will reflect the will of the ruling party and not necessarily that of the people. Legislation coming from the bottom up by the people would make a significant change in this current model of top-down power concentration. This means that every effort from individuals to secure human rights would be valuable and meaningful, and such effort should be supported and encouraged. Activities to secure human rights in various domains should continue to provide more openness and more governing by law. China has hope as long as efforts from the people continue to come forth.
Huo Shui is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. Translation is by Nelson Cao.