Sun, Feb 09, 2020 - Page 7 News List

China has been whitewashing human rights on a global scale

By Aryeh Neier

To those who follow international affairs, it is clear that China has become increasingly repressive under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).

Over the past eight years, electronic surveillance in China has become more pervasive, intolerance for freedom of expression has grown and many lawyers have been disbarred or imprisoned simply for defending their clients’ rights.

Moreover, Xi has eliminated the two-term limit on the presidency, withdrawn protections for civil liberties in Hong Kong and overseen the detention and forcible re-education of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

Much of this has been reported by the world’s media. What is less well-known is that China is using its immense economic power and international clout to undermine human rights protections at the global level, too.

China has long relied on its economic strength to head off international condemnation of its human rights record. As so many countries fear antagonizing China, they have refused to sign on to resolutions criticizing it at the UN Human Rights Council.

Likewise, after sentencing dissident writer Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) to 11 years in prison in 2009 (for the offense of collecting signatures on a petition for rights), the Chinese government grew worried that Liu would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, so it threatened Norway, the home of the prize, with economic reprisals.

However, in this case China’s efforts failed: Liu received the prize in 2010. Having carefully managed its income from the sale of North Sea oil, Norway has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and is not particularly susceptible to economic strong-arming.

Yet, more important, Norway does not do much business with China, leaving it well-positioned to withstand the pressure campaign (which largely involved purchases of Norwegian salmon).


Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2020 said that China has since stepped up its efforts and is no longer content merely to avert criticism of its own human rights record.

“At the UN Human Rights Council, China routinely opposes virtually every human rights initiative that criticizes a particular country unless it is watered down enough to secure that government’s consent,” Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in the report.

In this way, China has managed to bring many other governments over to its side.

“In recent years, China has opposed resolutions condemning human rights violations in Myanmar, Syria, Iran, the Philippines, Burundi, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Yemen, Eritrea and Belarus,” Roth said.

For example, in the case of Myanmar, “Beijing has been clear that it will not tolerate pressure on Myanmar, despite a UN fact-finding mission’s conclusion that Myanmar’s top military leaders should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide” against the country’s Rohingya minority, he said.

Perversely, although Islamophobia has been a key factor in the persecution of the Rohingya, China’s broader stand on human rights has also helped many predominantly Muslim countries avoid censure for their own abuses.

Making matters worse, China’s ability to silence other governments extends even to those that have positioned themselves as champions of human rights, Roth said.

“French President Emmanuel Macron visited China in November 2019, but made no public mention of human rights,” Roth said. “Visiting leaders have typically excused such public silence by insisting that they raise human rights with Chinese officials in private discussions, but little if any evidence exists that this behind-the-scenes approach does any good.”

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