SINGAPORE – China is leading the charge to undermine universally accepted concepts of human rights, accountability and justice.
What the Chinese have accomplished in a relatively short time, backed by autocrats elsewhere, is to turn human rights into an underrated, yet crucial battleground in the shaping of a new world order. Its basic interest is to strengthen the hand of repressive, autocratic or authoritarian regimes.
China may see its actions as being justified by the needs to manage its northwestern province of Xinjiang, which has resulted in an unprecedented crackdown on Turkic Muslims. The global community has also observed the accelerated rollout of restrictions elsewhere in the country.
In a global context, one pivotal element of the Chinese campaign to alter the face — and practice — of human rights is the export of key elements of its model of a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state.
Calling all autocrats
The multipronged Chinese effort is highlighted in Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019. It points to proposals to alter the principles on which United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) operates as another way in which China seeks to alter the global agenda in a manner that runs counter to the smooth Davos talk by Xi in January 2017.
To achieve its goal, China is strongly relying on the financial muscle it has gained from its successful pursuit of the mechanisms of economic globalization. Its infrastructure and energy-driven “Belt and Road” initiative is intended to artfully apply those same mechanisms of economic globalization to entice countries that are financially strapped, desperate for investment and/or on the defensive because of human rights abuses to the Chinese cause of hollowing out the global relevance of those principles.
Equally crucially, China is seeking a dominant role in various countries’ digital infrastructure and media. That effort would allow it to influence the flow of information and enable its allies to better control dissent.
Freedom House, a Washington-based freedom watchdog, reported last year that China was exporting to at least 18 countries sophisticated surveillance systems capable of identifying threats to public order and has made it easier to repress free speech in 36 others.
China’s auspicious moment
China is waging its campaign at a crucial juncture of history. It benefits from the rise of ethno-nationalism as well as religious nationalism, populism, intolerance and the widespread anti-migration sentiment that has caught on across the world’s democracies.
The campaign is enabled by the emergence of presidents like Donald Trump in the United States, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Victor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
These strong man leaders have either de-emphasized human rights or gone as far as justifying abuses in addition to seeking to limit, if not undermine, independent media that hold them accountable.
China vs. global protests
The thrust and the timing of the Chinese effort is especially significant because it comes at a moment when earlier predictions of the death of popular protest, symbolized by the defeat of the initially successful 2011 popular Arab revolts, are being called into question. For evidence, just consider the mass anti-government demonstrations in Sudan where protesters demand the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir. Meanwhile, protests in Zimbabwe decry repression, poor public services, high unemployment, widespread corruption and delays in civil servants receiving their salaries.
The past year has also seen anti-government agitation in countries like Morocco and Jordan. Closer to home for the Chinese, anti-Chinese groups march in Kyrgyzstan.
The protests and what Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth describes in his foreword to the group’s just published, 674-page World Report 2019 as “a resistance that keeps winning battles” suggests that China’s campaign may have won battles but has yet to win the war.
“Victory isn’t assured but the successes of the past year suggest that the abuses of authoritarian rule are prompting a powerful human rights counterattack,” Roth wrote.
Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson warned that “people outside China don’t yet seem to realize that their human rights are … increasingly under threat as Beijing becomes more powerful. … In recent years, Beijing has … sought to extend its influence into, and impose its standards and policies on, key international human rights institutions — weakening some of the only means of accountability and justice available to people around the world,”
Richardson noted that China had last year successfully pushed a non-binding resolution in the UNHRC that advocated promotion of human rights on the basis of China’s principle of win-win, a principle that cynics assert means China wins twice.
In a sign of the times, the resolution garnered significant support. The United States, in a twist of irony, was the only council member to vote against it, with countries like Germany and Australia — both countries for which China is an especially vital export market — notably abstaining.
The Saudi-Chinese alliance
China is not the only country that would like a globally accepted approach to be altered to the detriment of human rights. Muslim nations, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, have, for example, long sought to have blasphemy criminalized.
The Chinese resolution “gutted the ideas of accountability for actual human rights violations, suggesting ‘dialogue’ instead. It failed to specify any course of action when rights violators refuse to cooperate with U.N. experts, retaliate against rights defenders or actively reject human rights principles. And it even failed to acknowledge any role for the HRC itself to address serious human rights violations when ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation’ don’t produce results,” Richardson said.
“If these ideas become not just prevailing norms but also actual operating principles for the HRC, victims of state-sponsored abuses worldwide — including in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — will face almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable,” Richardson cautioned.
China’s efforts are both an attempt to rewrite international norms and counter sharp Western criticism of its moves against Christians and Muslims, and its crackdown in Xinjiang.
China and the West’s diametrically opposed concepts of human rights are part of a larger contest for dominance over the future of technology and global influence.
James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. www.theglobalist.com