• Fri, 12/09/2016 - 23:19

Dec 10, 2016

Today we celebrate International Human Rights Day, which marks the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty-eight years ago.  The declaration states that each and every one of us has the right to freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.  We Americans know, from first-hand experience, that protecting these freedoms is difficult and never-ending work.  

I have been a firsthand witness to China’s dramatic economic transformation, and I remain amazed at the progress China has made improving the lives of its citizens.  Chinese people now have a much higher standard of living, enjoy far better access to education and health care, and have more opportunities to travel than they did four decades ago.  I have also witnessed the efforts that China has made to protect and strengthen the personal freedoms of its citizens.  I have welcomed the recent change allowing Chinese couples to have a second child, for example, and we look forward to the day when birth limits are abandoned altogether.  I also applaud recent reforms in how the judiciary operates at the local level.  In particular, I note a trend toward greater transparency in aspects of the judicial system, with the Supreme People’s Court issuing regulations in October stipulating that most court judgements be released within a week.  Such progress is commendable, but many cases still lack transparency and the judicial system is not independent, with outcomes often preordained or influenced by political considerations. 

I can not talk about respect for human rights without talking about human beings.  I remain extremely concerned about the ongoing detention of Chinese lawyers, including Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang, Xie Yang, and Xie Yanyi.  For the rule of law to function effectively, every person must be able to seek the services of a lawyer, and it cannot be a crime to provide legal counsel to people seeking redress, as these lawyers have done.  These four individuals, as well as a dozen more lawyers and law associates, have been held for nearly a year and a half without trial.  We call for their release.  Unfortunately, in recent weeks several more rights defenders have disappeared, including Jiang Tianyong, an advocate for the wives of China's missing lawyers. China's treatment of these lawyers and advocates calls into question its commitment to the rule of law.

China’s constitution states that “all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.”  So I ask why Tashi Wangchuk, a Chinese citizen who is deeply interested in education, remains in jail for his peaceful advocacy of Tibetan language education.  We pursue no political motives when we call for his immediate release.  While other countries celebrate when their citizens win the Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo remains jailed.  He should be free.

As the U.S. Ambassador to China for the last two and a half years, I can tell you that China’s approach to human rights directly impacts our overall bilateral relationship.  When I speak on human rights, some people here accuse me or the United States government of interfering in China’s domestic affairs, or even worse, of attempting to destabilize this great country.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Through our words and actions, we have repeatedly reassured China’s leadership that we welcome a prosperous, stable and successful China that works with us and the rest of the international community to address the many common global challenges that we face.  When I speak about human rights, I do so out of respect for China and for the dignity and worth of each and every Chinese person.  I reject the notion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”  The fact remains that the Universal Declaration, which China has adopted, makes clear the international standards covering how all countries should treat their citizens. 

My own country continues to grapple with how to ensure we are protecting the rights of all of our citizens, regardless of color, creed, status or background.  Many of you are watching events unfold in the United States and followed a noisy, sometimes divisive campaign.  While the discourse may be contentious, it is our respect for human rights and the rule of law that enables us to so publicly debate the future of our society and peacefully work through these challenges.  Our system at times may seem frustrating and messy, but I truly believe that the United States will come out stronger.  

As we celebrate the 68th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today, I honor the idea that human dignity is the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace, and we should all rededicate ourselves to upholding its principles.