Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 7 (Winter 1996): New Issues in East Asian Human Rights - A Conference Report: Articles: Globalization and Its Impact on Rights Consciousness

Dec 5, 1996

This article is part of a report of the Carnegie Council's workshop, "New Issues in East Asian Human Rights," held at Seoul National University in Korea from October 2-5, 1996.

One cannot talk about emerging human rights in East Asia without confronting the impact of globalization, the context in which the region's rapid economic develop-ment is unfolding. The globalized economy has made traditional state borders increasingly porous, resulting in greater interdependence of economies as well as peoples. Capital, goods, services, and labor move from country to country as part of multinational corporations search for competitive advantage and economies of scale.

One of the effects of globalization and corresponding local development strategies is the exacerbation of poverty and economic disparities, the root causes of many of the issues discussed at the workshop. Liberal market economies and economic development are touted as the panacea for poverty and the necessary precursor to more open societies, yet they have sharpened and aggravated the tension between development imperatives and the need to secure the rights of peoples within individual societies. To some, East Asia's development imperatives are rational and positive; to others, they represent "development aggression" whereby the people become the victims of economic, social, cultural, political, and civil rights violations instead of the beneficiaries of development.

Migration, both domestic, between rural and urban areas, and transnational, between states, is a regional phenomenon directly related to the demands of globali-zation. It has an alarming impact on the family life and communities so important to local cultures. Maria Serena Diokno of the University of the Philippines explained that Filipino policy makers and intellectuals are now studying seriously the impacts of the phenomena of spouses separated by constraints of work and children growing up apart from one or both parents. Transformed by the market, families and communities often can no longer provide personal security. The result is a host of rights problems pertaining to women, migrants, and even families, that challenge the current discourse and protection regimes and place greater demands on the state to provide a personal safety net for its citizens or to assist families and communities in doing so.

These increasing demands on the state find support in the rights contained in the ICESCR and governments commitment to their progressive implementation. But, in the context of migration, Diokno questioned whether legal instruments and rights regimes can arrest migration's causes and consequences, both of which are predominantly economic. Migration is "fundamentally poverty-driven," she said, and "no law has been shown to cure poverty or alleviate it." If the real issue at hand is poverty and a disappearing safety net for vulnerable peoples, should the rights regime give more weight to the controversial right to development? Certain social problems examined at the workshop, such as the plight of migrants, while deriving from current development demands around the region appear to find part of their solution in successful economic development. The fact that many Asian countries have a stated policy of prioritizing development over civil and political rights raises dilemmas for the realization of indivisible human rights. How should development be defined? What priority should it be accorded?

In his paper on the international dimensions of migration in his country, Jorge Tigno of the University of the Philippines describes the "intensification of intra– as well as extra–ASEAN migration flows brought about by rapid and disparate development growth among and between ASEAN economies." Tigno discusses the Filipino response to the crisis, outlining the implications of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, currently the most substantive instrument for the protection of Filipino migrant workers overseas. He also describes international protection instruments created y the International Labor Organization and the United Nations, including the 1990 United Nations Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families.

Tigno finds these documents lacking and proposes the establishment of a common set of human rights standards for migrant workers in the East Asian region. He suggests that these standards should better reflect migrant workers concerns rather than "elite perceptions of reality and the public good." Moreover he argues that standards should not link the human rights of migrant workers with issues of legal citizenship and nationality, as the current discourse does. Linkage to such thorny aspects of sovereignty makes many of the proposed solutions to migration and migrant workers problems unworkable and unrealistic.

Beyond the construction of a human rights regime for Asian migrant workers, Tigno offers other measures for addressing the problem. A first step would be "regular, constant, and timely exchange of migration-related information between and among states in the region" to facilitate confidence-building between the states. A second step would create new institutions and bolster old ones to facilitate greater involvement of local nonstate actors in decision-making on migration issues.

By breaking down communities and uprooting peoples, migration has lead to fragmentation and in-equality within societies of the region. In her paper on China's internal migration, Dorothy Solinger of the University of California, Irvine, considers the human rights problems that arise when rural villagers migrate to China's major cities in search of jobs and a better life. Solinger compares the plight of Chinese internal migrants with their international counterparts in Japan and Germany to try to uncover factors that can alleviate the problem. The most fundamental similarity in the policy responses to internal migrants in the three countries is the "ethnocentric underpinning for belonging and membership" in all of them.

Solinger asserts that, notwithstanding an increased freedom to travel within China, migrants from the countryside face constant discrimination from urban dwellers. The latter have enjoyed certain privileges since the development policies of the 1950s that created a rural underclass, ready to be exploited by industrialization. The rigorous rules of entry into urban citizenship for migrants and their allocation to dirty, dangerous, debilitating, less well-paid, and insecure work, not to mention the "snobbish xenophobia" of urbanites are among the examples of discrimination. Solinger writes, "The hereditary distinction between those with a rural and those with an urban household registration remains nearly unscathed despite the passage of over a decade since the first relaxation of restrictions on movement." The distinction between Chinese urban citizenship and non-citizenship, created by assigning all the rights and entitlements of urban life only to urban household registrants, is by no means erased just by moving. Urban citizenship is not defined simply by residence "or, indeed, even by virtue of birth in the city" but is instead acquired officially by descent, with only minor exceptions.

By examining the legal regimes of the three states with respect to rules of entry, civic and social privileges accorded to migrants, and the treatment of migrant workers, Solinger postulates:

  • Given relatively healthy economic conditions, the longer a society has had to cope with outsiders, the more likely it is that it will come to assimilate them; the stronger, better organized, and more involved in governmental policy-making domestic labor, the more prone it will be to assist outsiders to gain a foothold; and the more entwined the exchanges with other liberal regimes, the more legalistic and rights-conscious states will become, with beneficial consequences for sojourners as well as for minorities.

Indonesian sociologist and researcher Arief Budiman, in his paper on the Indonesian Chinese minority (descendants of former migrants to Indonesia), seems to suggest that at least one ofSolinger's prerequisites for successful integration is correct—healthy economic conditions. Referring to the experience of Chinese in Malaysia, which is similar to that of Indonesian Chinese, Budiman points out that tensions are much lower than they had been and there is a more equal relationship between the Malays and the Chinese than is the case in Indonesia. He asserts that this is due to the substantially larger Chinese population there (more than twenty percent) and the success of Malaysia's New Economic Policy (NEP).

Solinger raises important issues other than economic development that impact the status of migrants and other minorities. For example, time for gradual acceptance of newcomers, independent unions, and a liberal democratic system all contribute to an increase in social equality, not economic development alone.

Yet it is true that economic development in the context of globalization allows for more "entwined" exchanges with other liberal regimes that Solinger asserts lead to "more legalistic and rights-conscious states." Several of the workshop papers attest to the fact that rights language and democracy come part and parcel with liberal markets and economic development. In this way, globalization can have a positive impact on the break-down of closed, authoritarian systems.

The paper on democratic rights in China also offers an account of the role of economic reform in promoting individual rights. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution to the present, the model of group rights with individual "obligations" "remained the orthodox ideology...[but] since the economic reforms began in 1978, great changes have taken place in the awakening and growth of rights consciousness." Referring to two recent surveys he conducted, author Xia Yong reveals that while rights consciousness in more economically developed coastal rural areas of China is generally greater than that of the less-developed interior rural areas, the peoples of the interior are more conscious of the right to political participation. He says this unexpected finding reflects the "chaos of the [Chinese] value system."

Xia Yong remains optimistic about the emerging participatory rights consciousness in China, especially in villages where peasants choose their leaders by public election. He concludes:

  • It is doubtless that the institutional arrangements on political participation in the Chinese legal system are individual rights-oriented. If the rule of law . . . [becomes a reality], the Chinese law would be the most dependable force to complete the historical transformation [of political participation] from a sacred duty to an individual right.

In the context of the above examples of the abuses of migrant labor or Chinese authoritarianism, it could be argued that economic development may be both the cause and cure of many of the human rights concerns these problems raise. However, one cannot put too much faith in the middle classes as "liberalizing forces." As Daniel Bell warned, they "often support the political system which best provides order and stability for money-making enterprises."

Moreover, one cannot generalize from these cases that the logic of putting economic development before certain civil and political rights, or any other rights, is sound, for growth alone cannot ensure equity. In fact, many have argued that there is no relationship between economic growth, the level of economic development, and overall protection of human rights. While economic growth can assist the progressive implementation of some social rights such as education, it also tends to generate new abuses, such as poor working conditions and pro-hibitions against organized labor, as discussed in the papers on migration.

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