China Puts 'Human Rights' Into Constitution

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - For the first time since the Communists took power in 1949, China's rubber-stamp parliament has agreed to include in the constitution a vague reference to human rights.

The 2,900-member National People's Congress (NPC), endorsing decisions already taken in private by party chiefs months ago, on Sunday okayed 13 changes to the constitution, including one saying, without elaboration, that "the state respects and preserves human rights."

Another change for the first time recognized legally-acquired private property, and stipulated that the state would give compensation when property is confiscated.

Although this is the first time China's constitution has included a reference to human rights, other important official documents have done so for more than a decade, with little sign of improvements in practice.

Western government and rights campaigners frequently criticize Beijing for violating such basic rights as freedom of expression, association and religion.

In 1997, a formal document presented at the Communist Party's national congress said the party ensured "that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedom endowed by law."

Six years before that, a government White Paper called human rights "a long-cherished ideal of mankind" and "a noble goal as required by China's socialism."

A lengthy opinion piece in the official People's Daily Sunday said that, with the publication of that 1991 document, "the banner of human rights was thus held aloft confidently and firmly, and China gained the initiative in the international struggle for human rights."

Although almost 4,000 words long, the People's Daily article, published to coincide with the NPC decisions, did not specify what Beijing means by rights.

It used adjectives such as "extensive," "complete" and "democratic" to define rights, but said nothing about Chinese individuals enjoying the specific right to associate, worship or express themselves freely.

Nevertheless, the opinion piece did acknowledge that cases of rights violations had occurred "from time to time, causing serious harm to the nation's image."

It did not give examples, but the most notorious instance of rights violations in recent Chinese history was the 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Thousands of people are believed to have died when the government sent in the army to crush the protests.

A Chinese surgeon who made headlines last year for criticizing the government's secretive approach to the SARS virus outbreak, circulated an open letter several weeks ago urging senior leaders to declare that the handling of the Tiananmen Square situation had been wrong.

At a press conference Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao was asked about the open letter, but gave no sign that the government intended to relent for what Chinese media euphemistically call the "the 1989 incident."

Without referring to Tiananmen Square, Wen said that "a severe political storm occurred in China in the late 1980s" and spoke of "a crucial juncture bearing on the country's destiny" - an apparent reference to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The Communist Party had acted to maintain unity and social and political stability, the premier said, adding that unity and stability were his overriding concerns.

Interestingly, Wen himself had a controversial role during the Tiananmen crisis.

He was head assistant at the time to the then Communist Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who went to the square - accompanied by Wen - to speak to the protestors.

Zhao was purged days later for insubordination, and placed under house arrest.

Despite his close association with Zhao, Wen's political career survived and he went on to become premier late last year.


China's human rights record has long been a sensitive subject in bilateral relations with the U.S.

When the State Department late last month released its yearly report on human rights around the world, it said rights in China had deteriorated during 2003.

The report said democracy activists, Christians, journalists and labor protestors had been arrested, adherents of the Falun Gong meditation movement had been persecuted, and the rights of Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs had been abused.

China shot back with a retaliatory report accusing the U.S. of abuses and slamming its foreign policies.

The State Department has yet to confirm whether the U.S. will, after a two-year hiatus, once again sponsor a resolution at the annual United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) session in Geneva, censuring Beijing for its rights record.

Each time the U.S. has done so, China has in turn gathered enough support from developing countries to avoid having the resolution considered or brought to a vote.

The House of Representatives passed a resolution by 402 votes to two earlier this month, urging the Administration to sponsor and aggressively pursue a China resolution at the 2004 session.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has also urged the UNHRC gathering to condemn China for "violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, religion and belief, repression of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang and violations of the right to non-discrimination for people living with HIV/AIDS."

The Geneva session begins Monday and runs through April 23.

Meanwhile, reports of rights infringements continue.

The campaign group Human Rights in China says that, in the days leading up to the ten-day NPC session, Beijing police detained, placed under house arrest or restricted the movements of several hundred people, including dissidents, house church leaders and individuals wanting to petition the NPC.

"The intention to introduce human rights into the constitution will mean nothing unless the government can demonstrate that it recognizes and genuinely respects the concept," said the Hong Kong-based organization's president, Liu Qing.

See earlier story:
China-US Spat over Human Rights Comes Ahead of Geneva Session (March 02, 2004)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow