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The Human Rights Implications of China’s Slowdown

China’s economic slowdown will have an adverse impact on human rights. In fact, it already is.

By Su-Mei Ooi and Patrick Poon for

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang took power in March, activists in China have come under increasing pressure from authorities. As more and more detentions and arrests took place over the summer, human rights defenders have come to expect further violations of civil and political rights. The pattern of recent violations and its correspondence with a slowdown in economic growth seems to suggest that any further economic trouble is likely to have a negative impact on human rights in the near term.

Among those most recently detained have been human rights defenders, the most renowned of whom is Dr. Xu Zhiyong, founder of the now-banned NGO Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng and, later, Gongmin), which provided legal assistance to disempowered groups seeking redress for official abuse. Xu is also co-founder of the New Citizens' Movement, a loosely connected network of human rights defenders, dissidents and ordinary citizens, who since 2012 have been demanding that government officials disclose their wealth. Their appeal is actually in line with President Xi's efforts to crack down on corruption and impose austerity measures on government officials, but Xu's arrest now raises questions about this commitment, and suggests that China is becoming even less tolerant of dissent than before.

Formerly a lecturer in law at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and a visiting scholar at Yale Law School, Xu's detention on 16 July attracted immediate international attention. He was previously detained for three weeks in late July 2009 after Gongmeng was shut down and fined 1.4 million yuan for failing to pay taxes. Prior to his recent detention, Xu, deemed a threat to stability, had already been placed under house arrest for three months while the NPC and CPPCC held meetings. International interest in his case is due in part to the fact that Xu’s arrest on suspicion of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place" seems incomprehensible. Xu’s role in the New Citizens' Movement is better likened to spiritual leadership in calling for citizens' participation in pro-establishment actions. In a blog post explaining his vision for a "New Citizens' Movement" on May 29, Xu wrote that the political movement was not meant to encourage the overthrow of the current regime, but to build a civil society that “will do away with tyranny.”

According to information compiled by Chinese media expert and online activist Wen Yunchao, and Xu's friend and legal scholar-activist Teng Biao, more than 100 dissidents have been detained or arrested in the first six months of this year. About a fifth of them took part in the New Citizens' Movement, while 38 others were taken into custody for organizing and participating in other public collective actions not directly related to the New Citizens Movement. The number of detained activists is increasing, with the latest being well-known Guangdong rights activist Guo Feixiong, aka Yang Maodong, who was detained on August 8 on suspicion of "disrupting public order." Guo had helped organize a signature campaign to urge the National People’s Congress to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in March.

This wave of arrests and detentions of activists that emphasize citizens’ rights and call for greater government accountability is telling. China has been experiencing a slowdown in economic growth for the last five quarters. Projected fears of what the future holds for China’s economy might explain heightened sensitivities to grassroots demands to deal seriously with seemingly intractable governance issues that are likely to drag seriously on growth when investment-led strategies are no longer feasible. On the one hand, any serious fight against corruption will require the support of party elders in the CPC; on the other, the failure to grapple with the problem over the years has already begun to spook international investors. It may therefore seem necessary to muzzle voices that call for too much too quickly, when heightened expectations generated by Xi’s own rhetoric cannot realistically be met. As many more start to feel the squeeze of a slowing economy, these demands might also find resonance with a growing social base.

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In the face of economic trouble, China’s leaders have also had to seriously consider how China’s economy can be rebalanced away from investment-led growth towards a version that is driven by consumption. After many false starts, this necessary task promises to be complicated and fraught with political difficulty, and all eyes are now on the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee, scheduled for November. Many remain skeptical that real economic reform will take place precisely because of the kinds of changes necessitated by the rebalancing. Reform of China’s financial sector, state enterprises and the hukou system are just some areas that will create conflicts of interest at a juncture where the new administration has still to consolidate its power base. Rebalancing China’s economy is also easier said than done. A comfortable middle class with disposable income is indispensable to the consumption-led growth model, yet such a middle class is missing in China. While rolling back state-owned enterprises in the economy might mean greater space for resource-starved small and medium enterprises to thrive as a basis for consumption-led growth, a tightening of monetary policy could at the same time create a cash crunch that would affect middle-income business development adversely. Ultimately, rebalancing will require that both investment and consumption decelerate in the short term, making it extremely difficult to continue delivering on even current rates of growth. In the face of such political and economic uncertainty, the last thing that China’s top leadership now needs is activists who frame past policy failures in terms of the “tyranny” of an oligarchic government. As such, more crackdowns can be expected.

The real reason why China’s economic slowdown is likely to negatively impact human rights domestically lies not with the fact that demands for government accountability draw negative attention to governance issues that cannot be effectively dealt with in the immediate term or difficult reforms that might not work out. In truth, it is not only the legitimacy of Xi’s administration that will be called into question if such demands cannot be met, but the “performance legitimacy” of the CPC to date. This is because, some of the greatest threats to the future of China’s economic prosperity lies with the pathologies of China’s investment-led growth model, one of which is of course endemic corruption. Understanding China’s economic slowdown as merely an instance of inevitable middle-income trap that requires a rebalancing of the economy toward consumer driven growth is to miss the more disturbing structural problems that cast a dark shadow over China’s economic future.

One of the key pathologies is that of overwhelming local government debt, which is causing real concern about the overall state of China’s financial sector. A 2010 audit report found that the 10.7 trillion yuan debt was caused by at times questionable infrastructural investment decisions made by local officials, whose career advancement prospects are dependent upon short term growth, along with official excesses following the 2008 credit binge. This debt continued to grow, rising 13% by 2012, after Beijing’s clean-up order, as spending on infrastructure and development projects continued – despite diminishing returns on investment. The National Audit Office has since been charged by the State Council to conduct an urgent audit in July, as serious doubts surface about just how much of this debt consists of bad loans. In the meantime, a 2012 Amnesty International report already suggests that instances of violent forced evictions have increased as local officials seek to offset huge debts by seizing and selling land to property developers. As forced evictions, poor social programs and environmental problems continue for the sake of dubious developmental projects, dissatisfaction with the government will rise and activists such as Xu will continue to call for greater governmental accountability, necessitating tighter controls over dissent.

China’s economic slowdown has already had and will continue to have negative implications for human rights in the near future. It is indeed ironic that at such a time, China is preparing to bid for re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council in November.

Su-Mei Ooi is assistant professor of political science at Butler University, where she teaches International Relations and Asian politics. Patrick Poon is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was Executive Secretary of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.