When one thinks of economically powerful and progressive countries, one of the first names that spring to mind is China. Everywhere you look, products bear the name of the Oriental behemoth, as the country somehow contrives to push a never ending supply of goods into the rest of the world every day. China is ranked second in the world in terms of nominal annual GDP, with only the United States of America ahead of them. The supply of capital to the economy comes from several sectors – from agriculture and mining to telecommunications and tourism. And with the Taiwan cash cow ever-present, China is looking at several more years, maybe decades of economic sustainability.
However, once this rich, modern, almost opulent façade is torn away, it reveals the darker side of one the world’s largest (alleged) democracies. While the official name of the state may be the People’s Republic of China, democracy and individual rights are merely lip service here. There is no denying the fact (though they may well try to do so), that when it comes to Human Rights, China is almost at rock bottom.
What is more unsettling is that there is no real sense that any kind of respite might be forthcoming for the citizens. As mentioned by Jerome A. Cohen, in his article “Police, Party and Punishment in China” for the South China Morning Post, the country places most of the law enforcing duties and privileges in the hands of the nation’s police. Most of China’s immediate neighbours in the continent have prosecutors and judges who, despite their flaws, make efforts to actively restrict any sort of abuse of power by the police. However, in China (though this may seem a bit extreme) law and order almost resembles the system in Nazi Germany. In the 1940’s, the Nazi secret police or Gestapo more often than not had the last word when it came to law enforcement and maintaining discipline in areas occupied by the Fuhrer’s empire. Again, it may seem a bit heavy-handed to draw direct comparisons between the Gestapo and the Chinese police. After all, the Chinese have not indulged in a brutal mass cull of an entire race like the Nazi Germans did in the Holocaust (at least not yet). However, the extent of control that the police appear to have in China is unnerving to say the least, and quite frighteningly, Cohen notes, they exercise their right to carry out extra-legal action on any and every group of people. So often in China, campaigners for human rights and political activists “disappear” mysteriously, and are often subjected to physical and psychological abuses. These horrors are not merely hearsay or speculation. Eminent lawyers such as Gao Zisheng and Zheng Enchong, who was placed under house arrest even after he had finished serving his sentence, have spoken openly about the horrors they were subjected to by the police. In short, police abuse in China is not a figment of anyone’s paranoid imagination, but a very real, very harsh reality.
Another one of China’s more notorious laws is with regard to the One Child Policy enforced by the government in a bid to curb the country’s explosive population growth. The policy, which has been in place since 1978, decrees that a family is not permitted to have more than one child. The policy was employed in a bid to help alleviate social and economic problems in the country. The authorities claim to have prevented more than 600 million births between 1980 and 2011. While the policy is good in theory, the government’s punishments for people who break this law have been extremely harsh. More recently, in 2010, authorities resorted to imprisoning relatives of women who broke this rule, in an attempt to force them to undergo sterilisation surgery. A campaign was launched in Guangzhou, named the ‘Iron Fist Campaign’, which targeted 10,000 women across the province. Repercussions for having more than one child had always been present, but a crackdown on this scale was unprecedented, and undeniably cruel.
This modern day brutality is more surprising in its intensity than in its existence. China has a long history of violence. In Ancient times, Chinese techniques of punishment included tattooing on the offender’s face or forehead with indelible ink, cutting off of his nose, amputation of body parts and/or reproductive organs, and sentencing to death, which was done by either cutting the body into four pieces or by ripping the head off by attaching it to chariots. Of course, it would be grossly inaccurate and unfair to suggest that the prosecution today is anywhere near this scale of cruelty. But one can see where the mentality to ‘get even’, even on a highly tempered level, comes from.
Even children, it would seem, are not spared. China is filled with sweatshops, most of them in operation to do the bidding of multi-million dollar American multi-nationals. Apple and Nike are just two of the companies that have been accused in the past of enforcing hard labour on people in these shops for ridiculously low wages. Several of these workers, many of them little children, earn as little as $6 per hour while working for almost twelve hours a day, and are even sometimes docked half a day’s pay for being just five minutes late. China may be contributing heavily to the world’s economy and market, ensuring a constant supply of expensive consumer goods to feed the American soul, but countless lives are put through the mill everyday as a consequence.
An aunt from my extended family, Lynn, is Chinese and has obviously lived there for most of her life. While she is currently happy in Australia with her husband (my uncle), her early life was anything but. She was a swimming champion in school, and her stories of her daily schedules at the time make anything we have ever been through look positively tame. She would wake up at 5 in the morning, and go for practice. After a couple of hours of rigorous training, she would head to school. At the end of the day, she would go for practice yet again, till late at night. Home and sleep. That was her whole life. No playing with friends, no recreation whatsoever – a hollow, monotonously cyclical existence. Seeing her today, you wouldn’t imagine she was ever as miserable as that. It has taken her a long time, but more importantly, an escape from China to be happy.
No doubt that China remains in a position of power in the world today. However, their phenomenal economic progress is coming at an incredible price. Countless lives are virtually hanging in the balance every day, as their basic individual rights are flagrantly violated time and again. Policy makers need to be stronger, and more importantly, the rest of the world needs to sit up and take notice of what is happening in this so-called democracy.