Modern China is inherently contradictory. Despite its communist status, the fabulously rich are becoming richer, and consumer and commercial ambitions reign supreme. Comparatively contradictory is China’s attitude towards human rights.
China’s policies regarding freedom of speech and human rights have an erratic history. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 is an infamous example. Under Chairman Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, China became fractionally more liberal and tolerant and some protests became acceptable. For example, after Hu Yaobang, a liberal reformer and the Communist Party’s General Secretary was removed from office and subsequently died, millions of people, mainly students, felt able to protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. However, the Communist Party unexpectedly, considering their recent behaviour, deemed the protests ‘counter-revolutionary’ and deployed almost 300,000 government troops armed with tanks and rifles to shoot thousands of unarmed protesters to death. The suppression of protests and the removal of foreign journalists resumed and became commonplace thereafter.
Today, China’s reactions to freedom of speech and human rights have been equally erratic. As China has become more integrated with global and commercial affairs in recent years, a growing awareness of concepts, such as democracy and human rights, has increased, and fuelled the rise of NGOs and legal human rights organisations. The Communist Party has accepted many, as the government is acutely aware of its inability to provide social services, which many NGOs offer, for China’s vast population.
Some, such as the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counselling and Service Centre, have become firmly established and internationally recognised. For instance, in 1998, Hilary Clinton visited Zhongze, which by then was helping thousands of female victims of sexual assault and migrant workers, and praised the work of Guo Jianmei, an activist-lawyer known as ‘the patron of the weak’ and the founder of Zhongze.
The Communist Party accepted Guo’s legal advocacy work because she had the ability to remain sufficiently moderate. However, since the rise of Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, human rights lawyers, activists and organisations have faced increasing pressure. At the end of January, lawyers, such as Zhao Wei, who is associated with ‘weiquan’, a group of vocal activist lawyers, have begun to disappear. Moreover, just last week, Guo suddenly announced the indefinite closure of Zhongze, citing ‘pressure’ as the cause.
Films, for instance Hooligan Sparrow by Nanfu Wang, a New York based filmmaker, captures the daily pressures of being a human rights activist in China. Stalking, interrogation and attacks can be the norm for not only the activists themselves, but also for journalists and filmmakers such as Wang, who was also followed and interrogated.
Furthermore, despite China’s commercial expansion and increasing presence on the global, diplomatic stage following visits to the United Kingdom and the Middle East, knowledge of the outside world is still tightly controlled. Despite China’s rapid development, its main news show, Xinwen Lianbo, which was first aired in 1978, has barely changed. Reports chronicling the activities of China’s political leaders takes precedence over other news and are accompanied with glimpses into the turbulent world outside China: Racial problems in the US, refugee issues in Europe, and wars and terrorism in the Middle East.
But despite Xi’s clampdown on activism, the advancement of human rights has been allowed to flourish in other areas. Improving the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) peoples has made huge progress in recent years, for example. During the communist revolution, homosexuality was denounced as a form of western decadence and greatly discouraged. In fact, the ministry of health only removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001.
In recent years, China’s media has dramatically increased its reports on LGBT issues. In 2011, a famous news anchor, Qiu Qiming, defied his normal news script to announce his support for LGBT rights. In 2016, the Rainbow Media Awards, which campaigns for the reporting of LGBT rights in China, presented Qiu with its ‘person of the year’ award. Moreover, unlike its first awards ceremony in 2011, all of the winners were present to accept their awards.
The legal rights of LGBT peoples in China have also improved recently. This has been bolstered largely by the increasing ease of suing in China following new legislation released in May 2015. Currently, for instance, a gay couple is suing for the right to marry and a student is fighting to remove the suggestion that homosexuality is a mental disorder in university textbooks.
The liberation of LGBT has aligned with China’s well-reported ‘sexual revolution,’ whereby love hotels are appearing and over 70% of the population claim to have had premarital sex. But once again there is an inherent contradiction in this.
Contraception, other than abortions, is still not encouraged. For example, the sale of condoms in shops in close proximity to universities is limited. Sex education is rarely taught in schools, despite being officially required. A report funded by the UN found that amongst almost 11,000 women aged 15 to 25, only 4% had a good understanding of sexual and reproductive health.
Furthermore, at a grassroots level, the acceptance of homosexuality and general LGBT rights is also questionable. Amongst groups of young people in large cities homosexuality is generally accepted. However, LGBT peoples will generally not expose their sexuality to older generations who are largely far from accepting of LGBT rights.
Overall, China’s growing, global economic prowess and integration with world powers, should not deflect from its increasing suppression of human rights. Even seemingly progressive movements, such as its ‘sexual revolution,’ is often incongruous to what the movement’s title suggests. We have a responsibility to not become distracted by China’s macro developments. Instead, to fully understand China, we must focus on the everyday realities of those living under a tightening and suppressive communist regime.