President Xi Jinping made a splash by announcing that China will ease its one-child policy and end its notorious policy of re-education through labor camps.
This is good news and represents an important step forward in reducing human rights abuses. But it would be naive to think this effort will seriously address the human rights problems in China.
If human rights were the primary concern, more specific actions would have been taken. Xi and the Communist Party have other priorities.
Under the new family planning policy, couples will be able to have two children if one spouse is an only child. Until now, both spouses need to be only children or they must be from the ethnic minorities to be allowed to have two children. This is a modest change that will mainly benefit the upwardly mobile middle class living in cities.
The easing of the one-child policy cannot end the main abuses associated with it since it does not put an end to forced termination of unauthorized pregnancies, even at very late term. Nor does it remove power from the local authorities in enforcing the one-child policy, who have regularly been responsible for abuses.
The changes introduced are meant to deal with the projected decline in population, which would threaten China’s capacity to sustain its economic growth. They’re also meant to lessen the burden on the state in looking after the aging population before China becomes wealthy enough to handle the demands of its “pensioners.”
The abolishment of the system of “re-education through labor” camps is a much more significant move.
The existing policy gives local law enforcement agencies the power to detain “undesirables” — people who are considered social misfits, prostitutes or troublemakers for authorities. The government can jail these people for several years and force them to work at next to no wage — all without going through the judicial process and without receiving a conviction. There is absolutely no place for such a policy in any country in the 21st century. It’s about time that China do away with it.
However, if the Communist Party were committed to tackle human rights abuses, it would have also outlawed other similar practices.
Many of those jailed in labor camps are individuals who had grievances and tried to seek redress. Some of them were simply petitioners. They were deemed by local authorities to have challenged their power, or they were seen as destabilizing elements in society.
Unless the practice of putting petitioners in “black jails” (informal detention facilities) is abolished, ending the labor camps will have limited effect in reducing human rights abuses. There is no indication other similarly repressive measures will be terminated.
What the party will achieve is removing a source of discontent toward the government. By doing so, Xi projects himself as a reformer who is going beyond where his predecessors were willing to do.
But so far, he has done nothing to allow ordinary citizens to challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly of power in any way, or acknowledge that the rights of dissidents or petitioners must be protected.
What is obvious with these Xi reforms is that they are really meant for one purpose only. It is to strengthen the capacity of the Communist Party to govern more effectively and to reduce the reasons for the Chinese population to find the party’s rule objectionable.
These changes will not alter the nature of the political system at all. China’s political system is anti-democratic in nature and is first and foremost dedicated to keeping the Communist Party in power.
Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute and professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.