Communist China’s Painful Human Rights Story
The Chinese Communist Party has used arbitrary detention to maintain power since the People’s Republic of China was founded seventy years ago.
Article by Jerome A. Cohen
Extraordinary preparations are nearly complete for the October 1 military parade to celebrate the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) seventy years ago. Significant precautions have been taken to assure that no untoward event, protest, speech, slogan, or symbol mars the occasion.
China has much to celebrate. After suffering 150 years of humiliation due to internal issues and intrusions by Western powers and Japan, China has again become the dominant power in East Asia and emerged as a world superpower. Most of the country’s 1.4 billion people enjoy the benefits of growing prosperity, including a higher standard of living, improved public health, better education, expanded career options, and increased opportunities for travel. Life for the country’s majority Han ethnic group has stabilized, giving many a feeling of greater personal security.
But almost erased from Chinese public memory is what China suffered to get here. When Chairman Mao Zedong and his comrades seized power in 1949, they initiated decades of loss and pain. In recent years, President Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive policies have reawakened fears that China’s social and economic progress has again come at the cost of individual freedoms and personal security.
A Frightening Founding Era
In the early 1950s, the Chinese Communist Party’s land reform expropriated the property of tens of millions of landlords and terrorized urban capitalists into yielding to the socialist transformation of their enterprises.
During the mid-1950s, it appeared that the party was on a better track, creating a Soviet-influenced legal system that curtailed the use of revolutionary people’s tribunals—kangaroo courts masquerading as legal institutions—and lawless, often violent struggle sessions. But, during the brief Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1957, so many criticisms of the party were voiced that Mao abruptly launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Millions of officials, intellectuals, academics, and legal personnel were sentenced to what the party called reeducation through labor, a supposedly noncriminal detention that involved years of harsh punishment.
That calamitous campaign was soon overtaken by the chaos of a new mass movement, the Great Leap Forward of 1958–61, which plunged the country into economic disaster and starvation, costing at least thirty million lives. As the PRC was finally recovering, in 1966, Mao opened the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which pulverized the nation for a decade and killed an estimated three million people and wrecked the lives of another hundred million. That national nightmare only ended with Mao’s death in 1976 and the eventual rise of Deng Xiaoping, who replaced the chairman’s class struggle with policies that led to the PRC’s impressive economic and social modernization.
Xi’s Detention Regime
Since late 2012, President Xi has built upon what is known as Deng’s Reform and Opening Up, which had dominated Chinese policy for more than three decades. But, taking a chapter from Mao’s book, he has also implemented measures for crushing dissent—mainly through arbitrary detention.
Hundreds of thousands of people throughout China have been arbitrarily detained under Xi, including more than one million Muslims in the Xinjiang region, human rights defenders and lawyers, and several foreigners. They have been deprived of their freedoms of movement and communication without a fair opportunity to challenge these grave restrictions. Detentions are carried out by regular police, secret police, military authorities, and Communist Party officials. Victims are usually held incommunicado, isolated from family, friends, lawyers, and other cellmates for what is frequently a long, indefinite period. At most, some foreigners are entitled to highly restricted consular visits. The duration of detention usually depends on a prisoner’s perceived cooperation.
They experience immense pressure to comply with their captors’ demands. Physical and psychological torture and coerced confessions are routine, and, if considered useful to bolster propaganda, detainees are paraded before the media, sometimes before being formally charged. Even after their formal release, many Chinese remain so restricted that I have termed their plight the non-release release.
Arbitrary detention blatantly violates the PRC’s own domestic legislation. Even under Xi, Chinese reformers have managed to make legislative and institutional improvements regarding some aspects of criminal justice and the broader legal system. In 2014, the Communist Party Central Committee’s plenary session was unprecedentedly devoted to the Xi government’s application of law.
Yet the party’s goal is to better implement dictatorship, not protect human rights. None of the recent “rule by law” rhetoric, reforms on paper, or institutional changes have restricted the party state’s capacity to disappear anyone it deems suspect. Some measures, especially the 2018 constitutional and legislative amendments establishing the National Supervisory Commission—which is more powerful than the country’s courts and prosecutors—have legitimated and vastly enlarged the party’s long-standing detention practices. Arbitrary detention also violates the obligations the PRC has assumed by ratifying multilateral human rights treaties.
The Soft Power Illusion
Beijing is now offering the world’s developing countries a model for modernization, marketing its achievements in a worldwide propaganda effort. But Xi seeks international respect and influence based on more than the PRC’s impressive economic and military power and its hopes to match liberal democracies’ soft power. While those countries’ soft power is often generated by their political and religious freedoms and artistic creativity, the PRC’s might be characterized as “development without democracy,” “authoritarian capitalism,” or, more recently, “technological tyranny.” China not only trails Western countries in conventional soft power, but also lags behind many Asian competitors, including India, Japan, South Korea, and—most galling to Beijing—Taiwan.
The current crisis in Hong Kong demonstrates the biggest obstacle confronting Xi’s quest for soft power. Although protesters’ demands have escalated, at root is their fear of being extradited to the mainland and subjected to the PRC’s unfair criminal justice system. This fear is based on daily reports of the arbitrary detentions of not only mainland citizens but also people from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other jurisdictions, including some who formerly possessed PRC passports.
Practice, not propaganda, is what the world must focus on in assessing the PRC’s soft power pretensions. Mao and Deng differed on many matters, but they both believed that practice is more important than theory. People in Taiwan and Hong Kong already know this and have their own experiences. Taiwanese people now regularly disappear on the mainland and only gradually resurface following international pressure. Hong Kong has long suffered arbitrary detention of its entrepreneurs and others on the mainland. Recently, PRC kidnappings have occurred in Hong Kong itself, as well as in Thailand, and the victims were ethnic Chinese residents who hoped that acquiring foreign nationality might protect them from threats to their freedom. These actions should raise questions about possible collusion between Hong Kong and mainland secret police.
One can only hope that with Hong Kong’s well-publicized struggle, Taiwan’s continuing freedoms, and the pressures of world opinion, before its eightieth anniversary the PRC will bolster its soft power claims by ending the scourge of arbitrary detention.