The top human rights official of the United States has said that the American people are troubled by the lack of political and religious freedom in China. Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, was speaking to The China Youth University for Political Science in Beijing on December 17, 2002.

Craner told the Chinese audience that the concerned Americans write letters to the government – “my office – expressing concern that democracy activists, such as Huang Qi, Rebiya Kadeer, and Jiang Weiping are being held in prison.” He made no mention of any Tibetan political prisoners.

“Our concern for democracy and human rights around the globe stems from a belief that all people naturally deserve and desire freedom and that nations are stronger and world peace more secure when societies are free,” Craner said.

The full text of Lorne Craner’s remarks appears below:

“Liberty and Law”

Assistant Secretary Lorne W. Craner
December 17, 2002
The China Youth University for Political Science

Thank you for allowing me to come and speak to you today. I particularly appreciate the efforts of Director-General Li Baodong from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who suggested that I take this opportunity to talk with students at the China Youth University for Political Science. As you know from the introduction, I am the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the United States. I am responsible for overseeing U.S. policy on human rights and democracy issues. I also interact with my counterparts all over the world to exchange ideas and increase understanding about human rights conditions and democratic governance. I am in China this week to conduct the eleventh round of the US-China bilateral human rights dialogue, a meeting held to discuss issues of common concern between the United States and China. We concluded a successful plenary session yesterday.

I first came to China in 1981 and I am continuously amazed by the significant changes that I see all around me. For many observers, the most obvious changes have been the result of economic reform: the countless new buildings and cars that line the roads, the changes in the way that people dress, interact, and the new choices that people have in the ways they live and work. But China’s two decades of reform have been about more than economics. The founding of this university in 1985, dedicated to the study of political science, is an obvious example of that. When I came here in the early 80s, China was just resurrecting its academic study of politics and law. Now law, politics, comparative politics, economics, and journalism are being taught all over China.

New ways of thinking about politics and law have taken shape in China and it is those ideas that will be the focus of my discussion here today. Specifically, I will talk about how foreign observers understand the political and legal reforms taking place in China today and about how politics and law are integrated parts, with the success of one dependent on the other.

American Views on China’s Reform

In the United States, many average Americans are familiar with different aspects of China. China’s economic growth is perhaps most well known. Increasingly, more and more of the things that Americans buy – clothes, toys, bicycles, computers – come from here. But China is more than just a country of origin for products. Chinese culture is of great interest in the United States and many books and movies introduce Americans to China and its people. Chinese food is enormously popular across the country and it is a point of pride for some Americans to be able to eat their Chinese food using chopsticks. Chinese New Year, Chinese art and fashion, and other aspects of Chinese culture, such as Feng Shui and Tai Chi, are also increasingly well known by many Americans. Walking around America’s cities and towns, you will see many young people wearing t-shirts or hats with the characters for power (li) or love (ai) emblazoned on them. In universities, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Confucius’ Analects are required reading in philosophy and politics classes. There is no doubt that Americans are increasingly embracing Chinese culture.

With regard to politics and law in China, many Americans, to be frank, often express concern for the protection of individual rights and freedoms of China’s citizens. Americans care about human rights around the world and in China — it is the lack of political freedom and religious freedom that they are most troubled by. They write letters to the government – my office – expressing concern that democracy activists, such as Huang Qi, Rebiya Kadeer, and Jiang Weiping are being held in prison.

When they write such letters it is not because Americans want to criticize or bully China. Quite the contrary. Americans see their freedom to speak assemble, and worship freely not just as core American principles, but as universal human principles. We do not believe that some societies, more than others, are “deserving” of human rights or that these ideas only apply to some cultures and not others. People who live in societies as different as Brazil, South Korea, Botswana, Israel, and France have democratic systems because their citizens, despite the large cultural and historical differences between them, all have demanded democracy from their governments. Even Taiwan – a place where people speak Chinese, and celebrate Chinese traditions – has developed a democratic political system. Clearly, there is nothing incompatible between Chinese culture – or any culture – and basic human impulses for rights, freedom, and democracy.

Not surprisingly, then, Americans want to see all Chinese people enjoy these same shared human values. Our concern for democracy and human rights around the globe stems from a belief that all people naturally deserve and desire freedom and that nations are stronger and world peace more secure when societies are free.

Political and Legal Reform: The Urban-Rural Divide

While Americans’ express concern for the human rights situation in China, they are also aware of the steps that have been taken to revive the legal system and institutionalize politics. I have been a witness to this change myself over the years. China now has 120,000 lawyers and more than 10,000 law firms. In the past decade or so, the NPC has passed 100 new laws. The courts are handling more and more cases. Public hearings on legislation and policy are just beginning to take place, such as the one held last spring in Shanghai on new regulations governing historic preservation of buildings. Such public fora are an indication of how the Chinese political system is developing new mechanisms for incorporating public opinion into political decision-making. At the 16th Party Congress last month, President Jiang Zemin included rule of law goals as part of a strategy towards building a “well-off” society. Chinese at all levels, from the leaders to the laobaixing, are talking about the importance of law for China’s development.

Legal reform, however, is a largely urban and central development. It is the big cities that are charting the path for rule of law. China’s law schools are located in the developed areas. The courts in Beijing and Shanghai are the most advanced. The proliferation of legal hotlines and clinics are also concentrated in the urban areas.

While rule of law reform is taking place in the cities, political reform is growing roots in the countryside. In Washington, D.C. last spring Vice-President Hu Jintao, when asked whether the conditions in China are favorable for increased political reform, responded that some steps have already been taken. China has “further extended the scope of direct elections from the original township and the village level to the county level,” he told an audience on May 1. He continued, “And now there is in China the election from township and village level to the election of national deputies — we have applied this system of multiple candidates election.”.

The implementation of direct elections in China at the village level has been one of the most significant political reforms to emerge in the last decade. The development of sound elections is not easy. When I observed village elections in Sichuan in 1998, I was able to see first hand the challenges of implementing elections in your vast and largely rural country. Yet already, China has made significant advances in the development of its election procedures. The original Organic Law on Villagers Committees, for example, did not make secret ballots or multi-candidate elections mandatory. China’s revised law, passed in 1998 and based on more than a decade of experience now mandates the use of secret ballots, the setting up of ballot booths, and multi-candidate slates for a village election.

While work continues on village elections, now, as Vice-President Hu mentioned in his comments last spring, more attention is being paid to strengthening the direct elections for township and county level People’s Congress Deputies. These steps to advance elections are important and will give the people a more direct say in government.

But rule of law and elections reform cannot be kept apart by the urban-rural divide. Law and liberty are a pair, as President Bush told students last February at Tsinghua.

Many in China would agree that law is important, but elections, especially after the turbulent decade of the 1990s when so many countries democratized, has its critics. Elections, they argue, are usually held on just one day, whereas the governments that are elected are in power for years. Shouldn’t we focus more on rule of law and good governance than on elections? Critics maintain that elections do not guarantee good governance and the rule of law — that there is a disproportionate emphasis placed on whether or not a country holds an election and not enough attention paid to what happens in a country following the election. Elections, they argue, can produce bad leaders, and, even worse, they can be destabilizing and even chaotic.

I agree that elections are not an end in and of themselves. Elections without the rule of law are not sufficient to produce stable, thriving political systems. At the same time, however, I would argue that the rule of law without elections is also an incomplete political system.

Liberty and Law: Democracy in America

I wish I could say that I was the one who realized the interconnectedness of elections and rule of law, but I cannot. In 1831, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a book called Democracy in America, in which he examined the newly-created American political system so that France might find there “instruction by which …[it may]… profit.” Tocquevilles’s French audience was wary of the excesses of democracy and feared that liberty brought chaos. His purpose was not to praise American democracy, but to discover both “the evils and advantages which it brings.”

Tocqueville wrote persuasively for his French audience that civil society – that is to say the existence of citizens groups autonomous from the state – together with law contribute to the maintenance of democracy. Tocqueville was looking at 19th century America, but this has been proven true if we look at the experience of many countries around the world today. Tocqueville also observed that the legal profession “is the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy”. Simply put, liberty needs law.

But at the same time, law without liberty concentrates too much power in the hands of too few. Tocqueville knew this and wrote that the laws are only observed because the people themselves “contribute to make the laws” by electing their leaders. The citizens in America obey the law “not only because it is their work, but because it may be changed if it be harmful.”

This brings me back to my earlier point: China is making strong efforts to advance rule of law in the cities and at the central level and at the same time it is doing much to promote democracy at the grassroots level. But just as many in China recognize that the urban-rural development gap must be addressed, so must the urban-rural gap on law and political reform be addressed.

The nearly two-thirds of the Chinese population who are villagers and township dwellers need to enjoy the protections of rule of law. Urban residents, like their rural counterparts, will thrive if they are given a chance to pick the people who make the policies. Urban elections, while already in place in many cities, are the focus of renewed attention in provinces like Guangxi and in cities such as Qingdao.

Law and liberty are complementary, with one strengthening the other. They are buttressed, as Tocqueville noted in his study of American politics, by the existence of independent associations or what we now call civil society. In China, independent associations are just starting to emerge. They are focused on such issues as environmental rights, workers’ rights, women’s issues and care for the ill or disadvantaged. These independent groups are key elements of any “well-off” society, because they give voice concerns of ordinary people and average citizens, act as a check on corruption and government abuse, and provide vital social and educational services. Independent associations and groups help to ensure that liberty is not squandered and law is not abused.

In conclusion, I want to thank you again for inviting me here to speak today. I began my comments today reflecting on how much has changed in China over the last twenty years. My guess is that twenty years from now, future speakers will begin their comments noting how much has changed since 2002.