Skip to main content

China is not ending its human rights abuses

By Steve Tsang
November 19, 2013 -- Updated 1810 GMT (0210 HKT)
A paramilitary policeman stands before a portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
A paramilitary policeman stands before a portrait of Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Tsang: It's good that China ending one-child policy and system of labor camps
  • He says it would be naive to think that this will erase human rights problems
  • He says the changes do not include outlawing other serious abuses
  • Tsang: Changes are meant to reduce objections to rule of the party

Editor's note: Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute and professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.

(CNN) -- President Xi Jinping made a splash by announcing that China will ease its one-child policy and end its notorious policy of re-education through labor camps.

This is good news and represents an important step forward in reducing human rights abuses. But it would be naive to think this effort will seriously address the human rights problems in China.

If human rights were the primary concern, more specific actions would have been taken. Xi and the Communist Party have other priorities.

Steve Tsang
Steve Tsang

Under the new family planning policy, couples will be able to have two children if one spouse is an only child. Until now, both spouses need to be only children or they must be from the ethnic minorities to be allowed to have two children. This is a modest change that will mainly benefit the upwardly mobile middle class living in cities.

The easing of the one-child policy cannot end the main abuses associated with it since it does not put an end to forced termination of unauthorized pregnancies, even at very late term. Nor does it remove power from the local authorities in enforcing the one-child policy, who have regularly been responsible for abuses.

The changes introduced are meant to deal with the projected decline in population, which would threaten China's capacity to sustain its economic growth. They're also meant to lessen the burden on the state in looking after the aging population before China becomes wealthy enough to handle the demands of its "pensioners."

Why did China ease its one-child policy?
Impact of China easing 'one child' policy
What does China's announcement mean?

The abolishment of the system of "re-education through labor" camps is a much more significant move.

The existing policy gives local law enforcement agencies the power to detain "undesirables" -- people who are considered social misfits, prostitutes or troublemakers for authorities. The government can jail these people for several years and force them to work at next to no wage -- all without going through the judicial process and without receiving a conviction. There is absolutely no place for such a policy in any country in the 21st century. It's about time that China do away with it.

However, if the Communist Party were committed to tackle human rights abuses, it would have also outlawed other similar practices.

Many of those jailed in labor camps are individuals who had grievances and tried to seek redress. Some of them were simply petitioners. They were deemed by local authorities to have challenged their power, or they were seen as destabilizing elements in society.

Unless the practice of putting petitioners in "black jails" (informal detention facilities) is abolished, ending the labor camps will have limited effect in reducing human rights abuses. There is no indication other similarly repressive measures will be terminated.

What the party will achieve is removing a source of discontent toward the government. By doing so, Xi projects himself as a reformer who is going beyond where his predecessors were willing to do.

But so far, he has done nothing to allow ordinary citizens to challenge the Communist Party's monopoly of power in any way, or acknowledge that the rights of dissidents or petitioners must be protected.

What is obvious with these Xi reforms is that they are really meant for one purpose only. It is to strengthen the capacity of the Communist Party to govern more effectively and to reduce the reasons for the Chinese population to find the party's rule objectionable.

These changes will not alter the nature of the political system at all. China's political system is anti-democratic in nature and is first and foremost dedicated to keeping the Communist Party in power.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Tsang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT