There's been a lot of bashing of China this election year for unfair trade practices that cost United States' jobs. But there hasn't been much attention to China's human rights record. No one seems to link China's human rights practices and the ability of U.S. exporters to sell goods and services to China or to compete on the global stage. That should change, because advancing human rights in China is a win-win-win: good for the Chinese people, good for the U.S. economy, and essential to China's ability to sustain political stability and economic growth.
The issue of violent forced evictions in China provides a case study in the intersection of rule of law in China and U.S. competitiveness. Amnesty International chronicles the severity of the land crisis in a new report, Standing Their Ground, issued today.
Forced evictions have increased significantly in the past two years as local governments clear the way for development by seizing land at a break-neck pace. Chinese towns, cities, and provinces have borrowed huge sums -- estimates range up to $2 trillion -- from state-owned banks to finance stimulus projects, and now rely heavily on land sales to cover the payments on these loans. In their rush to promote development, many local officials don't have time for niceties like respecting newly established land tenure rights or determining fair compensation for expropriated land.
When the Chinese people stand up for their rights, all too often the official response has harassment, beatings, imprisonment, and even death. Of the 40 forced evictions that Amnesty examined in detail as part of our research, nine culminated in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction. In one case, a 70-year-old woman, Wang Cuiyun, was buried alive by an excavator on March 3, 2010 when a crew of three dozen workers came to demolish her house in Wuhan city, Hubei Province. Others displaced were in such despair they set themselves on fire. Amnesty collected reports of 41 cases of self-immolation from 2009 - 2011 due to forced evictions. That compares to fewer than 10 cases reported in the entire previous decade.
Premier Wen Jiabao has acknowledged the gravity of the situation, and China adopted a few promising reforms last year. The state is now required to pay compensation to displaced homeowners based on the fair market value of their property. The new regulations also outlaw the use of violence to remove people from their homes. But even if these new laws are faithfully implemented, they do not provide adequate legal protections, and in any case apply only to city dwellers.
Sadly, Beijing's priorities are exacerbating, rather than alleviating, the problem. China continues to promote officials who deliver economic growth, regardless of how it is achieved. Land re-development is seen as the most direct path to visible results.
Note to likely future Chinese President Xi Jinping: When the citizens of China feel so aggrieved that they are burning themselves to death, it is long past time to find serious remedies for their grievances.
Why should Americans care? The United States should always be a champion for human rights, but not everyone will find the motive of standing shoulder to should with the people of China, as they strive to defend their rights, compelling. Fortunately, there are more self-interested reasons to give a damn. Factories built on land appropriated below legitimate market rates - like those employing workers denied the right to organize, or those despoiling the environment due to a lack of oversight - enjoy significant cost advantages, undermining the competitiveness of U.S. exporters. Moreover, these human rights abuses make it harder for Chinese workers to claw their way into the middle class, depriving American manufacturers and service providers of the consumers of the future.
Note to U.S. presidential candidates: Next time you're thinking about whether to stand up for human rights in China, just remember, it's all about jobs.
Standing our ground
The Chinese people will control their own fate, but Washington must decide where it stands. When blind human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng eluded the thugs keeping him under virtual house arrest in his native Shandong Province and made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last spring, he became an instant celebrity. Washington's resolute defense of Chen and his basic human rights forced the Chinese government to make a rare public retreat, allowing Chen and his immediate family to come to New York for legal training and much-needed rest. The outcome of the showdown was only a qualified win for Chen. Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, remains in jail with no assurances of due process, and other Chen supporters are still subject to harassment. But the episode nonetheless demonstrates that modest win-win outcomes can be achieved when the U.S. government aligns itself with the Chinese people in their own quest for justice.
At the end of the day, it's not about bashing China. We should take our cue from Tom Petty. It's about standing with the Chinese people as they stand their ground.