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From The Editor

February 27, 2003

When reports on the subject of the exclusion of migrant children from schools in China’s largest cities first started appearing in the domestic press in the late 1990s, some concerned commentators warned that a “lost generation” of children who had missed out on education altogether was being created. Both national and municipal governments have since taken some action to allow migrant children greater access to schools.

But in the cities that remain the greatest magnets for migrant workers, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, the desire of city governments to restrict the numbers of poor migrants settling in their jurisdictions still takes precedence over children’s right to education, despite the fact that this right is enshrined in Chinese law and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China has ratified and is thus legally obligated to observe.

The summary of a Human Rights in China report presented in this issue examines the crucial details of regulations and policy to show how this key right is being neglected in the battle to hold down migration to the cities. Such an overriding policy goal can also be seen at work in the hostile attitude of many city administrations to the efforts of migrants themselves to provide education for the children of their fellow migrants. As Hou Wenzhuo reports in her study of private migrant schools in Beijing, these facilities are often more than just schools. They try to help street children and orphans, and they serve as focal points for communities that are subject to systematic discrimination and even abuse.

Another indication of the hostility of municipal authorities to poor migrants is the fact that the use of Custody and Repatriation (C&R) has more than tripled in the last decade. C&R is a form of administrative detention that is used to expel people who lack the proper papers from the cities, as well as to “clean up” the homeless, beggars, street children, the mentally ill and other “undesirables” from city streets. As Nicolas Becquelin describes, in this area too, measures to address public concerns about abusive practices in C&R have proved to be more form than substance. As one police official told a journalist, it may not be legal to detain people in C&R, but it is “indispensable.”

This kind of willingness to twist the law and to let obvious miscarriages of justice go unchallenged is in evidence in a shocking story from rural Henan Province recounted by Xiao Xuehui. She describes how a popularly-elected village leader who made an attempt to untangle a web of corruption ended up being executed for his pains, despite efforts to save him by fellow villagers and a group of elderly intellectuals across China.

Discretion to ignore the law is a common feature of official behavior in China today. Effectively, authorities at all levels may violate the rights granted to people and groups by law with impunity when it suits what they consider to be “higher” aims, whether that be a policy objective such as preserving showcase cities as shiny models of “development,” untainted by the widespread poverty of the country as a whole; or whether it is merely protecting the venal interests of a corrupt clique of officials who seem little

different from an organized criminal gang.

The implications of this lack of respect for the law are a reason why the Tiananmen Mothers group persist in their struggle for an end to the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the Beijing massacre. Forgetting the dead of June 4, 1989, say Ding Zilin and the Tiananmen Mothers, can only lead to more violence, more injustice, more massacres in the future, in which other mothers will lose their children. A true stability, they argue, can only be built on a foundation of justice and accountability.

Corruption, lack of respect for rights laid down in contracts and regulations, and the absence of effective channels of representation, as well as collusion between local officials and managers, were a central concern of the workers who flooded into the streets of the cities of Daqing and Liaoyang in the northeast this March. An article by the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the international labor movement and interviews from China Labour Bulletin look beyond the global media’s sometimes simplistic reporting of the subject.

The protests may have quietened down now, but as usual a number of people remain in jail. Yao Fuxin is one of those singled out as a “ring leader,” and his detention is clearly aimed at intimidating other workers into staying at home rather than venturing out on the streets to voice their demands again. The obsession of the current Chinese leadership with “stability” above all means that genuine grievances are suppressed, while those who caused them, more often than not, get a free ride.

The unwillingness of those governments that claim to care about human rights around the world to deal squarely with systemic abuses in China now seem likely to have an impact beyond China’s borders, on institutions of global governance. Nicolas Becquelin and Chine Chan write that China, joining with other “like-minded” countries, poses a danger to the already-weak and ineffectual monitoring mechanisms of the UN human rights institutions. And the recent victory of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in winning a seat as a “workers representative” in the International Labor Organization may herald similar moves to eviscerate the body’s ability to criticize governments for failing to protect the rights of workers.

Impunity in China is not just a domestic matter, but should be a global concern.