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Human Rights and Development
Tuesday, 26 April 2011 11:33

China’s record of poverty reduction and economic development seems astonishing.  But how can we judge the quality of this development in light of China’s human rights record?  How would it compare with India?  And then again, China itself reminds us that the quality of human rights may not even be perfect in the US and other Western countries.


From 1981 to 2005, the number of Chinese people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 835 million to 208 million.  As a share of the Chinese population, the fall is even more dramatic, from 84% to 16%.


When we examine the figures relative to a $2.50 poverty line, the progress is much less.  Over this period, the number of Chinese living below $2.50 a day fell from 988 to 646 million, a decrease from 99% of the population to 50%.  Nevertheless, even though many Chinese risk falling back into extreme poverty through rising food, energy or other prices, the progress in poverty reduction at the $2.50 poverty line is very impressive.


But as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen reminds us, poverty has many “dimensions”.  Poor people can suffer from many “deprivations” in addition to low income, such as hunger, poor education, bad health, lack of access to clean drinking water, and restrictions on political freedom.  According to Sen, development is freedom, freedom of choice, or the control of one’s life.


Thus, the comparison with India becomes interesting.  India has 42% of its population living below $1.25 a day (while China has 16%), and 86% of its population living below $2.50 a day (China has 50%).  At the same time, India is a democratic country where people enjoy human and political rights, while China is an authoritarian state in which the Chinese Communist Party constitutionally is the paramount authority.  How to compare the two cases?


According to the US State Department, in 2010 China’s “negative trend in key areas of the country's human rights record continued, as the government took additional steps to rein in civil society, particularly organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, and increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and to control the press, the Internet, and Internet access. Efforts to silence political activists and public interest lawyers were stepped up, and increasingly the government resorted to extralegal measures including enforced disappearance, "soft detention," and strict house arrest, including house arrest of family members, to prevent the public voicing of independent opinions.


Public interest law firms that took on sensitive cases also continued to face harassment, disbarment of legal staff, and closure.  Individuals and groups, especially those seen as politically sensitive by the government, continued to face tight restrictions on their freedom to assemble, practice religion, and travel. The government continued its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibetan areas. Abuses peaked around high-profile events, such as the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to democracy activist Liu Xiaobo and sensitive anniversaries.”


How does India stack up compared with China in the eyes of the US State Department?


The State Department notes that “India is a multiparty federal, parliamentary democracy with a bicameral parliament”.  Nevertheless, “Major human rights problems included reported extrajudicial killings of persons in custody, killings of protesters, and torture and rape by police and other security forces. Investigations into individual abuses and legal punishment for perpetrators occurred, but for many abuses, a lack of accountability due to weak law enforcement, a lack of trained police, and an overburdened court system created an atmosphere of impunity; lengthy court backlogs prolong the latter. Poor prison conditions and lengthy detentions were significant problems. Unlike in previous years (2008 and 2009), there were no instances of officials using antiterrorism legislation to justify excessive use of force; however, indiscriminate use of force by Border Security Forces was a problem. Corruption existed at all levels of government and police. There were reports of delays in obtaining legal redress for past attacks against minorities.”


In short, while India may be a democracy, there is much room for improving the quality of India’s democracy.


For its part, the Chinese Government passes its own judgment on the US report, and the US human rights situation.  It claims that the US reports are full of distortions and the US turns a blind eye to its own terrible human rights situation.


According to the Chinese government, the US has the world's highest incidence of violent crimes, and its people's lives, properties and personal security are not duly protected.  The violation of citizens' civil and political rights by the government is severe.  Even though the US is the world's richest country, Americans' economic, social and cultural rights protection is going from bad to worse.  Unemployment is stubbornly high. From December 2007 to October 2010, a total of 7.5 million jobs were lost.  The proportion of American people living in poverty has risen to a record high.  People suffering from hunger increased sharply, as has the number of homeless Americans.  The number of American people without health insurance increased progressively every year.


China also claims that racial discrimination is deep-seated in the United States, and has permeated every aspect of social life.  Minorities do not enjoy the same political status as white people.  They have high rates of unemployment and poverty.  Minority groups face inequality in education.  The health care for African-American people is worrisome.  Racial discrimination is evident in the law enforcement and judicial systems.  Immigrants' rights and interests are not guaranteed.


The situation regarding the rights of women and children in the US is “bothering”.  Gender discrimination against women widely exists in the United States.  Women often experience sexual assault and violence.  They are also victims of domestic violence.  Children in the U.S. live in poverty.  Violence against children is very severe.  Pornographic content is rampant on the Internet and severely harms American children.


So no-one Is perfect.  But India and the US both distinguish themselves from China in many ways, including by virtue of the fact that their citizens can choose their own governments, and read free press.  




World Bank, "The developing world is poorer than we thought, but no less successful in the fight against poverty", Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravaillion.


US State Department, 2010 Human Rights Report


China's Information Office of the State Council.  Full Text of Human Rights Record of the United States in 2010





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