As China's newly appointed chairman Xi Jinping took power Thursday, the leadership transition itself remains opaque: Not only have the Chinese people been excluded from the process, it is virtually impossible to understand what the leadership selection process entailed, given the lack of information about intra-party fighting, or glean a sense of what the new leader of the world's largest country cares about.
But one thing is clear: Aspirations for basic freedoms, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law have grown exponentially among Chinese people.
Xi's predecessors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin pursued reformist agendas designed to give people modest amounts of freedom so long as they did not challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Under Hu Jintao, this process stopped; since the 2008 Olympics, he has further narrowed the space. He stepped up abuses of human rights defenders and lawyers, reined in vocal civil society organizations, broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans, and employed legally baseless tactics such as house arrest to silence critics. The state has made some key concessions, including amending the constitution in 2004 to acknowledge the obligation to protect and uphold human rights. But while GDP has risen roughly four-fold, there have been no commensurate jumps in human rights protections, or surges in respect for the rule of law -- and increasing numbers of Chinese citizens are aware of this, thanks to the Internet.
As a result, Xi, who stands at center of the collective leadership, inherits a much more fractious China. He and his colleagues face not only gross and pervasive corruption, apocalyptic environmental conditions, and an economic slowdown exacerbated by a housing bubble and large amounts of non-performing loans, but also an increasingly impatient and skeptical public.
Will Xi kick the can down the road and hope the problems will either disappear or be smothered by the security apparatus, or will he answer growing public demands for greater freedoms? Let's hope it's the latter. Here are six human rights reforms Xi should adopt in order to ameliorate growing public discontent and demonstrate real commitment to, rather than lip service towards, the rule of law.
1. Set the Courts Free
In a system that denies ordinary citizens participation in political decisions, those facing abuses have few places to vent their anger or seek redress. Unless the Communist Party relinquishes control of the legal system -- from the Supreme Court to the bar association to the accreditation process for lawyers -- there will be no reliable mechanisms for resolving grievances. If people cannot take their grievances to court, they will increasingly take them to the streets: Official estimates suggest there are more than 100,000 protests per year.
Creating independent entities whose highest loyalty is not to the party but to the law itself would go a long way towards stemming corruption and renewing some of the waning faith in the system. Xi could abolish the party judicial committees that dictate some court rulings, and allow for the establishment of a truly independent bar association and for lawyers to operate according to their professional judgment rather than local officials' political concerns. Such changes will invariably mean more prosecutions of party members and challenges to various laws, but a wiser leader would prefer to see these play out in a courtroom than face public ire and international embarassment.