China’s Reform Efforts: Two (Small) Steps Forward and One (Large) Step Back

Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting in April 2013 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.  Image: U.S. Department of State. Experts have avidly discussed the new reform plans announced by the Communist Party since the conclusion of China’s Third Plenum Meeting. Along with projected economic changes that may further liberalize the Chinese market, the most notable reforms include promises to end the notorious “re-education through labor system” (RTL) (laodong gaizao 劳动改造) and modify China’s infamous one-child policy (jihua shengyu计划生育).

These are important promises that should be welcomed by all human rights advocates, though they are, as yet, very small steps. Overshadowing the Third Plenum reforms, however, is a more ominous directive issued by President Xi Jinping last April. In it, the Party stated its resolve to fight against the growth of Western values and the political ideals of individual freedom, ‘universal’ human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Any optimism about China’s commitment to political reform must be weighed against this directive, entitled Document 9.

The issuance of Document 9 is another dark moment for China’s advocates of freedom and reform. It also challenges the United States to regain its footing as an undiluted champion of human rights and democracy in Asia.

The Chinese Communist Party explicitly states within the text of Document 9 that it will remain firmly in control of Chinese society, culture, and politics. This commitment is demonstrated even in light of the heralded reforms of the Third Plenum.

For example, China’s one-child policy was not ended, only expanded to allow couples to have a second child if one of the parents is from single-child families themselves. Make no mistake, this reform will allow millions of couples a chance to have another child, and it was something the majority of the Chinese people wanted. Despite the change, however, the basic assumptions behind the one-child policy remain. The Party will “persist in the basic national policy of birth planning,” allowing government bureaucrats the ability to remain deeply involved in the reproductive choices made by couples. Moreover, questions regarding whether the Ministry of Health will continue to enforce birth quotas by requiring women to take regular gynecological exams, apply for permits before giving birth, agree to sterilization after reaching their birth quota, or force abortions to carry out birth quotas failing voluntary action by women and their partners remain unanswered.

Additionally, promising to abolish the RTL is an important part of several other legal reforms occurring in China—including limiting the number of crimes subject to the death penalty and restricting the use of forced confessions as evidence of guilt at trial. The end of RTL detention has been a top priority of human rights advocates for decades; it was for too long used as a repository for most of China’s petty criminals and to silence political dissent. The problem is, however, that RTL is part of a system of arbitrary detention that also now includes “transformation centers” and “black jails” where the government detains political dissidents, disfavored religious practitioners, including the Falun Gong, and petitioners against political corruption. These individuals are detained for years without trial, and incidents of torture, abuse, and forced labor are often reported.

While promises to dismantle the RTL are an important step, it is unclear whether any real progress is being made in ending a system of arbitrary detention. The main reform here may be that petty criminals will now have regularized trials, sentencing, and detention procedures put in place. While this may be a good thing for China’s pickpockets, it does little to protect China's dissidents and peaceful advocates of reform. Given that the Communist Party feels threatened by a growing list of individuals, groups, movements, and media critical of Party policies and corruption, it is likely that the Chinese government will continue to find ways to silence and punish dissidents.

Document 9 itself warns that the Party risks losing authority unless it addresses “subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.” These include “Western constitutional democracy,” proponents of ‘universal values,’ media independence, civil society development, pro-market “neo-liberalism,” critics of government policies and history, and those who “use religion to divide the country.”

Such fears are not new in China’s recent history. The fight to curtail Western influence—often called “peaceful evolution”—was evident from the early years of Mao Zedong’s rule. Since the break-up of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, and the advance of what the document calls the “color revolutions” of the past decade, the Party’s fear of internal critics appears to have grown faster even than its own economic growth rate.

This fear is the reason Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiabao, Gao Zhisheng, Yang Maodong, Wang Gongquan, and over 200 other human rights, free speech, and democracy advocates have been arrested and detained since 2011. Document 9 is a clear marker that President Xi Jinping will not tolerate dissent or criticism of the Party's leadership.

The United States has clear interests in a China committed to the rule of law, human rights, and political transparency, just as it has interests in building and supporting democratic institutions in East Asia able to resist China's growing power. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration's vaunted 'Asia Pivot' does not truly emphasize these interests, as the policy was primarily introduced to expand U.S. regional military presence and expand a trade zone that will exclude China.

While the Asia Pivot's priorities are surely perceived as threats in Beijing, it is the "war of ideas" that the Party is most concerned about. Even so, the “war of ideas” is where the Obama administration's foreign policy approach is most unclear, and this weakness will not change soon, given President Obama’s recent statement that human rights and democracy are no longer “core” U.S. foreign policy interests.

In effect, the Obama administration's policy does not prioritize support for those in China advocating for greater freedoms and political reforms. Hopefully, it will expand its current vision of the ‘Asia Pivot’ policy soon if it seeks to encourage the types of reforms in China that both serve U.S. interests and reflect the desires of the Chinese people for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.