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After June 4, China is still fumbling towards respect for rights of all

Jerome A. Cohen says despite the changes made to China's human rights legislation after June 4, progress has been slow and the plight of those advocating for democracy little improved

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am

We are entitled, 25 years later, to ask about the enduring legacy of June 4. Its immediate impact on China's legal system and civil and political rights was, of course, disastrous. For several years, savage repression decimated a system that, only a decade earlier, had begun its post-Cultural Revolution reconstruction.

The mid-1990s, however, spurred by Deng Xiaoping's 1992 "southern tour" and the Communist Party's effort to attract foreign direct investment, marked a return to the cautious but persistent legal progress of the 1980s. This, despite "strike hard" campaigns and other setbacks, seemed to promise greater protection of human rights, not only in theory but also in practice.

The past 20 years have witnessed a continuation of China's legislative progress. But what has not continued, despite attractive constitutional amendments and generally progressive procedural and substantive laws, is the promise of gradually realising the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, demonstration and religion enshrined in China's constitution. Nor, in practice, has the police-prosecutorial-judicial system over which the Communist Party presides protected the criminal justice and litigation rights of those unfortunate enough to become involved in "sensitive" cases, broadly defined.

Democratic activists and the human rights and public interest lawyers who dare to represent them have been subject to especially disgraceful abuse.

Indeed, in recent years, despite China's impressive economic development, the situation for civil and political rights has significantly deteriorated, and prospects for the immediate future appear grim. The long-time criminal detentions of the distinguished human rights advocate Gao Yu , the able public interest lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and many others are a sobering reminder of reality.

Was this situation avoidable? It is a far cry from the China that my wife, Joan Lebold Cohen, and I experienced when, after a number of visits beginning 1972, we were finally allowed to live in Beijing at the start of 1979. Those were the heady days of Democracy Wall, an exciting period for all, whether Chinese or foreigners, social scientists or visual artists. Speech was really free, and "sit-ins" took place in front of city hall. The Central Academy of Fine Arts invited my wife to give lectures on contemporary American art before hundreds of artists and students who gasped at their first glimpses of slides of Western abstract paintings, in an atmosphere that was electric with questions and comments.

We knew it couldn't last, and it didn't, but this brief transition did introduce a decade of limited progress in many fields. Yet the democratic ferment generated by the 1980s proved hard to contain, as demonstrated by the fall of the reformer, party general secretary Hu Yaobang , in the 1986-87 campaign against "bourgeois liberals", and by the events leading up to the June 4 massacre after Hu's death two years later.

One question that has long plagued me is whether those crackdowns might never have occurred if vast popular protests could have been avoided. After the fall of Hu, I remember surprising some friends, and even myself, when, on Ted Koppel's Nightline, I said that, while it was heartwarming to see thousands of students in the streets shouting "freedom", one nevertheless had to ask whether that was indeed a good thing if the result was not more freedom but less.

Although the mid-1990s moderated the vicious oppression that followed June 4, it did not end the revival of Maoist ideology that had contributed to criminal injustice in the aftermath of the slaughter. In early 1992, I was exposed to a vivid application of Mao's theory of contradictions. The Voice of America broadcast excerpts of a talk on the impact of June 4 on the legal system that I had just delivered to the Beijing Foreign Correspondents' Club. Although premier Li Peng reportedly liked my endorsement of China's desire to enter the World Trade Organisation, my theme that the courts had become an instrument for suppressing people angered him.

Thus, two days later, as I was preparing to leave the Jianguo Hotel to visit several provincial law schools on behalf of the Ford Foundation, no fewer than five Beijing law school deans, who earlier in the week had been courting me to recommend continuing Ford support for their schools, were lying in wait for me in the lobby. There they sternly "registered a solemn protest" concerning my remarks about the courts. How, they asked, could I, a friend of China, make such an outrageous observation?

I told them I had based my remarks on the repeated published instructions of Supreme People's Court president Ren Jianxin, who was also head of the party's Central Political-Legal Committee. He admonished judges to mercilessly suppress counter-revolutionaries. "Oh," they replied, "counter-revolutionaries are not among 'the people'"! Amazingly, many Chinese legal officials, particularly police, cling to this mode of "analysis" to this day.

The lesson of the past 25 years for our purposes seems to be that economic and social progress, enactment of better legislation, improvements in legal institutions, and reformist official policy statements do not guarantee either the enjoyment of civil and political rights or the protection of political and religious activists and their lawyers against the arbitrary exercise of state and party power.

This is not to say that no legal progress is being made in related areas of human rights. Despite efforts to restrict the influence of the internet and social media, public opinion is being listened to in some respects, and party leaders are slowly allowing legal institutions to respond to demands to vindicate rights in certain fields, including labour, environment, gender discrimination and ordinary civil and criminal cases. Yet there is little evidence that such progress is likely to improve the lot of political and religious activists and their lawyers, at least in the near future.

In order to avoid ending on a despondent note, it is worth mentioning the vastly different experience of Taiwan during the past 25 years. On June 4, 1989, the island, which shared much of the mainland's history and political-legal culture, was just embarking on its extraordinary journey from Chiang Kai-shek's version of harsh Leninist dictatorship to a democratic political system that increasingly features the rule of law and freedoms of expression that are the equal of any country. That achievement deserves our respect, study and support. It also offers mainland human rights advocates a ray of light at the end of today's dark tunnel.

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. See also www.usasialaw.org. This article is based on a speech delivered by video to a conference at City University of Hong Kong on May 30 marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre

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This article is now closed to comments

Shangha1
The author fails to recognise that constitutional evolvement in all countries develops over generations.
clc2
Did you read the Cohen's last paragraph talking about (agh!) Taiwan and the "ray of light at the end of today's dark tunnel?"
53567e31-b104-458b-a6cd-350e0a320969
The US respect nobody'[s rights especially the Muslims. For people that is constantly at war, killing millions and talking about rights is not only hypocritical but insane, much like the barbaric Japanese. Now we all know that 911 was an act for justice against US barbarism.
321manu
On a thread about how the CCP fails to respect the rights of PRC citizens, the usual suspects have again made this somehow about the US. Old habits never die among the truly indoctrinated, it seems.
Considering that June 4 is still somehow taboo in China after 25 years, I wonder how long the sympathisers are willing to give the CCP to get with the program of acknowledging history.
At least HKers can still commemorate June 4 for another 33 years. After that, who knows. I certainly wouldn't bet on the CCP being "ready" to face history yet at that point...and I imagine the sympathisers even then will be parroting the "give them more time" song and dance. If there's one thing about those guys, it's that they're awfully predictable.
LunarRepublic
I'll give some anti-American critics this: the United States has massive problems at the moment. Currently, half of its democratic system is actually a plutocracy where money is the answer to politics, and rich-catering politicians, clueless of the plight of many Americans, are putting up policies that intentionally hurt the poor while benefiting the country's 1%. Not to mention, their so-called anti terror tactics have violated the rights of numerous Americans, and their NSA mass surveillance program is hurting the privacy of many of its citizens.
But then compare this to China, where not only rich officials manipulating the system but are able to intimidate and hurt the public to do so, where there's little to no public say in the government, where all information is filtered by the government to suit their needs, where surveillance is specifically for controlling the public rather than just catching terrorists, where anyone who tries voicing complaints about the system and expressing their free speech are imprisoned, where activists can be kept in brutal conditions and not even be let out for critical medical treatment and where the state controls EVERY aspect of life.
Both China and the United States have their long list of flaws, but at the VERY least, most people in the United States are able to speak their minds without fear of persecution and run their own lives. At least in the United States, corrupt officials can be called out by the public and be imprisoned.
321manu
Indeed, both the US and China under the CCP are flawed. But it is a false dichotomy among the sympathisers to suggest that it is an either-or proposition. A China without the CCP is not obligated to resemble the US. It is a complete straw man argument coming from the usual suspects.
And let's consider this a different way. Democracy is imperfect. China under the CCP is also imperfect. So really, "perfection" is not the determinant when it comes to which system is preferable, since both fall short. But when society has to settle for something that will be short of perfection, how will they decide? Well, one answer would be choice. Let those who are to be governed decide how they will be governed. Gee, what a concept. Of course, that is also something that the CCP is not capable of presently..."give it due time", they'll say...where have I heard that before?
How About
To your last paragraph- well said. It does appear you don't know how the system works in USA despite your obvious sympathy. As for China, they too welcome constructive criticisms, give it due time.
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LunarRepublic
The Chinese government still can't get the hint that social harmony does not mean silencing any form of criticism against the government. That's why June 4 still matters, because it's a reminder that China can't always suppress the truth of their actions, and it presents the hope that China can still change itself for the better; even when it's barely changed itself after 25 years.
ianson
Messrs Diethelm, Mikado & Captam, think yourselves fortunate that you are free to blog your vicious criticisms of Western democracy in the Post. If I were to try the same remarks about the CCP in a Beijing journal, I'd be expecting to be whisked away on charges of making trouble at any moment.
captam
The only "today's dark tunnel" is the one which you live in, USA.
Your government is not even able to stop kids from murdering each other with guns inside their schools.
That dire situation ( which you call the "rule of law") is the direct result of protecting so-called individual rights under your "freedom and democracy". The system doesn't work, so for God's sake stop trying to force it on every country around the world.......... except where it suits you to keep quiet!

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