Lights and shadows of the Asian Giant: Human Rights in China


Antonella Iavazzo

Antonella Iavazzo

The human rights situation in the People’s Republic of China is still today extremely controversial. Despite the economic openness and reforms of recent years, many international human rights associations continue to brand the Chinese legal system as “arbitrary, corrupt and unable to provide the proper safeguard” due to the numerous violations of international norms. [1]

The Coronavirus emergency has underlined even more clearly the existing flaws in terms of protection of fundamental rights, exposing China to the inquiring gaze of the international community. As stated by Nicholas Bequelin, Director of Amnesty International for Asia, the measures launched by Beijing against the virus inevitably implied the limitation of important fundamental rights: the right to healthcare, first of all, in terms of free access to medical care, information and freedom from medical treatment without consent. Moreover, freedom from arbitrary arrests, freedom of movement and expression. [2] In the weeks of the crisis, in fact, Wuhan’s medical staff complained about the shortage of resources for managing the increasing infections. Local media told about patients rejected by many hospitals because of lack of beds, medical facilities without access to basic diagnostic tests, people unable to reach hospitals quickly due to the halt of public transport. Moreover, local media reported the impossibility of taking out of the home the bodies of people who died of the virus. [3]  These issues, it is important to underline, have pointed out the fragility of all the countries affected by this health emergency, including Italy. What weighs further on China, however, is a political dimension that has often exposed the leadership to accusations of lacking transparency and mystification attempts. The closedown imposed on many metropolises, starting from the Hubei province, has been accompanied by draconian measures such as stringent control systems, mandatory filing of citizens and censorship of destabilizing news. People who have tried to share information about the Coronavirus have been targeted by the authorities: a symbolic case is that of the doctor Li Wenliang, the first who launched the alarm, accused of having “spread false information on the web“.[4] As Bequelin states “Censor legitimate information in newspapers or on the social media is not functional to any public health objective (…) limiting freedom of information and suppressing free debate in the name of stability has serious risks and can be very counterproductive“.[5]                                                                       

Chongqing, south-west China, photo by Antonella Iavazzo

The absence of a democratic system and effective human rights’ protection in China seems to be a consequence of the so-called “Chinese specificity”, aspects of the traditional political culture and national civilization. [6]  This has been also highlighted by the scholar Antonio Cassese, according to whom Socialist countries do not consider human rights to be inherent to individuals nor to pre-exist the State, human rights are granted by the State who can, therefore, limit them if necessary. [7] This cultural influence, combined with the Maoist heritage that still weighs on the country, show us up that the legal protection of human rights in China is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 1980s, in fact, judicial activity was carried out arbitrarily by the Red Guards and revolutionary committees, strenuously following the imperative of “politics first” and “supporting the leadership of the Party“.[8] The same expression “human rights” (renquan) 人权 had a derogatory connotation, as an expression of the capitalist ideology used in the West to mask the exploitation of man by man. [9] Only the gradual liberalization and openness inaugurated since 1978 has encouraged the leadership to respond more appropriately to the need for human rights protection. From the regulatory point of view, Beijing has made clear efforts to adapt its laws and ensure increasing respect and protection of these rights, as they are recognized by the international community of which China is a full member. [10] The 1982 Constitution, for example, guarantees citizens a wide variety of political, personal, economic, social, and cultural rights. In 2004, art. 33 of the Constitution was amended with the addition of the paragraph “the State respects and protects human rights” and, in 2010, the publication of the first National Human Rights Action Plan sanctioned the principle of universality of human rights. At the same time, China has joined numerous international Conventions regarding thorny matters such as torture, minors’ and workers’ rights. [11]                                                                                                                             

Chongqing, south-west China, photo by Antonella Iavazzo

The signs of progress that have been made, however, cannot hide the fact that the protection and exercise of these freedoms remain extremely limited, not only because of the vague definitions of these rights but also due to the inclusion of numerous exceptions. As clarified by art. 51, in China the exercise of citizens’ rights and freedoms is conditioned by the collective interest. Human rights, in practice, are not considered in absolute terms but concerning the growth and well-being of the community, especially in areas susceptible to strong tensions where the public interest is a priority over that of individuals. [12] Regarding the Convention against Torture, for example, although the Chinese leadership has strengthened the prohibition of torture also providing sanctions for possible abuses, an absolute definition of the concept of torture is still missing. This allows the possibility of easily limiting these rights in favor of maintaining internal order and stability. [13]  The Amnesty International 2017/2018 annual report illustrates the Chinese authorities’ continued tightening of their power of dissent and censorship through the formulation and application of new national security laws. The establishment of civil society organizations still clashes with the strict limits placed on associative activities. In January 2017, the new law on the management of foreign NGOs authorized non-registered NGOs’ ban of their bank accounts, the sale of their spaces and the detention of their staff, without any kind of protection for privacy, freedom of expression and against arbitrary detention. Also, many activists have been repressed by the Chinese government:  they have been arrested or convicted of “subversion of state power” and subjected to torture and ill-treatment during detention. [14]                                                                                                                                                                

Chongqing, south-west China, photo by Antonella Iavazzo

The leadership also exercises extensive control over every aspect of religious practice: the organization and worship of unrecognized religions are violently repressed. The 2018s has encouraged a revision of rules and regulations on religious issues, to limit “infiltrations and extremism”: religious minorities such as the Tibetan Lamaist and Uyghur Muslim, although been recognized, are subject to severe restrictions due to their potential connection with the separatist currents in the Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. [15] Talking about freedom of expression, the Party’s strict control over information is well-known, thousands of websites and social networks are still blocked, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Since 2017, China has been conducted an inquiry on the main internet service providers such as Tencent’s Wechat, Sina Weibo and Baidu’s Tieba, identifying on their platforms user accounts that “disseminated information dangerous for national, public and social order security“.[16]  Even about personal freedom and dignity, the main idea is that personal choices must give way to the public interest. An example is the right to reproduction, severely limited by the “one-child” policy which imposes a duty on couples to practice family planning, punishes off-plan births with financial penalties and takes advantage of instruments of psychological and social pressure. Even Chinese criminal law remains characterized by vague rules strictly connected to political control, such as crimes of opinion, chimes against State secrets or those generically defined “against public safety and the Socialist economic order of the market”.[17] The Chinese leadership still continues to conceal the real extent of the use of the death penalty.

This reflection shows that Chinese citizens’ subjective autonomy has grown enormously compared to the past. As a leading actor in the international community, China is willing to search for shared solutions and to become more familiar with the protection of human rights and the ethical assumptions underlying them. However, limits exist to this adaptation process: tools of power management that the Chinese leadership considers indispensable, despite contrasting with human rights. These trends, although explained according to the priority of national order and stability, demonstrate that there is still a long way to go before the full affirmation of the human rights and the consequent abolition of the death penalty.

written by Antonella Iavazzo







[7] Cassese Antonio, I diritti umani oggi, Economica Laterza, Bari, 2009.













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