China’s long game on human rights at the United Nations

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during a high-level event in the Assembly Hall at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - LR1ED1I1CPTBS

Executive Summary

Consistent with its ambitions to play a central role in leading the international order, China is emerging as a pivotal player in the international human rights system. In the past few years, China has shifted from its traditionally more defensive posture to a more activist role, particularly on the U.N. Human Rights Council. This stems from a two-part strategy that seeks to 1) block international criticism of its repressive human rights record, and 2) promote orthodox interpretations of national sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs that weaken international norms of human rights, transparency, and accountability. While these goals are not new, the more proactive tactics that Chinese officials are using, especially since the reappointment of President Xi Jinping, suggest the start of a more wholesale campaign to reshape the rules and instruments of the international human rights system.

This paper looks at China’s behavior at the United Nations, including seven specific votes at the U.N. Human Rights Council from 2016-18 that illustrate both of these Chinese goals, as well as examples beyond the Council where China has influenced human rights decisionmaking at the U.N. and elsewhere. The paper then considers how other states, including swing states that alternate between Western and non-Western positions, are responding to or working alongside China’s more assertive behavior on human rights. While tangible evidence of Chinese pressure on other states to change voting positions is difficult to collect, some signs suggest that states with important economic and political ties to Beijing are more likely to mute any criticism of China’s human rights record and/or support its efforts to weaken the international human rights system.

Given China’s growing leverage on the world scene, we can expect to see more examples emerge going forward. Countervailing forces—domestic and international pressure to uphold international human rights norms and mechanisms—are still important but may lose influence given current geopolitical trends, the U.S. retreat from leadership of key international institutions, and ongoing attacks on civil society and the media. To address these challenges, this paper recommends revitalizing a cross-regional coalition of democratic states to consolidate the gains of the international human rights system, fight Chinese attempts to undermine them, and protect civil society’s vital role as independent watchdogs for upholding universal norms.