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China's poverty eradication a major human rights achievement / by Tom Zwart, December 5, 2016 Adjust font size:

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the 2015 Global Poverty Reduction and Development Forum in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 16, 2015. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

On December 4, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986. The Declaration is a milestone in the field of human rights, because it emphasizes both the individual and the collective dimensions of this right.

There can be no doubt that of all UN member states, China has been the most successful in guaranteeing the rights laid down in the Declaration. Since its launch of reform and opening up, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Considering the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, famines and starvation were still very much part of everyday life in China. It is a huge accomplishment which ranks among the greatest human rights achievements of all time.

There are many actors who deserve credit for this success. First, there is the Communist Party of China (CPC), which showed the vision and the leadership to embark on a new economic course. In this way the Party unleashed the forces necessary to revitalize the economy within the framework of Marxism. At the time, the Party was led by Deng Xiaoping, who saw the need for economic reform and who had the courage to act on it. Those who recognize the value of adaptation and reform rightly consider Deng as their wise teacher. Second, there are China's government officials who have patiently and effectively implemented the poverty reduction reforms. And last but not least, the Chinese people have lent their energy, endurance and entrepreneurial spirit to this effort.

A healthy economy to underpin poverty reduction requires constant maintenance and adaptation. Therefore, the Fourth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee showed leadership by adopting a bold agenda for the rule of law reforms in October 2014. As the Central Committee's Decision rightly states, a thriving economy relies on protecting property rights, honoring contracts and abiding by the law. A socialist market economy must therefore be a rule-of-law economy.

Comprehensively governing the country according to law has since been adopted by President Xi Jinping as one of his Four-Pronged Strategy. The National People's Congress and its Standing Committee have produced the necessary legislation to implement the decisions taken by the Central Committee, allowing the economy to continue to run as the engine of poverty reduction. Together with Chinese colleagues I am developing ideas which can assist in further strengthening the rule of law. In this endeavor, we also rely on Chinese legal culture and traditional Chinese culture, as suggested by the Central Committee. This angle stems from the so-called receptor approach, which regards culture as a building block for rule of law and human rights, rather than as a stumbling block, as is often considered in the Northern developed countries.

Although China is widely praised for its success in poverty reduction as a human rights accomplishment by other Southern developing countries, it does not receive a lot of credit for it from Northern states and observers. The fact that China has given the right to subsistence and the right to development paramount status has even been criticised by some as being against the indivisibility of human rights. This is remarkable, since other countries have given a "preferred status" to rights as well, such as the freedom of expression in the U.S. and the general personality right in Germany.

As the 1991 White Paper on Human Rights in China has already made clear, ensuring that people have enough to eat and are sheltered against the cold is a core element of human dignity. This right to human dignity is considered in many Northern countries to be a fundamental right which trumps all other rights and privileges. If human dignity has such an elevated status in the North, it can also have the same position in China. Therefore, as long as China remains loyal to its other human rights obligations as well, its emphasis on the right to development is wholly justified.

Northern observers who accept that China is making progress in the area of poverty reduction often hasten to add that this goes at the expense of the environment and conservation. These critics are unaware of the fact that since the year 2000 in particular, China has been investing heavily in restoring natural capital in response to ecosystem degradation from rapid economic development. China has launched two largest state financed ecosystem programs on record, i.e. the Natural Forest Conservation Program and the Sloping Land Conversion Program, which together exceed $50 billion in spending. Evaluations show that these programs are very effective and serve as proof that poverty reduction and improving the ecosystem can coexist in harmony. This has recently been acknowledged in the prestigious journal Science by a group of scholars based at Michigan State University.

In sum, China's successful campaign to eradicate poverty is an impressive human rights accomplishment which deserves praise and should serve as a source of inspiration to us all.

Tom Zwart is a professor of human rights and cross-cultural law at Utrecht University.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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