Beijing squatter protest —and human rights dilemma

A rare protest is reported from Beijing Dec. 10, following the mass eviction of a squatter camp for migrant workers in the city's northeastern fringe. The incident, in Feijia village of Chaoyang district, near Beijing's airport, saw protesters hanging a hand-painted banner reading "Violation of Human Rights" across the front gate of the village committee office, while hundreds chanted "Forced eviction violates human rights." Clearing of the makeshift camp was seemingly part of a crackdown on informal dwellings following a fire in a tenement in nearby Daxing district last month in which 19 were killed. Tens of thousands have been left homeless in the clearances. Footage of the protest was captured on smart phones, resulting in coverage in the Wall Street Journal and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

In some coincidental timing, the WSJ notes the protest came the same day that the US,  Canada and European Union issued near-identical statements condemning China's rights record on the occasion of International Human Rights Day. But this year, China took the unusual step of holding its own "South-South Human Rights Forum" in Beijing to mark the day, attended by representatives from several countries in the global south.

This shindig clearly served the dual purpose of deflecting Western criticism and attempting to redefine human rights in terms of a "right to development (as opposed to a right to dissent, be free from fear of repression or persecution, et cetera). "Developing countries should pay special attention to safeguarding people's right to subsistence and right to development, especially to achieve a decent standard of living, adequate food, clothing, and clean drinking water, the right to housing, security, work, education, health and social security," the confab's declaration said, according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

It's easy to see the Orwellian abuses that such a doctrine opens the door to. China's small farmers have been waging protests against land-grabs for development projects across the country in recent years, and urban dwellers against waste incinerators and the like—and sometimes winning. As we've noted, such victories are related to the fact that protests in closed societies like China mean far more than they do in "democracies" where "repressive tolerance" prevails. But protesters of course risk facing plain old open repression—and violations of their human rights, as more traditionally defined. And, obviously, building waste incinerators and factories is not always compatible with the rights to a "decent standard of living" and a clean environment. The protesters implicitly understand this.

And a final point. The Western powers hypocritically exploiting the human rights issue to score points against imperial rival China arguably further imperils the Chinese protesters in some ways—allowing the state to portray them as pawns, dupes or agents of the West. And, of course, defenders of the environment also face persecution and terror in Western client states—and in the US itself. We assume the Chinese protesters have no illusions on this point.