Lending a Hand: Students Join the Fight for Human Rights in China

Mar 1, 2017
Mel Policicchio
Woodrow Wilson School

According to the World Report 2016 issued by the Human Rights Watch in July 2015, the Chinese government reportedly began detaining and interrogating human rights lawyers and activists. By September 2015, approximately 280 men and women had been arrested, with 40 still remaining in custody. Many believe that most of these 40 people are held in secret locations without access to lawyers or family, some beyond the legal time limits. According to their accusers, these lawyers and activists are part of a “major criminal gang.”

An annual undergraduate Policy Task Force led by Martin S. Flaherty, visiting professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, places students into a day in the life of those lawyers and activists fighting Chinese civil society injustice from the outside. The students examine issues such as domestic violence, access to education for disabled students and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the annual workshop, “Preserving Human Rights and Civil Society in China,” students conduct extensive legal research and personal interviews to consider how the U.S. government and nongovernmental organizations can most effectively assist Chinese activists in overcoming challenges. Typically, these groups provide extensive resource support and guidance to activists while working to ensure that those Chinese citizens speaking out have a voice in the international community.

Flaherty has taken his students to Washington, D.C., every year for nearly a decade — A November “research trip” included meetings with representatives from the U.S. Department of State, Human Rights Watch and George Washington University Law School. To give his students a rich understanding of the complexities involved in human rights work within a nation like China, Flaherty encourages students to speak with many East Asian human rights advocates.

Throughout the course, students heard from and interviewed experts including, but not limited to: Xiaowen Liang, a women’s rights advocate who worked with the “Feminist Five,” Chinese human rights advocates who made headlines around the world when they were imprisoned for protesting the unequal treatment of women; Sophie Richardson, China director for the Human Rights Watch; and Susan O’Sullivan, director of the Office of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department — the task force’s longtime host.

“Each year I meet students — only a few of whom have a background in either China or human rights work, and none of whom have had any real experience in policy making. Yet without fail, by the end of our project they are able to make sophisticated recommendations to career professionals at the State Department and more recently, at the White House, where their insights have not only been appreciated, but taken seriously,” said Flaherty. “This is a real testament to the intelligence, hard work and passion of the students I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.”

After participating in this task force as a junior in 2015, now-senior Cydney Kim returned in fall 2016 as the task force’s senior commissioner. Kim’s academic interests focus on promoting women’s rights law, and she returned to the task force in hopes of expanding on her earlier work.

Last year, the course taught her first to engage China on less controversial legal reforms before slowly edging into more contentious discussions. Flexibility in cooperative work is a crucial part of legislating change, an element Kim noticed almost immediately.

“Enacting change can be quite difficult as multiple parties must come together to create viable recommendations. In addition, even when opportunities for change exist, so many players, such as the State Department and Congress, have to come together before action can be taken,” she said.

In January 2017, the task force presented policy recommendations to its governmental clients: the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and the National Security Council. Among their recommendations, they urged the DRL to strengthen its collaborative efforts with the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and noted that the State Department should attach specific conditions to China’s demonstrated efforts to reduce trafficking of North Korean citizens within the next year.

Despite the inherent difficulties of the field, Kim appreciates that the potential rewards are tangible. Each time a Chinese woman wins a court case involving domestic violence or employment discrimination, those working in human rights fields know there has been a job well done.

“Throughout this task force, I’ve been exposed to activists, lawyers and government officials. It has been highly rewarding to see the different type of work that they do,” she said. “This is an incredibly valuable course for policy students who want a better understanding of what it means to work in human rights.”

Led by Professor Martin S. Flaherty, the task force on building the rule of law in China included senior commissioners Cydney Kim ’17 and Richard Chang ’17, as well as members Christopher Shin ’18, Eric Wang ’18, Sammy Kunitz-Levy ’18, Cadee Qiu ’18, Mary Claire Bartlett ’18, Rachel Park ’18, Jameson Lowrie, Matthew Allen ’18, Camila Novo-Viano ’18 and Vilma Jimenez ’18.