- Between Freedom and Subsistence: China and Human Rights
The mention of human rights in the People’s Republic of China generally evokes memories of the student demonstrations of April-June 1989, and the brutal governmental suppression of the Democracy Movement. The image of the lone protester standing up to a line of People’s Liberation Army tanks is still vivid. In Between Freedom and Subsistence: China and Human Rights, Ann Kent builds her analysis around these [End Page 218] events; however, before considering the changes that have taken place since 1989, she provides a fascinating history of the Communist Party’s means of social control in the 1949–1989 period. She elaborates on the regulation that existed and that limited freedoms in spite of formal legal and constitutional provisions that guaranteed civil and political rights. Therefore, this book is directed not only toward Asian human rights watchers, but also toward those who seek to understand the conflict between formal guarantees of rights in a nondemocratic system and their actual implementation.
To come to terms with this conflict, Kent strives to show a relationship between the Chinese belief system and the notion of basic, universal, or “core” 1 rights. Using the right to life as a means of comparison, she delves into the contrast between civil and political rights on one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other hand. She also injects into the analysis the distinct notions of rights that exist between Western liberal democracies and socialist or third world nations. The main premise of Between Freedom and Subsistence is that the status of human rights is a dynamic one; to understand the changes that are taking place in China, it is necessary to address the relationships among international human rights norms, the Constitutions of China, the legal and institutional framework, and the informal realities surrounding the enjoyment of rights by Chinese citizens. The basic aim of Kent’s analysis, therefore, is to come to an understanding of how China may change its conduct to respect these “core” rights rather than merely changing “external conditions” to reflect a Western notion of respect for basic rights. Her broad conclusion is that change in the human rights situation in China should be a balance, not a trade-off.
The format of the book is convenient for readers who desire a background to post-1949 legislation, constitutional law, and social movements in China. The eight chapters trace a logical historical progression of changes in guarantees and enjoyment of human rights. Initially, Kent provides the conceptual framework which will be employed throughout the book; she discusses the difficulty in defining civil and political, and economic, social, and cultural rights. To illustrate the dichotomy, she uses a comparison between domestic Chinese norms and international human rights.
Chapter two provides a historical overview of governmental and societal attitudes toward human rights. Chapters three through eight detail the changes in the Chinese belief system during the [End Page 219] years 1949–1991. First, Kent focuses on the period of reform from 1949–78 during Mao’s rule and after his death. Next, she turns to the contradiction between de jure and de facto civil and political rights in 1979–89, the Modernization Decade. Subsequently, she provides a contrast by reviewing the status of economic, social and cultural rights for that same period. Once this background has been established, Kent describes the events surrounding the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen incident and gives commentary on the international response that followed those events. Finally, she looks more closely at the impact of the 1989 Democracy Movement, outlines three stages of change from 1989–1991, and explores the future of Chinese human rights.
Between Freedom and Subsistence sets out the principal difficulty in beginning an analysis of human rights in China—reaching an agreement on the definition of rights, specifically individual civil and political rights versus collective economic, social, and cultural rights. Kent begins by providing a substantive example to distinguish between the Western and socialist notions of the...