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Chinese reforms come in response to public discontent, economic necessity

November 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
China's changes to its one-child policy and labor camp enforcement show some responsiveness to domestic and international pressure, as well as to growing economic pressure. Jeffrey Brown talks to Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and Susan Shirk of University of California to examine how far these reforms go.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do the announcements mean for the future of human rights in China?

We turn to Susan Shirk, a professor of China and Pacific relations at the University of California, San Diego, and Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Susan Shirk, start — let’s start with the one-child policy. What has compelled this change, and how important is it?

SUSAN SHIRK, University of California: Well, it’s driven by the fact that, as you noted, it’s very unpopular, and also that China’s population is aging, which will slow down economic development.

So they need to have more working-age children entering the labor force. Demographers have been asking for this for quite a few years. It means that 10 million — I think an estimate is that 10 million additional families will be able to have more than one child if they so choose.

Of course, many urban families, especially, may decide to stick with one child.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Kenneth Roth, what would — how do you see it? It’s still — it’s a partial action. It certainly doesn’t take the government out of this altogether.

KENNETH ROTH, Human Rights Watch: Precisely. It’s a good step forward.

But the problem is that the method of enforcement of either the one- or the two-child policy is coercive and intrusive. One of the reasons why this reform is taking place is that it has become so unpopular. It’s enforced through exorbitant fines sometimes, through forced abortion, through forced sterilization. Women often have to report their menstrual cycles to their workplace.

This kind of intrusive policy is actually going to stay there, but simply be liberalized somewhat for couples where one of them is an only child.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it — just stay with you, Ken Roth. Does it suggest to you, though, that public discontent does play a bigger role now in China, the larger voice?

KENNETH ROTH: I think there’s no question that it does.

One of the big game-changers in the last few years has been the rise of social media in China. And despite the massive efforts of the government to try to control that and censor it, it often gets out of hand. And people are able to express their discontent. The government cannot afford to disregard massive voicing of discontent against policies like the one-child policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Susan Shirk, pick up on that, but put it in the context oft other big reform we heard about today, which involves the prison labor camps.

What’s behind that? And how big a change is that?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, I think it’s very substantial, especially in the context of a much longer piece of the document about the reform of the legal system.

There’s a lot in the document about having a more authoritative legal system, even a more independent legal system. Now, of course, it doesn’t say that the party will have no role. But it does mean that, for example, the judges who actually hear the evidence and the testimony are supposed to make the call, instead of some deliberation committee.

So, this is a very comprehensive document. There’s lots to talk about here. And the reform of reeducation through labor is one of the important steps forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — Ken Roth, what, do you see in that aspect to it? What questions do you have, even as this comes out?

KENNETH ROTH: Yes. Well, first, let me correct one thing. China is not abolishing labor camps.

It’s abolishing one of the means that people are put in labor camps, the so-called reeducation through labor. About two-thirds of the people sentenced through reeducation through labor are drug users. And what we fear is that they’re simply going to take these forced labor camps, change the sign out front to make them a detox center, and the people will continue in place.

And these are detox centers only in name, since 98 percent of the people when they leave relapse into drug use. There are also things like something called custody and education, which is used for sex workers. There’s no mention of discontinuing that.

The real difference potentially is for what here we might call misdemeanor offenders, as well as various dissidents, democracy advocates, human rights vacation, people petitioning against the government, religious dissidents, so Falun Gong practitioners. These are people who had been sentenced under reeducation through labor, which basically means the police on their own without a judge can sentence them to up to four years of forced labor.

That system is being abolished. We don’t know what’s going to replace it, whether it’s going to be a judge-led system, in which there really is due process, or whether it’s going to continue to be some form of detention without trial. That’s a big question we have to watch.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, Susan Shirk, when you — you referred to the document that contains all of this and much more that you have had a chance to look at.


JEFFREY BROWN: When you put it all together, does it look like large change? What does it tell you about Xi Jinping? Does it look like limited things around the margins, or, say, something much bigger?

SUSAN SHIRK: No, I think it’s a very big deal.

It is a very ambitious and comprehensive reform blueprint of the sort that we haven’t seen for decades. And Xi hearkens back to Deng Xiaoping 1992, and is clearly modeling himself on Deng Xiaoping. And the document, of course, in some areas, it’s short on details. In other areas, there are real details.

But it’s very market-oriented. It basically says that the government should get out of the way of the market and allow the market to allocate inputs into the economy. It offers a lot of new opportunities for private business and for foreign business. So, I think it’s a very big deal. People will want to read it quite thoroughly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Kenneth Roth, the last word to you. It sounds like you’re — you want to read details.

KENNETH ROTH: Yes, I have got to say, the jury is still out on this one.

There have been some positive advances today. But we have got to look at what the government didn’t do. It didn’t take the government out of the business of deciding how many children couples can have. It didn’t even guarantee a trial before the government detains people. So, you know, yes, it’s a step in the right direction. It shows that China is responsive both to domestic pressure and international criticism, but it is nowhere near where we want things to end up.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kenneth Roth, Susan Shirk, thank you both very much.

KENNETH ROTH: Thank you.

SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you.