BEIJING (AP) — China's efforts to reduce poverty have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people, but they could be undermined in the future without efforts to root out corruption and better address public complaints, a United Nations representative for human rights warned Tuesday.
Unless it takes action, China risks sparking mass protests and unrest, said Philip Alston, the U.N.'s special rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights. Alston visited China for nine days and presented his preliminary findings at the U.N. mission in Beijing.
Alston cited estimates that say China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty in the last several decades thanks to its roaring economy and what he described as "genuine political will" to help the poor.
Authorities have said they aim to lift all Chinese out of "extreme poverty" by 2020. Alston says he believes China will meet that goal.
But China also has deep income inequality, particularly between urban and rural areas, as well as a lack of means for people to report corruption and misconduct. Authorities have waged a wide and public crackdown on lawyers who have pursued corruption and human rights cases, as part of a widespread campaign against supposed foreign influences under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
While Xi has also mounted an anti-corruption drive snaring hundreds of officials, Alston called it a "top-down" effort that hasn't given citizens a true voice. There are no dedicated institutions for dealing with public complaints, and government regulations going into effect next year target foreign nongovernmental organizations that advocate for human rights.
The absence of those institutions will be felt greatly as more people are lifted out of extreme poverty and begin to demand more from their government, Alston said.
That will leave public protests as China's "main safety valve," he said. While some protests do lead to government action, participants and organizers risk being arrested and prosecuted on broadly defined charges such as "stirring up troubles."
"We cannot rely for the vindication of rights just upon governmental action from the top, at the time when it suits the government, when it seems politically appropriate," Alston said. "There must be ways for those whose rights are violated to initiate action."
Alston is a lawyer and professor at New York University who studies human rights for the U.N. as a volunteer. He's expected to submit a final report on his visit to China before the U.N.'s Human Rights Council next year.
But Alston acknowledged that his report will not be binding, nor does he expect it to spark immediate change within China.
He said Chinese officials refused to let him meet with several academics he had requested to see, and that a government security detail tailed him throughout his visit.
The Chinese arranged for him to visit a village in Yunnan province, where he received what he called an "abysmal tour" staged by authorities. Officials claimed they never get any complaints from ethnic minority communities, nor were they aware of any protests.
"This is a wonderful achievement, but of course it can't be true, because it's not in any other country of the world," Alston said.
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