Engagement and Human Rights in China
With the great advancement of China’s economy and foreign trade relations within the last twenty years, one cannot help notice a simultaneous increase in Chinese human rights. Naturally, the question of whether the rights have stemmed from trade relations or the trade relations have developed out of greater human rights in China has come up for debate. The prevalent view of the country’s stance is that foreign nations’ humanitarian concerns for China have resulted from the obligations of all the investors in China. In other words, the human rights issue has been used as a bargaining chip by other countries after developing a strong economic tie. China has considered the fulfillment of basic economic needs a priority over the amendment of human rights abuses. This position has allowed China to further its economic ties, but at the same time, has allowed for neglect in the human rights sector that China still struggles to overcome.
China has spent over twenty years focused on its goal of building a strong economy. The drive for economic growth replaced the revolutionary zeal advocated for so long by Mao Zedong, and obvious changes have resulted from this new motivation. Despite the instability of the first few years after 1979, a cautious economic optimism has prevailed. The huge trade deficits of 1981 and 1982 have led to some conscious efforts in the early 1980s at strengthening the economy–namely, a cut back on investments, a termination of expensive foreign contracts, a slimming of the domestic budget, and a replacement of the trade deficit by strong export policies. These early actions helped prompt a trade surplus of $6.2 billion in 1982 and $5.3 billion in 1983 (Spence 663). Also, China’s potential for trade relations was evident by a total foreign investment of $910 million in 1983 and $1.05 billion in international loans (Spence 668). In the beginning of the 1980s, China already showed dedication to its new goal of economic growth, and began achieving it through international trade relations.
As China has made greater advancements in trade relations, human relations have begun to have more weight. George Koo says it outright: “Economic reform has been the driving force . . . accompanied by widespread social and political changes” (161). The emergence of elections is one of the most obvious signs of this progress. Local villages have held elections in recent years, in the country where the bulk of China’s population, 75%, lives. The elections may grow to be held at the township and county level in the future. The growing inclusion of the rural population in the democratic process signifies the increasing acceptance of human rights that has come with trade relations (Koo 161).
The heavy stakes in China by foreign nations has also led to laws protecting human rights that would in turn protect their investments. Laws and regulations concerning foreign-owned ventures have been created as a result of the joint ventures with foreign countries. At the same time, new civil and criminal laws have also been formulated to safeguard intellectual property. China even has the distinction of being the only country besides the U.S. that hears class action suits. The impact of trade relations on human rights in China is evidenced by the growth of the legal system in China.
The joint ventures with Western nations that helped create laws in China also fostered feelings of moral obligation that have prompted change. Exposure to American business ethics has influenced many Chinese, including those working abroad, to carry those morals and practices over into the business world and into daily life. The “typical U.S. egalitarian attitude, concerns for the environment, views on equal opportunity, sense of fair play, and respect for due process” have all injected a bit of the West into Chinese beliefs (Koo 162).
Human rights through academic freedom have also advanced as a result of foreign trade relations. The voice of the Chinese intellectual can be heard clearly through all sorts of creative expressions, as long as it does not challenge the premises and rulers of the Communist party. The people can publish books out of favor with the government and independent studies and papers without much fear. Songs are filled with protest lyrics. Village elections enable citizens to oust leaders from office without much fuss. The growing acceptance of the intellectual voice has come about through China’s trade connections (Burstein and de Keijzer 126).
While making many important advancements in human rights, China still has far to go. Trade relations have forced the acceptance of civil liberties and even opened up China to new ideas. At the same time, China lacks the standards that would rid it of human rights concerns. The existence of thousands of political prisoners, suppression of full religious, intellectual, and political freedom proves the distance that China has to go in improving human rights. If China continues to accept the influence of foreign nations that have trade interests, it may be able to create even further progress for human rights.
Burstein, Daniel and Arne de Keijzer. “The ‘Chinese Threat’ is Overblown.” Global
Studies: China. ed. Suzanne Ogden. Guilford: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Koo, George. “The Real China: A Firsthand Perspective on Human Rights in Today’s
China.” Global Studies: China. ed. Suzanne Ogden. Guilford: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1999. 159-162.
Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton
& Company, 1999.