The Duck of Minerva

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Tactical Concessions or a Kiss Off? Understanding Recent Changes in Chinese Human Rights Policies

November 20, 2013

As has been widely reported in the Western media, on Friday, China’s state media finally officially announced two changes in human rights policies: (a) an end of the “Laojiao” policy of “re-education through labor” and (b) a change in the one-child policy in China, allowing two children per family if at least one of the parents was a single child (before both parents had to be only children).   Other, somewhat underreported, changes coming from the same official media report about the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China included a reduction of crimes punishable by death and efforts “to ban extorting confessions through torture and physical abuse.” Also in the news last week concerning Chinese human rights: China will have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in the New Year.

What do these changes mean for the human rights situation in China?  Are they a sign of things to come or are these changes just “window dressing,” meant to divert attention away from the very pressing human rights problems within the state?  Many experts have highlighted that it is the latter: for example, Steve Tsang, although saying that the steps are an “important step forward,” said that it would be “naive to think this effort will seriously address the human rights problems in China.”  The famously negative NGO UN Watch also indicated that it was a “black day for human rights” when China and other human rights offenders were elected to the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday.

I don’t want to seem naïve, but, consistent with the literature on how human rights practices change, however, I would argue that these recent happenings concerning China, especially the internal changes announced by the Central Committee, are in line with the process of human rights improvement famously outlined in Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink’s book The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change.  It’s also consistent with their recent updated and expanded The Persistent Power of Human Rights In this vein, the announced actions concerning domestic changes in human rights practices in China are “tactical concessions,” designed to indicate to the transnational advocacy network and domestic discontents that the regime is making changes in line with human rights norms.

As the volumes by Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink argue, tactical concessions can increase a regime’s vulnerability to domestic mobilization and provide additional leverage for external actors interested in ways to persuade a state to ultimately adopt rights-consistent behavior.  Because governments are often uninformed of the possibility of future increases in domestic pressure and have short-term interests in stopping the “spotlight” for their behavior, tactical concessions can be a very powerful step in the process of human rights improvement. However, as their second volume so powerfully argues, “tactical concession alone do not improve the practice of human rights” (54).  It is only when tactical concessions continue to be reinforced with increased domestic and international mobilization that eventual human rights norm adoption is likely.  This, I think, calls for increased advocacy network behavior in response to China’s concessions.

Of course, the role of China on the UN Human Rights Council can also be seen as part of the Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink’s theory of human rights improvement.  Here, I would see their bid for the seat as part of China’s way to deny its abuses and, in many regards, flash a nasty face to their critics in the UN human rights regime.  Here is where the silver lining in this process could lie: as Risse and Sikkink point out in their first volume:

 “slowly but surely, governments become entrapped in their own rhetoric and the logic of arguing takes over…In other words, a process which began for instrumental reasons, with arguments being used merely rhetorically, increasingly becomes a true dialogue over specific human rights allegations in the “target state.” (28).

As an academic interested in these things for both research and personal reasons, I’m hoping that this argument is right.  China –  keep talking!


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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.