Rural migrants to Chinese cities are having a very tough time, according to a report issued in March by Amnesty International. True enough. But hardly news to anyone at all familiar with the subject. Any well-informed broadsheet newspaper reader in the West knows this already, and so of course do all Chinese people who have been out of their village. So what was the point?
The Amnesty report catalogues, in a few dozen pages, discriminatory policies such as the household registration (hukou) system and inequities in access to health care and education (although the picture that Amnesty presents is several years out of date). It then checks these ills off against a list of international human rights covenants and conventions, concluding that China’s treatment of migrants breaks many of these agreements.
The main problem with this is not that it is false but that it is facile: too easy by half. It adds up to a sweeping complaint about the injustice of an entire—and by any standards momentous—historical process without showing any deeper analysis or understanding of that process.
As such, this document is not a good starting point for understanding what is going on in China. It shows little or no recognition of the complex forces at work in China’s government and society, or of the fact that discrimination against migrants is historically and socially embedded, not just something that “the government” does to them.
Nor does the report acknowledge that many people in China’s government and society recognise every problem enumerated in the report—and many more besides—and are doing their best to address those very issues. And there is no mention of the fact that these efforts do appear to be bringing incremental improvements in many areas—such as those noted by Chinese human rights lawyer-activist, Tong Lihua, in our article on page 17.
Sadly, this failure to do justice to the complexity of the issues makes a “human rights approach” look merely shallow, moralistic and unhelpful.
If the report were highlighting a specific injustice or abuse, or illuminating some aspect of China’s social transformation that was not already well-known and well- documented, it would be amply justified. But what is the point of this generalised, rather outdated and less than balanced critique?
Presumably, the report was intended to pressure the Government of China, during the annual “two big meetings” of advisers and legislators, to make life fairer for its people.
But does Amnesty really have this kind influence; and is such a combative approach the best way to use what influence it might have?
There is an important question here about the growing symbiosis of NGOs and mass media. Amnesty’s report is almost entirely based on secondary sources, and many of those were international media reports. But, such is Amnesty’s moral standing in the West, that its own report still attracted media attention as “news,” so people around the world heard again the familiar refrain that “China is abusing human rights.” There’s something not entirely virtuous in this circle of news, which lends itself to reflexive but unreflective China-bashing.
Of course, there are those who argue that steady pressure will push China to do more for human rights. But this “shame ‘em into doing something” approach is both condescending and simplistic. China’s political leaders are not schoolchildren to be ticked off and told to do better; and there are no simple policy switches that can be flicked to make everything alright.
Nor is there anything to suggest that the strong emphasis placed on social equity during the “two big meetings” owed anything whatsoever to the pronouncements of international human rights groups. There is plenty of evidence that the leadership is responding to concerns expressed—sometimes violently—by its own people. But there is no sign that they are swayed by slings and arrows from NGOs in developed countries—every one of which has plenty of human misery and abuse buried in its own not so recent past.
For all our sakes, China and the world really do need to understand each other better. This report has not added to mutual understanding. And it will make it harder for Amnesty ever to develop a meaningful dialogue with Chinese officials.
That is a shame. The government of China clearly has an extremely important impact on human rights—not only in China but also on the global stage, and especially in its relationships with other developing countries. There ought to be an opportunity here for groups that care about promoting rights—not simply denouncing their abuse—to engage in constructive discussion with Chinese counterparts and officials. But before that discussion can start, groups like Amnesty need to learn to treat China with more respect, or they will never be taken seriously here.
Amnesty could take a leaf from the book of a smaller human rights organisation, the US-based Dui Hua Foundation. This does engage in constructive, informal dialogue with senior Chinese officials on “sensitive” human rights issues such as capital punishment and criminal justice. It does so without compromising any of its principles; and at the same time it maintains the fullest existing English language database of political prisoners in China.
That is precisely the kind of work Amnesty International was originally established to do. Perhaps it should have remained more focused.
Amnesty International's Deputy Programme Director for theAsia-Pacific region, Madhu Malhotra, submitted the following response on June 2, 2007:
I was interested to read your editorial about Amnesty International’s (AI) recent report on internal migrants in China and am pleased it generates further debate. Beyond this report, AI has also acted on human rights abuses faced by migrant workers in other countries including Chinese migrants in the United Kingdom, South Korea and Ethiopia. As a growing population on a global level, the plight of migrant workers deserves wider coverage and analysis.
The report covered how discrimination negatively impacts both economic, social and cultural rights (eg. health and education) and civil and political rights (eg. freedom of movement). In AI’s experience, these issues are of interest not only to a Western audience but to the wider global community, including the many in Asia and Africa who have urged us to increase our work on economic, social and cultural rights.
We dispute your claim that it is ‘facile’ to measure China’s treatment of its growing migrant population against its responsibilities under international human rights law. Indeed, the Chinese authorities do not appear to consider it ‘facile’ either, given China’s engagement with numerous UN human rights mechanisms – a record which outstrips many countries.
AI disagrees that there is no value reporting on migrant workers and China’s hukou system, simply because the subject has been covered by others and may not be ‘news’ to the average broadsheet reader. In fact, the problem persists and continues to grow, with the number of migrants expected eventually to reach 300 million. After nearly 30 years of reform, China’s hukou system remains well-entrenched, and in significant ways has been strengthened, giving local government new tools to deprive migrants of the right to permanent legal status in the cities and the same benefits as other urban residents. As a campaigning and lobbying organization, AI feels the need for continued attention and action.
While the average broadsheet reader may be aware that migrant workers in Chinese cities are having a very tough time, the role of China’s hukou system in providing a legal foundation for discrimination against migrants – a major focus of our report – is not widely or well understood outside of China and narrow circles of China specialists. This has been confirmed by our experience lobbying internationally on the issue.
We believe it is important to inform the international community as, unlike CDB, it is not our experience that the Chinese authorities are impervious to international pressure, whether from international NGOs, other governments, the UN or beyond. In fact, the Chinese leadership’s responsiveness to international opinion has increased alongside its responsiveness to domestic Chinese civil society, which we consider to be a positive trend. The Chinese authorities appear to take seriously and to be preparing to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The fact that China may be in violation of key articles in the ICCPR, for instance on account of the hukou system, is therefore of vital concern to UN bodies and the international community.
We dispute your view that we fail to recognize that discrimination against migrants is historically and socially embedded. Prejudice against rural residents is deep-rooted in China, but this only strengthens the duty of the authorities to address and counter such abuses rather than perpetuating them through institutionalized discrimination based on the hukou system.
And, contrary to your assertions, AI recognizes improvements in several areas, for example, official efforts to reform the hukou system and recent measures taken to secure payment of back wages. However, in an attempt to promote further reform, our report focuses on the limitations of official measures taken to date and ongoing problems with implementation on the ground.
We also recognize the achievements of those working directly on these issues within China. Indeed we consulted with grassroots NGOs, academics and others in China in researching the report and pointed international media to their initiatives when launching it.
Should AI only discuss its concerns with the Chinese authorities behind closed doors, and refrain from public commentary, as CDB suggests? We recognize the usefulness of quiet discussion having been engaged in it, with officials, academics, legal practitioners and others on our more ‘traditional’ concerns like the death penalty for over a decade. We note that many of China’s recent reforms and official statements on the death penalty system reflect AI’s concerns and recommendations over the years. We also continue to seek direct meetings with the Chinese authorities to discuss broader concerns in more depth. However, independent public discourse which includes public commentary and criticism of the actions of government, is vital and lies at the heart of a vibrant, thriving, civil society. All political systems need their watchdogs: the health of society, its members, and the proper functioning of government all rely on it.
Public criticisms of the hukou system are increasing at various levels of Chinese society as well as internationally. Our report has been welcomed by several Chinese NGOs and individuals. We also note that further suggestions for reform, such as proposals to give migrants better representation within the National People’s Congress, were put forward in the weeks following its publication.
The notion that public commentary and critique are somehow anti-patriotic, or disrespectful, of China, or any other nation could not be further from the truth. Public commentary and critique is vital to ensure that a wide diversity of views and recommendations can inform policy decisions aimed at furthering protection of human rights.
A fundamental principle upon which AI was founded is that concern for violations of human rights knows no national boundaries. AI operates globally under the assumption that the rights of Chinese nationals are no less deserving of protection than those of citizens anywhere else.
Anyone unable to access our report online can obtain it via: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deputy Programme Director