Hundreds of protesters march in Istanbul on July 5 against Beijing's policies towards the Muslim Uyghur minority. Source: AP
Chinese diplomats often assert that progress on human rights in China has been remarkable and is plain to see. The results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center call this rosy assessment into question. In country after country, including China’s top trading partners, big majorities see human rights in China as bad and getting worse.
Since 2013, the year Xi Jinping assumed China’s presidency, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes project has conducted a one-of-its-kind survey that asks whether the Chinese government respects the individual liberties of its people. Over the last three years, Pew has polled more than 120,000 individuals in 49 countries. People in 34 of these countries were surveyed in all three years of Xi’s presidency. Pew conducted the latest survey in 40 countries from May 25–27, 2015; the results were released on June 23.
"Does the government of China respect the personal freedoms of its people?" (Global median)
Sources: Pew Research Center, Dui Hua.
The survey finds a sharp deterioration in international opinion towards the Chinese government’s human rights record since the last survey of 43 countries in 2014. The poll poses the question: “Does the government of China respect the personal freedoms of its people?” In 2015, the global median responses for “Yes” and “No” showed an 11-point spread (34 percent “Yes” and 45 percent “No”), compared to a four-point spread in 2014 (36 percent “Yes” and 40 percent “No”). Of the 35 countries surveyed in both years, 23 registered an increase in the percentage of “No” responses, while 15 tallied an increase in the percentage of “Yes” responses. (Some countries showed increases in both the “Yes” and “No” results.)
Between 2014 and 2015, the median percentage of people who said that the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people increased in every geographic area surveyed.
"Does the government of China respect the personal freedoms of its people?"
(Median percentage saying "No" by region, 2014-2015)
(Median percentage saying "No" by region, 2014-2015)
Sources: Pew Research Center, Dui Hua
Attitudes towards China’s human rights record are particularly bad in Western Europe, North America, Northeast Asia, and Australia. In France, 93 percent replied that the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its citizens. In Germany 92 percent held that view, as did 88 percent in Spain. In the United States, the percentage of those who say that China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people rose steadily to 84 percent in 2015, from 71 percent in 2013, and 78 percent in 2014. Responses in the United Kingdom show a similar trend.
In Italy, South Korea, Japan, and Australia, eight in ten or more of respondents in 2015 indicated that China lacks respect for personal freedoms.
One of the biggest shifts in opinion took place in Turkey, where the percentage of those who said that China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people rose to 58 percent in 2015 from 38 percent in 2014.
While opinions towards China’s human rights record in Latin America turned largely negative, the Pew survey found a staggering 31 percentage point increase in the percentage of Chileans—from 20 percent in 2014 to 51 percent in 2015—who said that China does respect its people’s personal freedoms. Other countries that registered double-digit improvements in perceptions of China’s human rights record were Pakistan (up 13 points), the Philippines (up 11 points), and Nigeria (up 13 points).
One is left to speculate on why there has been such a sharp deterioration in China’s human rights image overall. In some countries, especially those engaged in territorial disputes with China, geopolitical factors might be at play. Countries with large Christian populations may have been affected by reports of church demolitions. In Turkey, China’s suppression of the economic, social, and cultural rights of Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group of Xinjiang, has almost certainly played a role in the dramatic fall of China’s image. (Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for splittism in September 2014, and protests over China’s treatment of Uyghurs erupted in Istanbul in early July 2015.) Countries that value the rule of law may have been repelled by the increase in the jailing and beating of lawyers and human rights defenders. Beijing’s refusal to show flexibility in its dealings with Hong Kong protesters over political reforms and the, at least initially, heavy-handed police response to the protests were widely reported. Foreign journalists in China, many of whom complain of their treatment at the hands of Chinese authorities, not surprisingly, focus on reporting negative stories.
On the other hand, the Chinese government’s effort to counter the country’s negative image has been feckless and episodic. Perhaps its biggest achievement in human rights in recent years is its sharp reduction in the number of executions. The government rarely highlights this feat, and when it does, omits specific figures, which it chooses to classify as state secrets.