To many Westerners, the concept of human rights in China is a negative one. However, what is left unexplained by China’s critics is a paradox: How could a country with one-fifth of the world’s population but no human rights to speak of have made such enormous strides in its economic and social development? The real picture of China’s human rights situation is more complex than what stereotypes and assumptions convey. Understanding the truth requires an appreciation of China’s history and national aspirations.
Since 1840, for more than a century, China was ravaged by the aggression of Western powers, warlord fighting, and a civil war. For a starving, downtrodden people in a war-torn country, “human rights” were a luxury. Seventy years ago, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, the average life expectancy in China was only 35. In such dire times, ensuring the survival of its people was China’s imperative, and this guided policy for the past 70 years. Without assuring the right to survival and development, other rights are castles in the air.
The results of our hard work are indisputable. China’s life expectancy reached 77 in 2018, higher than the world average of 72. In the last 40 years, over 740 million people have been lifted out of poverty, accounting for over 70% of the world’s total population lifted from poverty, an accomplishment applauded by the World Bank as “the fastest rate of poverty reduction ever recorded in human history.” Further, China has put in place the world’s largest networks of education, social security, medical care, and community-level democracy.
“Respecting and protecting human rights” has been included in the Constitutions of China and the Communist Party of China, and the various strategies guiding national development. Indeed, the expansion and protection of human rights has become an important principle of governance for the Party and the Chinese government.
The assumption that China is not a democracy reflects a large misunderstanding. Democracy is a means to deliver a happy life to the people by constantly improving the governance of the country and society. For decades, China has been committed to upholding the Party’s leadership, ensuring that the people run the country and practice law-based governance. The people can have their voices heard in local and state affairs and can freely claim their rights. Anti-corruption campaigns have been successful. State power is now exercised with checks and balances, and the people enjoy higher standards of living. Indeed, it is those countries who masquerade as democracies but flout the will of the people who should think about the condition of their democracy.
Citizens’ right to vote, freedom of speech, and freedom of religious belief are well protected by China’s Constitution. An election system with both direct and indirect election is practiced. Leaders are elected from the rank and file, with the participation of the whole population in various forms, so they are keenly attuned to the people’s wants. This is democracy in both name and nature.
We have over 800 million netizens, and people can speak freely on a wide range of conventional and new media platforms. Of course, law-breaking, hateful or inciteful comments are prohibited, as is the case in most other countries.
The Chinese people also enjoy the freedom of religion. There are nearly 200 million worshippers, over 380,000 religious personnel, and 144,000 legally-registered houses of worship in China. Tibet alone has 1,778 venues for practicing Tibetan Buddhism, with some 46,000 resident monks and nuns, and Xinjiang has 24,400 mosques, which means one mosque for every 530 Muslims, a higher rate than most Muslim countries.
Speaking of the “Xinjiang issue”, a so-called stain on China’s human rights record recently hyped up by some ill-informed or even ill-intentioned people, is not an issue about human rights or religion at all. Since the 1990s, Xinjiang has been a victim of the same rampant terrorism and religious extremism that has plagued the whole world. We have endured thousands of violent terrorist attacks.
To bring the situation under control, the government has taken a comprehensive approach, focusing on preventive measures, including establishing vocational education and training centers, to help misdemeanants misguided by extremism to learn the country’s common language and law, and acquire employable skills. These measures have worked — there have been no violent terrorist attacks in Xinjiang for 28 months. What we are doing is protecting human rights at every level.
As we Chinese often say, only the wearer knows if his shoes fit or not. China’s development philosophy is people-centered. Pay a visit to China, and you will see the people are leading happy lives. This is in itself a show of confidence in the country’s progress on human rights. The protection of human rights is a never-ending process, and China will always strive to do better.
• Cui Tiankai is the Chinese ambassador to the United States.