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Assessing Human Rights in China: Why the Double Standard


China is often singled out as one of worst human rights violators in the world today. On the other hand, the Chinese government regularly issues reports chock-full of statistics showing considerable progress on a wide variety of fronts, and proudly claims that Chinese citizens enjoy more rights than ever before. While not denying that much remains to be done, the government maintains its critics are biased, human rights are being misused for political purposes, and China is being subject to a double standard. Many Chinese citizens feel the same way.

The very fact that government leaders and Chinese citizens feel China is being held to double standards, whether or not it is true, has several negative consequences for human rights. Beijing has been reluctant to allow visits by inspectors from the U.N. or other countries, and has imposed restrictions on their visits. In response to the annual U.S. State Department report, China now issues its own critical report on the rights situation in the U.S. In addition, China has cancelled bilateral dialogues on human rights and programs on rule of law in response to the attempts to censure it in Geneva.

The public’s support for international reform efforts has also been weakened. Many citizens are suspicious about the motives of NGOs. Public opinion about America, seen as the leader of Western critics, has undergone a dramatic shift in the last twenty years, from wildly supportive to highly critical.

Is China subject to a double standard? I argue based on comparative empirical studies of rights performance that it is, and offer several explanations why. Part I provides a brief overview of China’s official policy on human rights and China’s involvement in international human rights regime.

Part II examines how China does relative to other countries, particularly other countries at its income level, in physical integrity rights, civil and political rights, social and economic rights; quality of governance; law and order and social stability; women’s rights; and cultural or minority rights. While China scores well below the average in its lower middle income category on civil and political rights, it outperforms the average country in its income class on virtually all other indicators, supporting the claim that China is subject to a double standard.

Part III considers several reasons why China seems to be held to a higher standard than other countries. Some critics argue the attention paid to China is warranted because, given China’s huge population, addressing problems in China will benefit so many people. However, India has a population nearly as large as China. And yet, despite a human rights record that falls short of China’s on most indicators, India has not received anywhere near as much critical scrutiny as China.

A second, more likely explanation is that the international human rights community remains biased toward civil and political rights, the area in which China is the weakest.

Third, and related, non-democratic countries are held to higher standards than democratic countries.

Fourth, China is singled out because of its geopolitical importance. For some, China has assumed the role played by Russia during the Cold War – the evil empire that must be opposed at every turn.

Fifth, China presents a normative challenge to the human rights regime. As suggested by the debate over Asian values, China is likely to take advantage of its growing economic and geopolitical influence to defend and advocate rights policies and normative vision of the world at odds with current rights policies based on secular liberalism even in the face of Western opposition.

Sixth, much of the reporting on China by the general media and human rights monitors tends to focus on particular horrific cases of human rights violations that are not representative of the system as a whole. This creates a mistaken impression of how serious the problems are.

On the other hand, the government’s lack of transparency, combined with the egregious nature of some violations, leads people to suspect the worse, and fuels images of China as a repressive totalitarian state.

Part IV concludes with a brief discussion of the benefits of avoiding a double standard.

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