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Justice in China: common ground to discuss rights

As Xiaoyu Pu says, human rights is no longer a taboo issue in China; justice never was. Discussing justice allows us to talk about the sort of issues that the rights discourse was meant to grapple with, but in a way which steers clear of cultural and value issues. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Kerry Brown
9 October 2013

There is an industry of analysts, academics, consultants and others who have prospered around the stated cultural and value differences between, in particular, China and Europe or North America. In the last few decades, as China has become more open to the outside world after the period of Maoist introspection and self-harm, this industry has burgeoned. There are official government to government Human Rights Dialogues between China, centres in China and elsewhere that specialize in this debate, and track two level supportive dialogues, one of which I attended in late 2011 supported by the EU in Beijing.

After so much talk, and so many discussions, it is pretty clear that everyone involved in these dialogues, government or otherwise, has a pretty good idea of what the other side thinks. The bottom line is that they just don’t, on some core issues, agree with each other. And it is clear that if these debates were ever structured with the intention of changing anyone’s mind, that possibility has long since passed.

Rather than insitutionalising our disagreements with each other, so the bad blood only deepens every time we sit around the table to discuss values and rights, maybe the smarter option now is to talk about what we evidently do agree on. The whole discourse of sustainability inside and outside China, a critical part of this government’s plans to guide China to middle income status by 2020, is predicated on justice – more equitable sharing or resources, more efficiency in government decision making, more sharing of decision making between different constituencies in the public and the complex elites that have influence in contemporary China.

Delivering justice in China is becoming more important, at a time when citizens are more vocal through social media, better informed and much more expectant towards what the government at local and national level gives them. The era of sacrifice and suffering to make China prosperous is slowly coming to an end. Now China is wealthier and more developed, the demands of its vast and complex citizenship are becoming increasingly hard for government to satisfy.

In an odd way, there is some kind of synergy between this situation in China and the evident increased frustration by western electorates in the government choices they are given and the inability of those they elect to do a good job. The US government shut down from October is the starkest illustration of sophisticated, extremely well funded and participatory dysfunctional government. This is not a value judgment, but to even the most ardent supporter of hard won democratic process and the rights it delivers, there seem no easy options at the moment. Governance everywhere, no matter what the income level of the country, is becoming tougher and tougher. And even the most liberal Chinese official would look around the world and see no easy models that a reforming China might start to implement.

China has to reform; everyone knows this. The issue is how, in what direction, and towards what end. The outside world has a chance to engage in a more profound debate with China over the nature of this reform, and the ideas that might work. Doing this external persuasion on China in a morally haughty, hectoring, superior way has been tried, and has evidently not worked. But getting down to details has some traction. There is a critical lack of justice in China, testified to by the large numbers of public protests, the high levels of petitions and the daily evidence of anger and public dissatisfaction with issues like land rights, pension provision, food contamination and party official corruption.

The Chinese government’s inability to keep up with the justice agenda has a price tag. In 2012, at the National People’s Congress, the internal security budget was revealed to be USD111 billion, $5 billion more than for national defence. This is a huge amount to pay to control people’s anger at the ways in which they have been treated. Even a government as wealthy now as China’s will have to rethink how it does things when it looks at what the costs of this are. The social resentment derived from this rough treatment is incalculable. China may or may not be `unhappy’, as one book published in Beijing in 2009 said, but it is certainly angry.

No one gets delivery of justice completely right. But in Europe and America there is rich experience in how to set up, fund and run a justice system. Lots of mistakes have been made, and many things learned. But the different justice systems here, for all their faults, are widely admired in China. Chinese delegations frequently come and look at how they operate, and Chinese scholars study them closely. When we discuss justice with each other, we are often talking about just the sort of issues that the rights discourse referred to above were meant to grapple with, but in a way which steers clear of cultural and value issues, and gets to the core issue of how citizens who feel they have been wronged, wherever they are, feel they can seek mediation and correction.

Justice in China is something Chinese and concerned outsiders should support. And discussing justice is a good way to get us all closer to the issues we want to discuss, but often now feel that we can’t. As Xiaoyu Pu says, human rights is no longer a taboo issue in China; justice never was. This gives us a way of speaking more deeply and meaningfully to each other, and actually coming away with all sides feeling they have learned and achieved something.  

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