China’s long game on human rights

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a meeting at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - LR1ED1I1AAAB4

When it comes to the contentious arena of international human rights, China has arrived.

For decades, China’s Communist Party largely kept clear of muscling its way on to the global human rights stage, preferring to bide its time while it contended with massive economic and social challenges at home. This began to change in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 when China faced unprecedented criticism of its brutal repression of unarmed citizens demanding more freedoms. Beijing fought hard to defend its one-party system and joined hands with like-minded autocratic states to block external criticism of its hard-line rule. It also engaged in the international human rights system in other ways, including by ratifying a number of relevant treaties and inviting some independent U.N. experts to visit the country and advise officials on compliance with international norms.

More recently, however, especially since the ascension of President Xi Jinping in 2013, China is moving beyond playing defense and adopting a more self-confident posture in the halls of the United Nations. It has begun promoting its model of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as the preferred path for protecting human rights while chipping away at well-entrenched principles that define the international human rights system. These principles include external monitoring by independent experts of a state’s human rights record, active participation of civil society as both stewards and sirens for human rights, and, when merited, public condemnation of egregious human rights violators. Through soft terms like “win-win cooperation” and building a “community of common destiny”—newly blessed as “Xi Jinping thought” deserving of constitutional standing—China is winning some important battles that will determine the meaning of sovereignty and human rights in the 21st century.

Given China’s accelerating rise in global affairs, this development should not come as a surprise. China’s impressive economic growth rates have helped dramatically reduce poverty for millions of Chinese citizens. This progress, in the view of China’s leaders, supports the argument that their controlled approach to state-led development guarantees modest but important economic and social rights to its people and, therefore, should be emulated by others.

The catch, of course, is the high cost of China’s system to equally important political, civil, cultural, and minority rights, which China dismisses as inconvenient and disruptive to their one-party control of society. For those on the front lines of defending such rights in China, the penalties are severe—denial of state benefits, detention, torture, and death. Mass internments of Muslims in indoctrination camps and militarized police patrols in the Xinjiang province are on the rise. More broadly, China’s advances in the field of internet censorship, facial recognition and artificial intelligence already are having dire consequences for even a modicum of personal liberties and civil rights enshrined in international human rights law.

The Chinese state’s growing power is felt not only at home. Its expanding portfolio of loans, direct investment, and trade agreements around the world, and its willingness to use them as leverage for diplomatic gains that challenge the U.S.-led international order, are changing the geopolitical game across a wide swath of issues. On the human rights front, China’s more confident behavior feels like a direct existential threat because it seeks to subvert the fundamental norms which have shaped global progress toward greater respect for liberal democracy and the rule of law. It is making tangible headway, for example, in Europe, where Hungary and Greece blocked consensus last year on a European Union statement criticizing China’s crackdown on lawyers and journalists. It is making steady progress in isolating democratic Taiwan by offering economic incentives to developing countries like El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso, which previously did not recognize Beijing. It is partnering with Russia to cut budgetary resources for human rights monitors integral to U.N. peacekeeping missions and to block civil society organizations from participating in U.N. forums.

In the pre-Trump world, the United States was on the forefront of challenging China’s long game on human rights. It regularly called out China’s repressive human rights record and more broadly built cross-regional coalitions of other democratic states to defend and strengthen the international human rights system. Now, however, the United States has walked away from the U.N.’s primary forum for promoting human rights. It claims its membership, which regularly includes China, Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela, renders the body hopelessly ineffective.

China and its allies are filling the vacuum and, over time, will neuter if not fundamentally redefine the core precepts of universal human rights.

The reality is quite different. Time and again, the U.N.’s human rights system has responded to egregious violations by calling emergency sessions and dispatching independent experts and investigators to document abuses, demand accountability, and defend human rights activists in such places as Iran, Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The United States, as in many other domains of international affairs, is now missing in action. The result is clear: China and its allies are filling the vacuum and, over time, will neuter if not fundamentally redefine the core precepts of universal human rights.

So far, China’s more assertive gambit on human rights has not always won the day. Despite the U.S. withdrawal, and China’s growing efforts to sway others, a core bloc of democratic states remain steadfastly committed to bolstering the international human rights regime. Leading European actors like France, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, joined by Japan, Canada, South Korea, and Australia, are building coalitions with states like Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Tunisia, Ghana, Georgia, and Ukraine to hold the line on key principles. The U.S. Congress can do its part by ensuring that the system’s building blocks are properly funded. And the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, can speak with moral clarity for defending the principles that China, slowly but surely, now seeks to undermine.