3 April to 17 April

(previous edition of Rights Digest)

Is #freethefive a template for future campaigns or a one-off success?

Gao Yu, Pu Zhiqiang and the start of the 26th June 4 commemoration season

Updates on legal cases related to #OccupyHK: what the HK government and police are and are not doing

Freedom of Expression Alert: CCP’s HK Liaison Office takes over Sino United Publishing, major player in HK book publishing industry

47-year-old Tibetan nun self-immolates & Partystate publishes new White Paper on Tibet

Education for all? World misses all six MDG targets related to education

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illustration by @badiucao

Virtually everyone rejoiced at the very good news that Wang Man (王曼), Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) and Zheng Churan (郑楚然), Li Tingting (李婷婷), and Wu Rongrong (武嶸嶸) were released on bail on Monday, April 13 after 37 days of detention.

But we should not let our joy obscure the fact that this is a partial victory. Indeed, one of the reasons so many of us were so excited is that victories of this sort come far and few between. Indeed, when was the last time any of us can remember something like this occurring?

We should be asking ourselves, What made it happen? And what can we learn from it to apply to the future? Anything, or was it really only a one-time-only occurrence?

In several respects, the answer is the latter. The release was the result of a special brew that will never occur in exactly this way ever again:

1) timing:

Not only were the five arrested in the lead-up to International Women’s Day, but it so happened that the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women was meeting in New York. That’s an annual meeting, but this year, it was commemorating 20 years since the milestone 1995 women’s world forum in Beijing, of all places. And China and UN Women are scheduled to co-host a meeting on gender equality and women’s empowerment at the UN general assembly in September this year — China wouldn’t look too good doing that with the five in jail. Not only that, but the relatively do-nothing CSW drew women’s rights organizations from around the world, which held very happening side events. The Chinese government couldn’t have done more to stir up that hornet’s nest, and being used to controlling civil society at home, it probably was taken aback at what a really dynamic civil society looks like.

2) the global solidarity of women’s rights organizations

Of all the types of “single-issue” rights organizations around the world, it has to be the women’s rights movement that is the most dynamic (followed closely by the LGBT rights movement, which, unlike the women’s rights movement, is very strong in some parts of the world and almost non-existent in others).

One of the things that women’s rights organizations do best is show solidarity with their sisters elsewhere whenever they are at risk. Many women’s rights organizations are feisty and on the cutting edge. Their #freethefive campaign filtered upwards to some of the more touchy-feely ones like OneBillion Rising and even the UN’s He for She.

Not only that, but the women’s rights organizations are broad-based and politically savvy enough to be able to pressure Western politicians and governments in a way that international human rights organizations like Amnesty and HRW can’t. Amnesty and HRW did their usual good job of documenting and publicizing the issue, and the case got amazingly broad and high-quality international media coverage.

For years, one of the standard messages to the Chinese government when telling it to stop persecution has been self-interest: There is a price to be paid for abusing your citizens. But unfortunately, more often than not, the Communist Party has found there is little to no price to be paid. And that is because Western governments have been unwilling to publicly make an issue of rights abuses. And one reason for that is that, on China policy, business is far more effective at lobbying them than civil society.

Also, this time it helped that…

3) it was “only” about women

In the abstract at least, as an issue, the situation of women is a bit like the environment — it’s a relatively cuddly, low-cost issue for politicians and governments. Nearly everyone, in theory, is for women’s equality and against harassment of women.

The five’s story played into clichés about women’s liberation. They were young, well educated, well-intentioned, easy to like and to ‘adopt’. So everyone from Hillary (who as Secretary of State infamously declared, “We won’t let human rights get in the way of our relations with China”) to Samantha Power to John Kerry and even the EU (!) felt comfortable jumping on the bandwagon. So…

4) Western governments and politicians spoke out more than usual

… which begs the question, does the case of the five put paid to Western governments’ self-serving argument for ‘quiet diplomacy’ (ie, the best way to approach the Chinese government on human rights is behind closed doors- that way, they don’t lose face and are more apt to act)? Most rights advocates agree so-called ‘quiet diplomacy’ has been almost entirely ineffectual; indeed, little more than an excuse, a fig leaf to appear as if Western governments actually cared and were really doing something.

I can’t imagine their statements actually signal any substantial change in their approach to China policy (trade, trade, trade), but the case of the five might say something about what will reach them: constituencies in their own countries identifying strongly with the issue and publicizing it- ie, domestic political pressure, something that’s been very hard to leverage in the case of most persecuted individuals in China. But human rights organizations can use the case in their lobbying of Western governments: See, this is what happens when you speak out! (What’s more, there’s little chance you’ll pay a price in terms of Chinese government retaliation.)

Really, though, human rights organizations have zero political leverage. The real lesson is that if other groups with broad bases of public support show as much solidarity as women’s rights NGOs, there’s a chance.

I couldn’t help thinking about the cases of Ilham Tohti and his students as I heard about the release of the five. In terms of international solidarity, their cases seem a missed opportunity. Where were the academics who should have shown solidarity with their fellow academic, students who should have shown solidarity with their fellow students? What about anti-discrimination and minority organizations? Even Uighur organizations were somewhat stand-offish: Ironically, Ilham Tohti was convicted of separatism, but one of the reasons Uighur organizations weren’t so enthusiastic in their support for him is that he’s never publicly supported independence, so they don’t regard him as one of their own. Writers, through PEN International, were one of the few groups to loudly and consistently campaign on his behalf. Ilham won PEN American Center’s 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. International media dutifully covered his case. There were muffled objections from Western governments. If nothing else, more vocal global support might have had some effect on the sentence, which, as it turned out, was life imprisonment — a little harsh for an academic and blogger, no?

While we’re at it, what about lawyers’ solidarity for Pu Zhiqiang, journalists’ for Gao Yu? (More on their cases below.)

The fact that many people in China knew about the five is also important. Their fellow activists, families and acquaintances spoke out on their behalf, and Yirenping actively campaigned for their release (getting itself in more trouble than ever). An argument can be made that in the cases of persecuted individuals, we need to do more to circumvent the Great Firewall and domestic censorship to reach out to netizens and get the word out.

To summarize, the full list of ingredients for a perfect storm recipe is:

timing

relatively non-“sensitive” issue

international human rights organizations’ attention

international media attention

solidarity from single-issue organizations and global rights movement most related to case

domestic support and advocacy

unequivocal public statements by Western governments and politicians

Anyway, the thing to remember, in the light of this success, is that the detention of the five is just the tip of the iceberg and more than anything else shows the regime’s hostility toward civil society. It almost can’t stop itself, so deeply set has become the reflex. So it is that upon the release of the five, you have the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei thundering, “Because this organization is suspected of violating the law, it will face punishment.”

The whole saga of the five’s detention will continue to unfold, related, as it seems to be, to the continuing persecution of Yirenping. Then there’s the upcoming verdict in the Gao Yu trial, Pu Zhiqiang’s on-going detention, Chen Yunfei’s recent arrest for inciting subversion. And those are only the high-profile cases, in themselves tips of the iceberg.

And in defending human rights defenders, we should recall that however necessary that work is, it is essentially defensive; that is to say, rather than working towards our ideal of a rights-respecting society, we spend so much time just trying to prevent the worst from happening.

Among other things, the women’s rights movement, which was nascent to begin with, has probably suffered a significant setback. How difficult do you imagine it will be to recruit new activists after this? One can hardly argue that fighting for women’s rights is a risk-free pursuit. Also, the five are out of action, at least for the duration of their bail, with restrictions placed on their activities and movements and the near-certainty they will be closely monitored. Who knows? Maybe just nipping a nascent movement in the bud was the main objective of the arrests. If so, it appears that, at least in the short term, the Partystate was just as successful as we were in securing the release of the five.

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As the scheduled verdict in Gao Yu’s trial for “leaking state secrets” approaches (Friday, April 17, 9am, Beijing No.3 Intermediate People’s Court — update 17apr, 12:31pm: the hearing was perfunctory. Gao Yu was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. She is 71. If she serves her full sentence, she will be 78 by the time she’s released. She has vowed to appeal the verdict.), we should remind ourselves that it was just about exactly a year ago (24 April 2014) that she was detained. And the circumstances of her detention are telling: She was planning to attend a private event to commemorate June 4 at the start of the season to remember its 25th anniversary.

Civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was detained as part of the same crackdown. Indeed, he did attend the privately held June 4 event, and it is suspected that that act was the most immediate reason he was arrested in late May 2014.

Gao Yu’s trial was held in November and the verdict has twice been postponed for unknown reasons. Her case has been perhaps even more arduous and messier than most. Among other things, it has included a video of what appears to have been a coerced confession broadcast on CCTV, a confession Gao Yu later retracted, saying it had been made under duress. She now strongly asserts her innocence. The charge of leaking state secrets is related to the prosecution’s claim that she gave an overseas media company the infamous Communist Party directive, “Document No.9” ordering “an ideological offensive against advocates of constitutional democracy, universal human rights, independent media, and other ideas deemed subversive.” But that directive had been issued about a year before her detention, and details of it had been widely circulated online in China. The overseas media group denies it received the document from Gao Yu. In a trial closed to the public, the prosecution appeared to present little to no evidence that Gao Yu actually gave the group the document, and even if she had, it’s hard to see how it could constitute a ‘state secret’; if so, it was an open secret that everyone knew about.

Pu Zhiqiang still awaits trial nearly a year after he was detained. Indeed, he hasn’t even been indicted yet for what is reported to be an astoundingly wide range of serious crimes, “incitement to subvert state power,” “incitement to separatism,” “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” and “illegally obtaining citizens’ information,” apparently largely based on his Weibo posts, a list of which were provided to his lawyer Mo Shaoping as “evidence”.

Gao Yu’s verdict comes in the same week as the 26th anniversary of the death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, which was the start of the ’89 demonstrations, with people going to Tiananmen Square to mourn him. Because he was widely regarded as a reformer who had been deposed by Deng Xiaoping, people used the occasion to denounce official corruption and call for reforms and democracy.

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Both Gao Yu and Pu Zhiqiang played an active role in the ’89 demonstrations.

Gao Yu was detained on June 3, as the People’s Suppression Army converged on Tiananmen Square, and spent the next 450 days in detention. In 1994, she was again jailed for “illegally providing state secrets to institutions outside China’s borders” — virtually the same charge she’s up on now — for writing four articles in an HK magazine and spent the next five years in prison.

Before 2014, Pu Zhiqiang, on the other hand, had never been arrested, as far as I know, though he was often quite outspoken and had defended high-profile and ‘sensitive’ figures such as Ai Weiwei. Many see his persecution as one of the clearest markers of China’s backwards trajectory under Xi Jinping.

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Their persecution is sadly a strong a sign as any of how little China has changed politically since ’89. Socially, economically and culturally it has changed beyond recognition, faster than virtually any other society on earth. Politically, it’s still 1989.

Check out also Maya Wang’s piece on Gao Yu and CPJ’s, especially its great photos spanning the past three decades of Gao’s life. I find the one of her and her son, taken in 1990 after her 450 days in prison in relation to the ’89 demonstrations, especially touching.

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In one sense, the news these past two weeks is that there’s been little news on prosecutions related to the HK occupations.

We’ve already speculated on the silence and inaction on the part of the HK police and Department of Justice. Another possible reason is that they don’t want news about prosecutions to disrupt the government’s tabling of its fake electoral reform proposal in the Legislative Council. Is it even possible that they’re holding possible prosecution like a sword of Damocles over high-profile figures in hope of getting their support for the proposal? I doubt they could be so naïve as to think they could influence pro-democracy leaders in that way, but you never know….

At any rate, Joshua Wong, head of Scholarism, and Raphael Wong, vice-chair of the League of Social Democrats, received notice from the Department of Justice that it is asking the High Court for approval to proceed against them on contempt of court charges in connection with the police clearance of Mong Kok on 26 November.

This is the first sign of DoJ intentions to follow through on a high-profile case.

And it is quite striking, for it is on the most dubious of grounds. Joshua Wong re-posted the video of the moments leading up to the arrest just to show how frivolous the charges are.

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See https://www.facebook.com/dashhk/videos/733932953355184/?fref=nf for full video

I still can’t believe the DoJ would dare to test them in court. Essentially, Joshua and Raphael were doing nothing but trying to speak to the bailiffs when police very forcibly drug them out the crowd and lead them away. It’s hard to see how the DoJ can make the case that asking the bailiffs questions about how they intended to carry out the clearance constitutes contempt of court. If this is as good as the DoJ’s got on high-profile figures, weak weak weak. If anything, police behavior at the start of the Mong Kok clearance would be about as clear grounds as any for an independent investigation, but I’ll leave a full post on that to another day.

Tong Wai-leung was sentenced this week to 180 hours of community service. On 30 March, he was found guilty of “obtaining access to a computer with criminal intent”. In short, the prosecution argued that he had threatened the daughter of a police officer online. If the story were as clear cut as that, then, yeah, that’s not kosher. But the details reveal the police and Department of Justice to be exceedingly petty. Tong admitted to posting a message. He had taken it from another post, and altered it, raising the question of why the original poster has not been charged. It claimed triads were willing to pay $600,000 for the policeman’s daughter’s arm and leg. But the end of the post stated that the threat was “not real”, and it was removed within 12 hours upon Tong’s request. So, however ill-advised the post, it does not appear that Tong actually had any “criminal intent” to harm the policeman’s daughter, and indeed, no actions of any kind were taken against the daughter. In addition, medical reports say Tong suffers from “adjustment disorder, depression, and pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism.” So they’re nailing an autistic guy for an ill-advised post that lead to no negative consequences. Imagine if they tried to do this for anything vaguely threatening on the internet.

One of the main similarities of the prosecutions so far is that the DoJ is going after low-income people with no institutional connection to, for example, a pan-democratic political party or one of the leading organizations of the occupations such as Scholarism, HKFS or Occupy Central. In other words, they are poor and have no one to stand up for them — easy targets.

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Even with that supposed advantage, the DoJ has fared poorly, for example, winning only two out of five cases of charges of assaulting a police officer. Such charges should be pretty straight-forward considering all the videoing of the demonstrations the police did: either they have the assault on video or they don’t, right?

One of those acquitted was a Next Media journalist, the only media worker so far prosecuted in relation to the occupations, though dozens were arrested.

Indeed, striking has been the poor quality and in some cases outright inaccuracy of prosecution evidence. This is something even judges have remarked on. The other acquittal of a defendant for assaulting a police officer was due to “problems” with the officer’s eyewitness statement.

In another case, a bystander’s video flatly contradicted testimony by a police officer that he had been assaulted. It was the only testimony presented by the prosecution. The defendant was acquitted and the judge strongly criticized the police officer and said the case should be referred to the police complaints tribunal.

In another case, a defendant was convicted of assaulting an officer even though the officer contradicted himself while testifying about the nature and place of his injury. In that case, the judge actually defended the officer, acknowledging his contradictory testimony but concluding it wasn’t enough of a problem to undermine the prosecution’s case that the officer had indeed been assaulted by the defendant.

In the other conviction, it was claimed that the demonstrator pushed against a police officer’s shield and then hit the officer in the mouth with the back of his hand, injuring the officer’s lip. But video shows the police officer ramming the defendant with his shield and the defendant raising his hand in self defense. The conviction appears based on the dubious view that physical contact between officer and demonstrator had to have been initiated by the demonstrator.

So, to put it simply, the DoJ has yet to bring a strong and clear-cut case of assaulting a police officer against a demonstrator.

In the latest case, trial on-going, the defendant, Ken Lo Kin-man, is accused of “obstructing police officers”. Of what did this obstruction consist? Officers have testified that Lo shined a mobile phone light brightly in their faces. However irritating and obnoxious that may have been, it’s hard to see how it constitutes “obstruction”. Indeed, no evidence has been presented regarding what exactly the officers were prevented from doing. It’s these kinds of minor infractions that the DoJ has been intent on prosecuting. (Update: On 17 April, Lo Kin-man was acquitted of “obstructing police officers”. The presiding judge said that while Lo’s behavior was “unnecessary, uncivilised and extremely provocative”, the degree of inconvenience he caused did not constitute obstruction. Common sense prevails. The DoJ has now lost three of the six cases it’s brought against OccupyHK demonstrators on charges of obstructing or assaulting police officers, a poor record that should make it reflect on its modus operandi of taking demonstrators to court for the slightest altercation with police.)

Perhaps their thinking is that they need to draw a clear line in the sand- no interference, no matter how insignificant with officers will be tolerated. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it makes the prosecutions appear all but arbitrary in that there were multiple instances of similar behavior on the part of demonstrators which are not being prosecuted.

On Wednesday this week, seven people reported to Eastern Magistracy in Sai Wan Ho to be formally charged in relation to the police clearance of Lung Wo Rd on the night of 14 to 15 October last year. All plead not guilty and were released on bail.

The police clearance of Lung Wo Rd was amongst the most brutal single incidents of the whole 79-day occupation, and yet not a single police officer has been so much as reprimanded.

Meanwhile, in the face of almost complete inaction on the part of the HK government and police to hold police accountable for brutality and disproportionate use of force related to the occupations, two men are suing the HK Police Commissioner for HK$20 million for having been assaulted by police.

There are also two applications for judicial review before the High Court which in different ways challenge the legal basis of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee hardline decision of August 31, 2014 effectively ruling out genuine universal suffrage for Hong Kong, in contravention of the Basic Law. The first is currently being heard by the court. The lead lawyer in the case is the irrepressible and evergreen Martin Lee. The second has been filed by former Hong Kong University student union president, Yvonne Leung. She’s still awaiting a court date.

Ken Tsang, the victim of the infamous “dark corner” beating by seven police officers, is still waiting to see whether or not the Department of Justice takes action on the case. Last month, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen publicly acknowledge he had received the police report on the incident. In the meanwhile, Tsang has filed an application for judicial review with the High Court asking that police disclose to him the names of the seven officers. The hearing is on Friday. If the Department of Justice does not prosecute the officers, as a last resort Tsang is considering suing them.

The police just plow onwards, oblivious of public complaints. They are seeking funding to purchase water cannons, which Civil Rights Observer has described as dangerous.

The Police Commissioner’s defense is that they’re not as dangerous as tear gas and pepper spray (because he’s really got the best interests of demonstrators in mind — where’s the sarcasm font?), but during the occupations, the police said that tear gas and pepper spray are not dangerous, so then, logically, why the need for a new weapon that is even less dangerous than non-dangerous weapons?

What’s more, the HK government is trying to sneak the funding request for the water cannons through the Legislative Council without proper legislative oversight by bundling it into the overall budget bill presented directly to the full chamber rather than making a separate funding request that would have to pass through the Finance Committee where pan-democrats have veto power. Pan-democratic Legco members have tabled amendments to the budget bill in order to block the purchase.

So, to summarize: After the HK government used the HK police to attack its own citizens in a variety of actions that cannot reasonably be argued as having to do with law enforcement or crowd control, essentially treating political opponents as a battleground enemy, instead of ordering an independent investigation to hold accountable those responsible for doing so, the HK government’s main response is to prepare the police to attack them better next time ‘round.

HK’s only pro-democracy major newspaper, Apple Daily, reports that a shell company registered on the mainland and controlled by the Central Government Liaison Office in HK (the entity set up by the Partystate to formally liaise with the HK government) has taken control of Sino United Publishing Limited, which, it estimates, controls 80% of the HK book market. Sino United publishes, distributes and retails books. It owns three major book chains, Joint Publishing, Chung Hwa and Commercial Press, which altogether have 51 bookstores in HK, including some of the biggest.

There’s been much local and international attention to declining press freedom in HK, media self-censorship, and pro-Partystate ownership of the media, but up to now, there’s been little attention given to the book industry and little evidence of direct Partystate ownership of the media. It’s known that Partystate mouthpieces Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Bao are controlled by the Partystate, as well as Hong Kong Commercial Press.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was little local coverage of Apple Daily’s revelation, but even international mainstream media failed to pick up on it, with only Radio Free Asia doing a piece. Is this because of distrust of Apple Daily or was a big story missed? Apart from the concern this should raise about freedom of expression, it also appears to be a clear infringement of the one-country/two-systems principle. Not that the Partystate worries about that too much anymore — witness its overreach on universal suffrage — but the rest of us should.

Sino United appears to be acting in ways similar to the Partystate, as both censor and propagandist. It has been accused of not selling pro-democracy books in its stores while its subsidiaries published and distributed at least five anti-OccupyHK books.

HK book publishers complain that there are few independent book distributors left in HK.

Control of the HK book publishing industry appears to be an important component in the Partystate’s overall strategy to mainlandize HK.

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On Wednesday, April 8, Yeshi Khando circumambulated Kardze Monastery and then set herself on fire at 9 am near Kardze (Ganzi in Chinese) County police station in Amdo (Chinese Sichuan Province). While on fire, she shouted “Let His Holiness return to Tibet,” “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” and “Tibet needs freedom.” She is believed to have died, but her body has yet to be returned by Chinese authorities to her family.

She was the second woman this year to self-immolate. The first was 40-year-old Norchuk on 6 March in Ngaba County.

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Strikingly, both women were in their forties. Most of the self-immolators have been young men.

Edward Wong situates Yeshi Khando’s self-immolation within the context of recent statements of Partystate demanding that Tibetan monasteries fly the Chinese flag and suggesting they would step up their control and “patriotic education” of monks and nuns.

Exactly a week later, on Wednesday, April 15, the Partystate issued its latest White Paper on Tibet.

Its last White Paper on Tibet came out in October 2013. China was up for Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council after a spate of self-immolations, and that White Paper appeared to be especially for international consumption: Don’t you dare say anything about Tibet; it’s an issue of sovereignty; and anyway, look at all our great accomplishments there, especially economic development.

Given that this White Paper is largely a reiteration of past assertions and there’s little new in it (yes, pity me- I had to slog through it), why has the Partystate decided to release it, and why now?

The best indication is the press releases published by Xinhua in conjunction with its publication, which targeted the Dalai Lama, claiming he “incites lamas and followers to engage in self-immolation” (which is patently untrue) and denouncing his “Middle Way”, essentially ruling out anything that remotely resembles genuine autonomy.

Why this Dalai Lama fixation? Why put so much energy into vilifying the Dalai Lama instead of simply ignoring him? It actually makes the Partystate appear afraid of him or as if it regards him as a real threat to its control of Tibet. This comes on the heels of statements made by Partystate officials around the time of the National People’s Congress and the anniversary of Tibetan Uprising Day in March to the effect that it is the Partystate’s prerogative to choose the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Unlike the October 2013 White Paper, this White Paper appears to be more for “internal consumption”: The Partystate is gearing up for a fight and wants to make sure that all of its cadres march in lockstep, so it’s going out of its way to issue the Party line as coherently as possible.

In the short term, the Partystate is worried about Tibetans’ celebration of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday on July 6. There are already reports of stepped-up security measures, especially in the more restive areas of Kham (Sichuan province) where a large number of self-immolations have occurred.

In the long term, the Partystate wants to control what happens after the Dalai Lama dies. When the Panchen Lama died, the Dalai Lama appeared unprepared and taken aback at the lengths to which the Partystate would go, disappearing the Dalai Lama’s selection for reincarnation (the boy and his family have never been heard from again) and appointing its own. This time, presumably, the Dalai Lama will be better prepared and will seek to outmaneuver the Partystate, which is exactly what it fears.

The Tibetan government in exile was quick to respond: “China’s white paper whitewashes the tragic reality in Tibet”

I am reminded of the White Paper on HK in June 2014 that provoked such a backlash. In general, the Partystate’s having trouble with its pesky peripheries. Why won’t these Tibetans, HKese and Uighurs wake up and see how grateful they should be for all that the Partystate does for them?

Note: As ever with news from Tibet, it is very difficult to verify the details, as the Chinese government does not allow journalists or researchers access, or in the few exceptional cases where it does, they are not allowed to investigate freely. Below is a list of tidbits that have emerged about Yeshi Khando’s self-immolation. The most authoritative are those of Free Tibet and the ICT. Piece together what you can from them. VOA was the first to break the story. It took more than 24 hours before mainstream media began reporting on it.

http://www.thetibetpost.com/en/news/tibet/4503-buddhist-nun-dies-after-setting-himself-on-fire-in-eastern-tibet http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/world/asia/nun-sets-herself-on-fire-to-protest-chinese-rule-in-tibet.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0 http://www.lionsroar.com/two-tibetan-nuns-die-in-second-and-third-self-immolations-this-year/ http://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/tibet-nun-04102015095505.html

http://www.savetibet.org/tibetan-nun-sets-fire-to-herself-in-kardze/

(But, hey, so what? Rights-based accountability? Never heard of it. Let’s just make more goals!)

Do you remember the Millennium Development Goals? They haven’t garnered much media attention even though this year is the deadline by which they were to have been met. In case you don’t, they were articulated by UN member states in 2000 to stimulate a big push toward dealing with development issues of poverty, education, gender inequality, maternal and child mortality and the like. In the first years after the MDGs were articulated, they got quite a lot of attention. Then, especially with the financial crisis, they kind of dropped off the map.

The big education goal was universal primary education. While progress has been made, especially in Asia, according to UNESCO’s recently published and authoritative Education for All Global Monitoring Report, there are still “58 million children missing primary school, 100 million who do not complete primary school and 250 million who have schools of such poor quality that they leave unable to read a single sentence.”

Here’s an overview of all six education MDGs and the progress (or lack thereof) made:

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table from http://www.bbc.com/news/education-32204579

Only one-third of 164 countries have met the six goals.

UNESCO’s report was released in advance of UNESCO’s World Education Forum to be held next month in South Korea. Hopefully, that will get the media coverage it deserves, but I’m not holding my breath.

The UN is already drafting its next set of goals to replace the MDGs. The General Assembly will in all likelihood approve them later this year. They’re called the Sustainable Development Goals. Many of the upcoming SDGs, as their name suggests, shift the focus to environmental protection.

By the way, on the other MDG goals, apart from education, the results are mixed:

The world succeeded in reducing the proportion of people living in extreme poverty to less than 23.5%, from 47% to 22% But in a way, it lucked out: Without oversimplifying too much, China did the world’s work for it, and not because China put any particular focus on doing so, but simply through rapid growth in a country whose population accounts for about 1 in 6 of the world’s people. And anyway, the fact that still more than 1 in 5 people lives in extreme poverty isn’t really something to be proud of.

The world almost succeeded in reducing the proportion of undernourished people. Its goal was 11.8%. It managed to go from 23.6 in 1990 to 14.3 in 2013. Again, the global aggregate is highly reliant for its success on economic growth in a few big countries like China.

The world has almost halved the under-5 mortality rate, from 99 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 53 now, but its goal was 33.

It’s met its goal on the proportion of population using “an improved water source”, now at 87%.

It’s made progress on reducing gender inequality, but has a long way to go. And I remember seeing evidence that it’s made impressive progress on reducing maternal mortality, but I can find the stats now (sorry!). The high incidence of maternal mortality was a greatly overlooked and seeming intractable problem on which the world had made little progress for many years. Accomplishments in that area are truly amongst the most impressive.

In general, as much as anything else, the problem is geographical imbalance. Statistics show clearly that there are two regions of the world that are farthest off the mark, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

You’ll notice I referred above to areas covered by the MDGs as “development issues” and that is indeed how the UN conceives of them. And therein, perhaps, lies part of the problem. How much difference does the conceptualization of these issues make? What I mean is, why don’t they have an explicit rights dimension? If they are simply “development goals”, then they are errands for governments to carry out. If they meet them, great; if they miss them, so what? Just make new goals! Framing them in terms of rights means that states have legal responsibilities to citizens to ensure them. And most of the MDGs, such as education, are very closely related to pre-existing rights. Given that governments are unwilling to frame the global development agenda in terms of rights, it remains up to citizens to hold their governments accountable.

I can’t help but often have the sinking feeling that, historically, we’re at a bit of a low ebb when it comes to how seriously states take rights. To the extent that they figure into their calculations at all, they seem to almost invariably take lower priority. This is a far cry from the heady days when there was hope that states would take rights as the basis of their policies, laws and actions.

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Author of ‘Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong’ and ‘As long as there is resistance, there is hope: Essays on the Hong Kong freedom struggle…’

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