With memories of the Tiananmen Square crackdown still fresh in people’s minds, China responded to growing pressure from the outside world by publishing its first white paper on human rights in 1991. The 45,000-word document set out the government’s long-term view that human rights in China could not be judged against standards and norms in other countries or regions. It also reaffirmed that economic development should be a precondition for the full enjoyment of human rights. In 1997, China signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (China ratified in 2001), and in 1998 it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (still not ratified more than 20 years later). China has published 11 more white papers on human rights, and since 2011, the China Society for Human Rights Studies has published an annual “blue book” or report on human rights in the country.
China amended its constitution in March 2004 to include an article (Article 33) declaring that: “The State respects and preserves human rights”. The change was largely a symbolic one, given the lack of an independent judiciary in China to rule on whether a law or government decision violates the constitution. Despite these challenges, the early 2000s saw the rise of a national civil rights movement (weiquan yundong), which was spearheaded by human rights lawyers working to defend the rights of Chinese citizens through activism and litigation. This movement was to come under increasing attack after President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012.