With Europe faltering and a new United States president attacking globalization and international organizations, and vowing to focus on national interests, leaders and experts are concerned about the threat of populism to what they still believe is the liberal democratic world order.
In this situation, China has taken center stage. At Davos on January 17, President Xi Jinping spoke of his government’s determination to play a responsible role in defending and contributing to multilateral efforts to “secure peace and reduce poverty.” Xi was applauded for opposing protectionism. All states, he intoned, should “view their own interests in a broader context,” and “refrain from pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.”
The contradiction between these positions and China’s program of building military installations on disputed islands in the South China Sea, a serious challenge to the international rule of law, is obvious. But they belie a more complex, and even more malignant, perversion of the principles upon which United Nations human rights treaties and institutions were founded, and they reflect an effort to defend and legitimate practices the international human rights system was set up to end. China, where 60 million people were murdered in the process of establishing and maintaining communist rule, continues to abuse the fundamental human rights of its people, undermines international human rights institutions, and indeed subverts the very concept of innate, individual human rights.
China is cracking down on the rights of her own people, who number more than 1.38 billion, or more than the total population of North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and all of Western Europe combined. The society is dominated and controlled by the Chinese Communist Party; there are no democratic elections. Lawyers and activists who attempt to monitor and defend human rights are regularly jailed; the Internet is sharply censored, and independent media are virtually non-existent. One hundred sixty-nine (169) members of the international community have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is the core UN treaty guaranteeing basic freedoms, but China has refused to do so, despite the pleas of brave Chinese citizens.
With regard to religious freedom, the Brussels-based NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers reports that China has incarcerated the highest number of believers of all denominations in the world. Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants belonging to the mushrooming network of underground house churches outside state control pay a heavy toll in this regard. At the beginning of January, Yang Hua, a house church pastor who had been detained since December 9, 2015, was sentenced to two years and six months in prison, allegedly for “divulging state secrets.”
Of course, the Chinese government has reserved its most brutal subjugation for members of the Falun Gong, a largely decentralized spiritual movement promoting meditation and various physical exercises. A widespread crack-down on the movement began in 1999, when it was declared a “heretical organization.” Its members are regularly arrested, tortured in attempts to force them to renounce their beliefs, and executed, practices that have reportedly affected hundreds of thousands of victims.
Two respected human rights advocates, former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour and David Matas, a founder of the Canadian Helsinki Committee, produced credible research demonstrating that the Chinese government has sold the organs of executed Falun Gong practitioners. Eventually, a Chinese official admitted the practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners. Organ harvesting, including from those executed on politically motivated charges, can be profitable considering that China, ignoring United Nations calls for a moratorium on capital punishment, reportedly executed as many as 3,000 people in 2012, which was actually considerably lower than in previous years. It has been found that two-thirds of transplanted organs, many sold on the black market, originated from executed prisoners.
In the meantime, executions have apparently been reduced, but Amnesty International believes over 1,000 occurred in 2015; the actual number is a state secret.
Xi spoke of the value of multilateral cooperation, but China has used the international system to promote its own interests and sovereignty, and to defend egregious human rights abuses from censure.
China’s UN Security Council intransigence on the question of Syria, and on other crucial global challenges, has (along with Russia’s role) made the Security Council dysfunctional. Despite China’s wealth and power, China contributes little to solving global humanitarian disasters. While providing political cover for the Assad dictatorship in Syria, China has given relatively little in humanitarian assistance; in 2013, it was only $1.2 million dollars of the $3 billion contributed by the international community. As the brutal Assad regime, with Russian and Iranian help, gained advantage, China increased aid.
While the international community focused attention on atrocities by the government of North Korea (DPRK), China systematically captured and returned North Korean defectors, where they face concentration camps, torture, and often execution.
I interviewed a number of those defectors; they described sexual abuse and beatings in Chinese detention centers before they were sent home to face unspeakable horrors, including the murder of babies fathered by Chinese men. When I urged foreign ministry officials of a major European country to raise this question when the UN reviewed China’s human rights record, they said they could not send me a follow-up email because their system was being monitored by Chinese intelligence services. China’s policy regarding the defectors is a clear violation of its obligations as a member of the Refugee Convention. China is the only state that has any real leverage on the rogue DPRK regime, but when the DPRK’s human rights record was reviewed by the United Nations, Chinese officials “noted that the protection and promotion of human rights are priority tasks of various State organs. DPRK has good educational and health-care systems and strategies.” When China eventually underwent review of its own human rights practices in 2013, its cynicism, and that of many other countries, was on full display. Officials cited the country’s 9.3 percent per annum growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP); low unemployment; investments in education and culture; housing policy; and poverty relief all as evidence of respect for human rights. States repeatedly praised China for assistance to citizens in rural areas, to the disabled and children; cultural events; and even environmental protection. Several states shamelessly applauded and encouraged some of China’s most egregious human rights violations. For example, Singapore praised China’s strict Internet censorship, and Saudi Arabia urged China to continue to prosecute those who “offend others in the name of promoting human rights.” None of the Muslim states mentioned China’s often-violent suppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority.
Campaigning for election to the UN Human Rights Council, the government claimed that it has ensured the ability of citizens to express their views and participate in government, and that freedom of religions was “fully guaranteed.”
In fact, the Chinese government does not accept the idea of universal, individual civil and political human rights at all. Instead, China subscribes to a version of human rights which, according to an official statement, “is founded on the country’s own experience.”
According to this view, “human rights are the product of social and historical situations.” The Chinese state considers that human rights “are the rights society gives to its members.” It follows, then, that “society,” by which China means the State, can arbitrarily take away those rights or refuse to honor them depending on the “social and historical situation.”
Far from supporting universal human rights values and standards, China has in fact been acting in her own interest by shaping and gaming the system to her benefit, along with other unfree states. The conclusion that Xi is a “hard-line nationalist” is inescapable. His policies have emphasized national identity based on race, and “absolute state sovereignty.”
With his lofty collectivistic slogans, Xi thus appears to be treating the international community with the same hypocrisy and contempt with which the Chinese Communist Party treats Chinese citizens. Yet that community, as represented by UN institutions, has moved in China’s direction; dominated by essentially fascist states like China, it is no framework for upholding human rights and encouraging the emancipation of oppressed people, and often works to defend the status quo. As the international community increasingly forgets the priority of protecting individual freedom in favor of “peace,” security, and economic development, it is not unlikely that many of what Samuel Huntington called the “Davos men” will welcome China as globalism’s champion.
Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007, and later a founder of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Freedom Rights Project, a human rights think tank.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 17, 2017. By World Economic Forum, via YouTube.