Censored documentary on migrant workers shows the stakes at the UPR

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Censored documentary on migrant workers shows the stakes at the UPR

By William Nee, CHRD’s Research and Advocacy Coordinator.

At a United Nations review of China’s human rights record, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), set to occur on January 23, the Chinese government is likely to spin a narrative of its unceasing progress in economic development. 

As it has in the past, Chinese officials will draw attention to what it sees as its successes in economic development. While China indeed has indeed invested heavily in infrastructure and has witnessed significant GDP growth over the past decades, the way in which it prioritizes development over other rights is troubling.

In its national report for the UPR, the Chinese government categorizes “the right to subsistence and the right to development as the primary basic human rights.” This, of course, runs counter to the commonly-held notion that there is no hierarchy of rights, and that rights are all indivisible and interdependent. And on the international level, the government is spreading this rights-philosophy with its Global Development Initiative (GDI), which views “development” as the “master key to all problems” and the  “prerequisite” to “protecting and promoting human rights.” Meanwhile, civil and political rights were just briefly mentioned in the national report. The government also failed to provide a timeline for ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the government signed back in 1998 but still has not yet ratified.

In other words, although the Chinese government doesn’t say so explicitly, the narrative is clear: civil and political rights should take a backseat until the State is finished with its economic development.

And yet, the lack of human rights protections built into China’s development model should cause the international community to be skeptical of the government’s position.

A new documentary on struggling workers highlights the problem. 

Recently, NetEase News launched the short film “Working Like This for Thirty Years” (如此打工三十年), which focuses on the living conditions of aging Chinese migrant workers in Anhui Province. The film shows migrant workers congregating in spots in the city of center of bustling Hefei at 4:00am to fight for day jobs doing temp work, with over ten workers scrounging for just one job.

The viewer can feel the desperation of one worker who cannot make enough money, 380 yuan ($54 USD), to pay for the New Rural Cooperative Medical Insurance scheme. We view another worker who struggles to provide for himself, his 18-year-old son, and pay for his daughter attending school.

To some extent, the film epitomizes how the first generations of migrant workers – who streamed into big cities from the countryside in the 1980’s and 1990’s – still live precarious lives without a functioning social safety net. The blood, sweat, and tears of this generation, composed of hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers, was the true “prerequisite” for China’s economic development over the past forty years – and now many are struggling.

The film began streaming on January 9, and was widely disseminated for a brief time and well received on social media, until it was quickly banned. (It is available in its entirety on YouTube).

Free Weibo, a site the monitors censorship on Weibo, the Twitter/X-like social media platform, showed that discussion of the film was banned on Weibo.

But it is not just documentaries on working conditions that are being censored. For example, in 2023, the government abruptly stopped publishing youth unemployment figures after the rate hit a record 21.3% in June 2023 for 16–24-year-olds. The move was likely due to the fact that the number reflected poorly on China’s development and hurt investor confidence. 

The lack of accurate data also harms an ability to meaningfully discuss economic rights. Without accurate statistics, many of the Chinese government’s UPR assertions will be impossible to verify. For example, in the past UPR in 2018, Moldova recommended to China to “continue implementing policies directed towards poverty alleviation, with a particular focus on access to services such as education, health care and social security for all migrant workers from rural areas.”

And yet, even fragmentary information shows there’s plenty to ask about at the UPR, and this is especially worth noting during a period that saw economic disruptions from COVID-19 and draconian COVID-19 restrictions. Poverty roseamong the 295.6 million rural migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 50 percent of households seeing remittances drop by more than 45 percent in 2020. Poverty has been exacerbated by restricted access to social services. In 2017, most rural migrant workers lacked a basic pension (78%), medical insurance (78%), work-related injury insurance (73%), and unemployment insurance (83%). The National Bureau of Statistics no longer publishes information about social insurance coverage for migrant workers specifically.  

Meanwhile, strikes and labor protests, often regarding wages and benefits in arrears, continue to take place. Although the Chinese government does not legally allow for strikes and the government bans the widespread publicity of strike actions on social media, nonetheless, China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights NGO based in Hong Kong, was able to identify over 1163 strikes in the past six months. Government could ask about the number of strikes and recommend that China allow for workers to join or establish independent trade unions and to exercise their right to strike.

But the government’s record on labor rights and the lack of a substantial social safety net for hundreds of millions of people should cast doubt on the very heart of Beijing’s narrative of creating a “human rights development path” that benefits its people. The Chinese government’s willingness to censor negative information on workers’ rights should also cast doubt on Beijing’s attempt to make “development” a prerequisite for other rights, such as freedom of expression, which enables filmmakers to depict real world problems.

The international community must be prepared not to blindly give Beijing undue credit and buy into its narrative. States must strategically make the most out this opportunity to push for an end to Beijing’s human rights violations. 

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