Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park in Gansu, China Image: rolandoooo on Flickr

Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Washington this week in the midst of his first state visit to Washington. Several difficult topics are on the formal agenda for discussion with the US administration, including cyber-espionage, China’s enlargement of islands in the South China Sea, and it’s new national security law that tightens controls on foreign businesses and nongovernmental organizations operating in China.

At the same time, China, given its ability to support global investments in infrastructure, is positioned as no other country to make its mark on the global stage by pushing forward on the current welcome progress it has made on environmental issues. Meanwhile, it must meet the challenge of furthering respect for human rights to achieve social cohesion and stability at home, and adding to its reputation abroad.

The New York Times had a remarkable story yesterday describing Xi’s experience during the Cultural Revolution. The story made me think back to the work I did several years ago advising academics and nonprofits in China interested in advocating for public finance reforms. As I got to know some of my Chinese colleagues, some would feel comfortable enough to share with me the experiences they and their families had during the Cultural Revolution. They spoke about the imprisonment and suicides of family members, which had deeply affected them. I was struck by how these experiences influenced their work, and by the powerful forces unleashed and suffering during the period. It made me understand better their inherent caution and wariness of social upheaval and disruption.

This experience may in part account for what over the past ten or fifteen years has been the gradualist, incremental nature of

Calcite pools in Huanglong in northwestern China Image: Chensiyuan

China’s economic reform process. As I followed the process, I would hear the announcement of the implementation of a reform measure that I had thought ignored and long forgotten. I would be surprised to realize sometime later, usually a number of years, that the reform in question must have been under discussion and study all that time.

Xi emphasized in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journalthat despite doubts raised recently in some quarters by turmoil in the stock market that the economic reform process is moving steadily forward. And that a significant part of the process involves combating corruption. “Our people hate corruption more than anything else and we must act to allay their concerns,” Xi said. “Therefore, we decided to go after both ‘tigers and flies’ — wrongdoers regardless of their ranks.”

Xi acknowledged in the interview that corruption measures will need to be reinforced with further institution building. He added that two further focuses are required, “the first is that we must keep [official] power in the cage of systemic checks. The other one, transparency, is the best precaution against corruption.”

He further explained:

As we go further in the anticorruption campaign, we will focus more on institutional building so that officials will not dare and cannot afford to be corrupt and, more importantly, have no desire to take that course. Right now, we are formulating and updating relevant laws and regulations to truly put power inside a more closely-knit cage of effective checks.

It is not clear what will be included in the “cage of effective checks.” But to be effective against corruption these must include the incorporation of international human rights standards into the legal system. Officials in any country in the world occasionally exceed their authority. What curbs the proliferation of predatory behavior is the possibility that an independent authority such as a court will review official actions. The primary purpose of internationally-recognized international human rights standards is to spell out the responsibilities of governments to citizens to ensure such independent review. These human rights standards should include measures to allow for the establishment of an independent judiciary, criminal procedures that result in fair trails, and the abolishment of such punishments as the death penalty, which can be erroneously applied in any judicial system no matter its quality.

Acts of corruption and human rights violations are frequently inextricably linked — for example, in cases in which government officials commit or collude with others to commit human rights violations to gain access to ill-gotten gains, or in which human rights abuses are necessary to silence and prevent public disclosure of corrupt acts. This suggests that to address corrupt acts it is necessary to respect the full range of human rights, rather than honoring some while omitting others. The full range includes free exercise of speech (including on the Internet), freedom of association for nongovernmental organizations, and the rights of employees to unite to form labor unions and engage in collective bargaining in both Chinese and foreign firms.

These initially may appear threatening to stability, but eventually will be necessary to ensure effective economic outcomes, such as the equitable distribution of income. It’s generally held that human rights are indivisible and mutually reinforcing, or better said, part of a system that requires respect for the full range of rights to reinforce itself.

If China is to push steadily forward in its reform process, raise the standard of living of all its citizens, and make the transition from that of a middle income country to a wealthy one, its next challenge will be respect for rights in practice, and consideration of the substantial steps that will be necessary to incorporate the full range of human rights into its legal system. It seems a task well suited to China’s preference for steady, methodical reform, and will be essential if the country is to achieve true stability and social cohesion.

China’s Stunning Natural Heritage

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Hunan Province, China Credit: Severin Stalder

Combating climate change is an area in which China is on a path to laudable progress. A breakthrough deal that Xi and US President Obama forged last November resulted in a Chinese promise to reduce its coal use. And today, Xi is expected to announce that China will start the world’s largest carbon trading system by 2017. This puts the US neatly on the back foot — will the US be prepared to follow suit and put a national wide price tag on carbon?

China’s next opportunity for environmental leadership involves the large infrastructure projects its substantial foreign exchange reserves will allow it to support inside and outside its borders. China can be instrumental in global environmental leadership by ensuring that these large infrastructure projects respect environmental and human rights standards. For example, the World Bank is currently in the process of revising it environmental and social safeguard standards. But unfortunately these draft safeguard standards do not require World Bank-supported activities to respect human rights standards (which includes the failure to require respect for ILO core labor conventions.) And environmental advocates have stated the current World Bank draft weakens environment measures and are inconsistent with the Bank’s assertion that it is supporting “sustainable development.” China can make a clear public commitment that it doesn’t support the weakening of environmental measures and will support respect for international human rights standards in the draft.

Another opportunity for Chinese leadership is pushing for appropriate standards in the newly created Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is currently drafting its own safeguard policies. In Cambodia, the lack of such safeguards has resulted in public demonstrations protesting a Chinese bilateral investment in front of its Phnom Penh embassy. It is an open question whether the new AIIB will result in substantial harm to the environment, and if people will be made worse off by its operations given its lack of rigorous standards. Development advocates have raised questions whether the current draft resettlement standards will deny millions of people who will be displaced from such projects will be impoverished by failing to require that their livelihoods be restored and to allow them to share in the benefits of development.

China has the opportunity to seize the day to build on its progress to date on environmental issues to make its mark on the global stage. The infrastructure investments that it is in a position to support put it in a unique position to exercise and publicly highlight its global leadership as it relates to respect for the environment. These infrastructure investments also offer the opportunity for China to enhance its reputation with its regional and global neighbors by ensuring that China respects human rights at home and overseas.