International Policy Digest

World News /08 Feb 2020

For China, Human Rights are an Annoyance. Here’s Why.

Earlier this year, Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director, was denied entry to Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch stated that “Hong Kong immigration authorities have denied access to the city to visitors critical of the mainland and Hong Kong governments.”

Mr. Roth was due to launch Human Rights Watch’s annual report in Hong Kong, highlighting China’s attack on the international human rights system.

This incident, as Mr. Roth notes, “is yet another sign that Beijing is tightening its oppressive grip on Hong Kong.” Further, it reflects China’s attempt to pushback against the established notion of human rights.

Last December, Beijing hosted its second human rights conference, the South-South Human Rights Forum, with participants from approximately 80 developing countries. At the forum, China was applauded for its efforts to redefine human rights.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Bashar al-Assad, emphasized at the gathering, “It’s important that developing countries chart a new concept of human rights and new ways of implementing human rights.” Unsurprisingly, like-minded authoritarian regimes are on board with China to reinvent the wheel on human rights.

The China Daily notes that at the forum, Huang Kunming, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, “quoted President Xi Jinping as saying that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all global development model for human rights and called for human rights development to be promoted according to each country’s conditions and its people’s needs.” The Chinese government seeks to project the idea that human rights aren’t universal, enabling each authoritarian regime to define human rights according to its political ambitions.

How does China define human rights? As economic development. China equates human rights with economic prosperity.

The Beijing Declaration, issued at the first forum, states that “China develops human rights based on national conditions, with the right to subsistence and the right to development as the primary basic human rights.”

The Chinese government’s notion of human rights prioritizes the economy over the individual— a convenient way for authoritarian regimes to stifle dissent while exerting greater control over their populations. Such an approach is akin to communism. It denies individuality while favoring collectivity.

Essentially, China’s definition of human rights would enable autocrats to justify gross human rights violations in the name of economic development.

China seeks to redefine human rights as it aspires to become a great power. Beijing attempts to strategically reconceptualize human rights to absolve itself of its abuses and fend off criticism condemning China’s horrific human rights record to portray itself as a credible power. Otherwise, China’s current record of abuses delegitimizes its government as a responsible actor on the international stage.

The established principles of human rights are a stumbling block for a rising China.

Which is why in recent years China has consistently sought to undermine the United Nation’s efforts to protect human rights in various parts of the world by negotiating cuts to the UN’s human rights budget.

In response to Human Rights Watch’s annual report, the Chinese government rejected it in its entirety. Just as it rejects the very notion of universal human rights.