Rana Siu Inboden joins the podcast to discuss China’s participation in the international human rights regime. Rana is a senior fellow with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas–Austin. Her new book is China and the International Human Rights Regime: 1982-2017.
Chinese participation in the human rights regime probably was never really intended to alter human rights so much in China that it would jeopardize the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power. I think China, even if it may have been open to some areas of human rights, I think that we have to keep in mind that the full implementation of human rights including all of the elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would mean that political competition is allowed. And that’s just not something I see the current Chinese regime allowing.
Rana Siu Inboden
Key Highlights Include
- What is the Human Rights Regime
- China’s Participation in the Human Rights Regime
- How Tiananmen Changed China’s View on Human Rights
- What is the Like Minded Group
- How China Views Human Rights
I’m not sure I need to list all the human rights concerns in China. Most of you are aware of the persecution of the Uighurs, the censorship of speech online and offline, and the tragedy on June 4th at Tiananmen Square. The list could go on far longer. But my interview with Rana Siu Inbogen isn’t really about human rights in China.
I came across Rana Siu Inboden’s work in an article she wrote for the Journal of Democracy called “China at the UN: Choking Civil Society.” It intrigued me enough to read her recent book China and the International Human Rights Regime: 1982-2017. Our conversation is about human rights, but within the context of international relations. It looks beyond China’s own marred record to understand how it engages in the creation and implementation of the UN human rights regime.
Rana is a senior fellow with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas–Austin. Her work offers insights into China’s approach to foreign policy and how it has changed over time.
I found our conversation about the human rights regime an important context to understand China as it becomes a great power rival. As Andrew Nathan notes, “There is growing worry among Western analysts about the extent to which China, as its power grows, will seek to remake the world in its authoritarian image.” And human rights is perhaps the realm most vulnerable to the corruption of authoritarianism.
But like always this is a topic with more information than we could fit into a single conversation. We’re not able to touch on every point or perspective so please join the conversation. Reach out to me on Instagram or Twitter. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Rana Siu Inboden….
Rana Siu Inboden, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Rana Siu Inboden
Thanks so much for having me.
Well Rana, your work draws on a number of case studies. Among the most fascinating for me was the development of the Human Rights Council. Could you tell us a little bit about China’s role in its creation, because it seems to explain China’s approach to the international human rights regime?
Rana Siu Inboden
Great. I’d love to. So, the Human Rights Council was established during discussions that span 2004 through 2007. And since then, China post-2013 has emerged as a very different actor. But prior to 2013, China took a much lower profile, was less assertive. And that is one of the things that really surprised me. The number of interview subjects who repeatedly said, ‘China just really doesn’t stick its neck out.’ And these were people who came from different regions. These were diplomats. These were UN officials. These were diplomats from different countries, including some countries that worked in alignment with China. And so, I think we saw a really different China before. What was interesting was that prior to Xi Jinping, China was very careful and very selective about the parts of the human rights regime that it resisted.
I’ve seen other scholarship that suggested that China during the Human Rights Council’s formation had a very big role. And that’s just not the case. There were some very important positions that China took including getting rid of the special rapporteur assigned to Belarus and Cuba. But those outcomes were secured because other authoritarian countries also took that position and worked much more actively to secure that. China on the special procedures assigned to Cuba and Belarus really didn’t play an outsized role. They certainly supported getting rid of those mandates, but China was not very active on that particular issue. China’s overall positions during the formation of the Human Rights Council, including the composition of the council, would try to try to get broader representation for non-Western countries and opposing membership criteria to join the Human Rights Council. And so, these were positions that other countries endorsed as well.
And China really didn’t have to do much to get that done. Even members of the UN secretariat who were involved in those discussions also said that China was not the decisive country taking up those positions. But I do document during that period one very unusual position that China took. And I say it was unusual because China deviated from this low-profile posture that I was describing and took a very assertive position to try to get rid of country specific resolutions in the Human Rights Council. These kinds of resolutions were something that China faced in the Commission on Human Rights after Tiananmen on an almost annual basis. And these resolutions drew attention to China’s marred human rights record. China has always tried to resist those, suggesting that in principle, it was against any kind of human rights scrutiny targeted at a single country.
Instead, China would say we should have a universal approach to human rights or we should have a thematic approach focusing on women’s issues or torture or children’s rights. So, China took advantage of the institution building process which was the last stage of the establishment of the Human Rights Council and tried to push forward this idea that country resolutions should not be allowed unless you could get one third of the members to support the introduction of the resolution and that such a resolution could only be passed by a two-thirds vote of the human rights council rather than a simple majority, which has usually been the case. This would have nearly paralyzed the human rights council’s ability to focus on any one country.
What was unusual was that other countries, including countries that China often worked in alignment with like Cuba and Pakistan, did not join China on this position. I think those countries realized that it was simply too divisive and some of the Western countries also indicated that if this rule were introduced that some of them might even withdraw from the council. So, it really had the potential to divide. China actually insisted on this position so late that the Human Rights Council Plenary went all the way past midnight. Which is important because technically if it wasn’t achieved by midnight, then negotiations would have had to be started all over again with a new composition of the incoming Human Rights Council.
China at this time finally backed down and accepted some face-saving language that merely indicated that it was a good idea to try to secure as much support for country-specific resolutions as possible.
I think this case just caught me completely off guard because I think of China as the big antagonist in conversations about human rights. China’s the one that we look at as the real demon within human rights. But when push came to shove, they were afraid to be the ones to keep the HRC from coming to fruition. Rana, why is it important for China to quote “project an image as an agreeable and co-operative international actor?”
Rana Siu Inboden
I always find this surprising that China has been in the past so concerned with its international image. Some of it has to do with Chinese conceptions of face. So, Chinese culture, Chinese society, really values the idea of face or how other people view you. And that has translated into what I call a lever or an influence on Chinese foreign policy behavior where China often will do something just so it won’t look bad. So, in terms of human rights, certain prisoners being released, those were all things that China did so that a resolution would not be introduced. I have seen though that image has become a much weaker lever on China’s behavior. This probably starts around not surprisingly Xi Jinping’s assumption of power in 2013.
That’s definitely a moment where we start to see a break and I’ve read that multiple times within the literature. What was surprising to me is, not just in your work, but in other work as I went back over it a second time, I did find that before Xi we do see a different sense of China as being much less antagonistic. Yiwei Wang wrote an article called, “Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power,” where he wrote, “Chinese political thinking first asks, ‘Who are we?’ creating the concept of ‘the whole world as one family,’ and emphasizing the creation of harmony.” And I quote it because I find it somewhat comforting that there is a possibility where we could go a less antagonistic, a less aggressive route if the right leaders are in place, it seems like.
Rana Siu Inboden
I’m not sure it’s possible under the current leadership as long as we have the Chinese Communist Party, because Xi Jinping, as much as we would love to blame him for all of this, he is a product of the party, of the political system. And granted it’s quite possible. We could have had a slightly less antagonistic or muscular type of leader, but I think a lot of what we’re facing is simply the natural outcome of what it means to have a single party state that is so dedicated to its own preservation. I also think that it’s interesting that China is clearly departing from Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to maintain a low profile and bide time.
And so, for a very long time, decades, we saw that China would very carefully take a lower profile even sometimes in surprising ways, especially when there was image at stake. And I’ve actually seen instances when an international body had a larger membership, China was much more careful, much more circumspect, but then in smaller groupings and especially in direct bilateral country to country discussions and negotiations, you really see a different China in those smaller groupings, because image was less of a constraint on China.
So, Rana before we get too deep into the human rights regime. I’d like to take a second just to kind of walk through the treaties and the protocols that encompass it. Can you give us a very high level overview of what it is that you’re talking about when you refer to the human rights regime?
Rana Siu Inboden
So, in terms of human rights treaties, there are about 18 of those. And I would say nine of them would be considered to be core treaties. Now, out of those 18, some of those treaties build on the core treaties. So, we have the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and the Convention Against Torture and that’s part of my book. Those are two treaties that I look at in terms of China’s behavior during the negotiations to craft those treaties. One of the shortcomings of the human rights regime though is that the enforcement of human rights treaties is weak. So, to compliment those efforts there are also special procedures which are individual independent experts who are given a specific mandate, such as women’s rights or children’s rights or arbitrary detention. In addition, you also have the High Commissioner’s Office, which also tries to engage China.
So, in the past, we have sometimes had very active High Commissioners who made visits to China and also engaged in bilateral discussions with China. Part of my book also looks at the International Labor Organization which I think is considered part of the international human rights regime. The ILO’s treaties though are somewhat Byzantine as there are over a hundred and some of them get into very, very specific issues, such as maritime labor conditions on specific kinds of boats and the like. So, even though I think human rights are important, the human rights regime, especially in terms of the ILO has become a little bit unwieldy.
So, Rana, there’s a real paradigm shift within Chinese thinking around 1989, because that’s the moment that we have the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Perceptions change about China. And they changed specifically regarding how the world thinks about human rights within China. How did the reaction to Tiananmen change China’s relationship to the international human rights regime?
Rana Siu Inboden
That’s a great question. And I like the way you focus both on China and the international community. So, before 1989, there was a sense that we’re just slowly drawing China into the international human rights regime and other international regimes. So, in some ways China had a little bit of a pass or was treated with leniency. There was some reporting prior to 1989 that would give people pause that human rights conditions in China were fairly marred and troubled, but still there wasn’t a lot of attention paid on China. And I think people also explained that away with, ‘China is still a developing country. Some of this is just a matter of building state capacity.’
But I think we now see that China has become a wealthy nation or at least a much more developed nation. And we have some major human rights issues, probably much more serious in fact than, I would say, under Hu Jintao. I will also say that China’s own view of the international human rights regime changed substantially. And I think this marks the period where China truly has a hostile relationship between the international human rights regime and itself. Some of this is because China for the first time saw that its strategic and economic interests could be hurt by human rights scrutiny. China experienced the loss of access to some international credit and foreign assistance lending, UN funding. There was a diplomatic freeze. There were economic and other kinds of sanctions imposed and China’s economic growth stalled. Chinese leaders, I think, were very surprised by this reaction.
And I think that they realized that human rights in its foreign policy was not just a luxury, but rather part of their survival. And that’s why I think China often outsmarts other nations, especially the nations that would have made human rights part of their foreign policy with China. While those nations think it’s a good thing to do, China sees rejecting human rights scrutiny as an essential survival thing to do.
So, Rana, does China seek to decouple human rights from its economic policy or even broader international political questions or, on the other hand, does China truly believe that it’s upholding human rights just not in the way that the west is demanding it to?
Rana Siu Inboden
So yes, China does want to see human rights decoupled from other issues and they’ve largely been successful. Other countries will just put human rights on the margins of some of their bilateral discussions with China. I think that this is very damaging because it conveys to China this is a tangential issue. And if we don’t make any progress on it or if we just sit there and listen, then it’ll just go away. There’s also been reporting and scholarship on the bilateral human rights dialogues with China and how China would either listen passively or in some cases even laugh or mock some of the concerns that were raised about human rights.
I also think that Chinese people and the Chinese government to a certain extent do have a slightly different view of human rights. So, I think that given the long years of chaos when there were weak Chinese governments prior to the Chinese Communist Party, Chinese people have come to see that a strong government capable of administering, even simple things like social services or preventing chaos in the countryside, they in some ways find this comforting. I don’t think they find the intrusions now in terms of their private lives comforting at all. But I think that they do want to see a capable government. The problem is that the Chinese Communist Party has taken this to real excesses that are scary. I’m sure you’ve read about the social credit system and how the reach of the Chinese government seeps into nearly every aspect of people’s lives.
And we really see this in terms of in Xinjiang. I think we are starting to see, on the outside, in terms of the international community trying to recouple some of these issues, if I can use that term. So, in response to the ongoing reports of forced labor in the Uighur region we have seen that the U.S., NGOs, and the U.S. government have been responding. And so, a number of Chinese firms, a number of sectors have been put on export bound lists. And so, those exports have been restricted.
What’s interesting to me and what makes me think that this is starting to bear some economic pain in China is a major Chinese apparel manufacturer sued in U.S. court to be removed from this export ban list. And even though that’s kind of a tactical response. And so, we haven’t seen an improvement in the situation in the Uighur region, but I think that it’s clear that Chinese company in the apparel sector would not be trying to use the U.S. legal system to be removed from the ban if it weren’t hurting them economically.
So it’s interesting how you relate labor laws to human rights through the ILO. As an American, I don’t normally think of labor rights as being human rights, but I think that that’s a peculiarly American thing. I think in the rest of the world that very much is a big component of human rights. But China as a communist country, I would think, should in theory be much more favorable to progress on labor rights, especially because the United States sometimes has its own concerns when it comes to issues with labor rights and the rights of workers. But China hasn’t really taken advantage of that. They frequently have worse issues with workers than the United States does, than anywhere really in the west does. Why is it that China hasn’t really embraced an attempt to try to provide workers broader rights and greater rights and really gone to bat for workers, since it’s nominally a communist nation still.
Rana Siu Inboden
That is such a great question. And I think you’re right that when we think about a Communist country, we assume that it should be a worker’s paradise. But I think that’s where your question points to the bankruptcy of the Chinese Communist Party and what they purport to believe and want to defend. And so, I think we see that the Chinese government has not protected their rights. And especially, I think that this was an instrumental approach on the part of the Chinese government that they would rather achieve national economic growth so that they could accrue greater power as a nation.
But I think it was okay to the Chinese communist party to sacrifice the wellbeing of workers. So, I think you see very poor enforcement of labor laws. And, you know, on the books, the labor laws in China are decent, but I think that they have no real meaning in terms of the conditions that workers in China face.
So, China has signed on and ratified a number of human rights treaties. You write in the book that, “Beijing has ratified five of the seven major human rights instruments.” Do international treaties alter China’s approach to human rights at all?
Rana Siu Inboden
I would like to think so. But I think the reality is that because of the way human rights treaties are enforced, where they’re not coupled with anything else, and that the way that they are enforced is usually through state provided reporting. So, the Chinese government submits a written report to the UN. UN experts review those reports and, granted, Chinese officials have to show up in Geneva and answer to these international committees. And sometimes the questioning can be very good and tough. Felice Gaer, who’s on the Committee Against Torture and was the American who sat on that committee for a number of years, would ask very good questions, showing a lot of research and understanding about China. So, we do have these mechanisms. And the Chinese government has to appear and answer to these mechanisms and be accountable.
But because none of their other interests are imperiled, I think, we do see that the treaties don’t really push China in the direction we would like to see them pushed in. I also think that the international human rights regime operates differently from other regimes, such as those related to trade or non-proliferation of weapons where reciprocity is an important component in those regimes. So, if, for example, the United States or Norway or the UK saw that China wasn’t living up to its side of the commitments it’s made in the international human rights regime, China’s access to trade or China’s own security is not going to be imperiled by the actions that those other countries take. So, for example, on trade, those other countries could restrict access to the core Chinese exporters to their markets.
And you just don’t see the human rights regime operating in that way. Your question also reminded me of some anecdotal evidence that I’ve come across in my research where increasingly the Chinese government, when it answers before these committees in Geneva, maybe in the 1990s they might offer a response that’s kind of indicated, ‘It’s a matter of time. We’re doing our best. We’re trying to improve our human rights record.’ Instead, now what we’re seeing is that China defends its record. And a great example, though, a very sad one is before the Committee Against Torture there was a question about the use of tiger chairs. That’s a chair where the person is held in one position and can’t get up. And it’s often used during questioning or rather interrogation and the Chinese government.
Instead of saying this was something they were trying to outlaw and that it was not a national policy to use these chairs, but that maybe some rogue police officers still had them. Instead, the Chinese delegation defended the use of those chairs. And in fact, said that they’re necessary to keep the suspects safe. So, this was very surprising. And so, I think because human rights treaties are so hard to enforce and relies on moral power or mobilizing a sense of public shame, that with image becoming a weaker lever on China, I think, we are seeing that the human rights treaties are not changing China in the ways that we would like to see.
So, an insight that I drew from your book was that China does an incredible job in terms of following the protocols and following the rules of providing information regarding the human rights regime. It does very good in terms of the formal process, but it doesn’t really do anything in terms of the substance of human rights. But at the same time, the way that they’re able to continue to do that depends on keeping the human rights regime as ineffective in terms of controlling the substance as possible. So, they do get involved in terms of the creation of these treaties and how much enforcement is going to be involved. So Rana, how does China interfere in the creation of human rights treaties and the administration of the human rights regime at the UN?
Rana Siu Inboden
You rightly point out that China is decent with formal compliance, but very weak on substantive compliance. Part of the problem is that now we see that China has mastered those procedures and uses them to blunt the impact of the international human rights regime. And we see this when, for example, China uses the no action motion in the Commission on Human Rights. And that was a diplomatic maneuver that meant it could get other countries to vote that the China resolution should just not come to the table and be voted on. And so, China was actually one of the first and, I use this in a negative way, innovators in terms of using UN procedures to limit scrutiny of its record. So, we’re also seeing that China has been using It’s mastery of human rights procedures to expand its influence, including over other countries.
It is working very hard to place Chinese individuals, Chinese citizens, in various posts within the UN. Some of these are paid posts, but some of them are also the kinds of posts where the person is supposed to be serving, on, for example, a treaty body and they are supposed to be independent experts. In a lot of liberal democracies, the people who then represent those liberal democracies in these treaties are actually academics or people who have real expertise and really are independent from the government, even if they may have served previously in the government. But in the case of China, it is using this opportunity to put into treaty body positions, people who their alignment with the government is so close that literally some of them either still are on the Chinese foreign ministry payroll or just recently were.
And I’ll use the example of Chen Guangcheng. He actually was the foreign ministry official who was sort of the liaison with countries that were engaging in bilateral human rights dialogue. And he was one of those officials who would laugh at other countries when they raised human rights conditions. Clearly, he tried to minimize the impact of human rights. He is also described as being very icy during those discussions and even refusing to accept lists of human rights prisoners in China that other countries were concerned about. He now sits on the committee that governs economic, social and cultural rights that looks at state compliance with those treaties.
So, now he’s not only in a position to kind of look out for China’s equities, but he’s in a position where he’s questioning other countries and their compliance with these issues. And I think the problem is that he can give a pass or ask softball or praiseworthy questions of some of China’s human rights allies, other countries that are primarily authoritarian or have marred records.
By having somebody who’s giving softball questions to their allies, but at the same time potentially giving very difficult questions to a country like the United States, is this part of China’s turn towards a more aggressive stance in terms of the human rights regime or is this an approach that they’ve been following for a long time?
Rana Siu Inboden
I think China is getting more aggressive. I think China has been doing this for awhile, but I think that China is becoming much bolder about doing it and less afraid to do it. I think also Chen Guangcheng is just so surprising to be placed in this kind of position. He doesn’t have any real expertise on human rights. And I think he’s one of those Chinese diplomats who mainly sought to quiet or kill any kind of human rights scrutiny and did so in pretty ugly ways.
So, I’m looking at China’s role during the drafting of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. And that was drafted from 1992 to 2002. And then I also looked at China’s drafting of the Convention Against Torture and China was a very different actor between the 1980s and 1990s. Also, I should say that the Convention Against Torture is one of those treaties that relies mainly on state provided reporting. There are some implementation procedures, mainly domestic legislation and other steps that countries that sign onto it should take. But those kinds of treaties, China has become more comfortable with because it doesn’t hurt China to submit reports and appear before a panel or a committee. But I think that the Optional Protocol which is much more akin to the special procedures, because the special procedures are able to undertake inspection visits.
And the Optional Protocol was meant to mainly be a system where countries that signed that treaty would allow international experts to come in, visit the country, and inspect attention facilities. And so, that China is much less comfortable with. And so, throughout the drafting of that treaty you saw China and other countries regularly trying to roll back the authority that the subcommittee was going to be allowed the kind of access that the subcommittee was going to be given. And so, you really see China trying to dilute the substance and force of some of these international treaties. What I think is so interesting is I don’t think China ever intended to sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention of Torture. I think they just really wanted to cap the development of the international human rights regime and to prevent more robust mechanisms from emerging.
And I think what’s also interesting here is that China started working in close alignment during the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in that there was a working group that handled the drafting and it worked in close alignment with Cuba, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria. So, this is in the late 1990s and I think this is the precursor to greater authoritarian collaboration, which later emerges in the form of the Like Minded Group. You asked a great question about how much China interferes with the administration of human rights in the UN.
And I think here again, it’s become very troubling in terms of the special procedures. As I mentioned, they undertake visits to countries. They have to be invited by the state concerned. And so numerous special procedures have asked to visit China and China will just sit on those requests or deny them. But even more troubling is that when China does allow some of those visits to happen, and it’s allowed maybe a handful of them to come and visit, China will interfere with the itinerary of that independent expert. Going so far as to restrict who they can talk to, who they can interview, even telling Chinese individuals that they shouldn’t. And then even trying to review those reports that the special procedures are going to unveil and trying to edit or revise it.
And so, I think those behaviors are very indicative of a country that is trying to roll back even not just the establishment of some of these special procedure mandates, as I talked about with Belarus and Cuba, but even how they are able to implement and carry out their work. And China is also getting a lot bolder. We also see this in other ways that I think people in Geneva, both sitting on treaty bodies and some of those special procedures have indicated that Chinese diplomats have become so aggressive in their lobbying toward them that it bordered on harassment. And at least one person described what they felt was threatening behavior from so-called Chinese diplomats in Geneva.
So, you mentioned the Like Minded Group, which is a group of nations that are very authoritarian. Can you give us a little bit more background on what the Like Minded Group is and what China’s role in it is?
Rana Siu Inboden
I love this question because I think not enough attention, both scholarly and policy in terms of policy makers, has been focused on authoritarian collaboration and the Like Minded Group. So, the Like Minded Group emerged in the late 1990s in the Commission on Human Rights and these countries really started to band together, taking up the same initiatives to try to weaken the international human rights regime, and then speaking on behalf of each other and trying to protect each other. And so, a great example is that Pakistan started offering the no-action motion to prevent resolutions on China’s record from being even tabled. And so, I think that you see ways that those countries kind of had each other’s backs. The group actually dissolved after 2007.
So, it was active for the very first part of the Human Rights Council and then it dissolved. And based on my research and a lot of interviewing, it dissolved partly because those countries had more of a natural majority in the Human Rights Council. And so, that group was not active until about 2011 or 2012. And what’s interesting as an American and a former diplomat, is that a lot of observers think that the Like Minded Group reemerged around that time, because that’s when the United States started to get involved with the Human Rights Council again. And the Human Rights Council started to operate much more effectively and robustly. It’s still far from a perfect body and not the kind of body I think we would ideally see in terms of governing human rights in the UN.
But I think what’s interesting is that when the U.S. gets involved working with other liberal democracies or other countries that are committed to human rights, can push back against some of this authoritarian collaboration. I think also what we’re seeing is that the Like Minded Group has expanded in scope and some of this might be because of China’s role. So, in the 1990s in the Commission on Human Rights, China was described as a core country, but not a leader. And China went to great pains, not to take leadership positions in the Like Minded Group or if it did lead on efforts, it was only behind the scenes. And China did take a turn serving as spokesperson for the Like Minded Group in the commission, but that seems to have been based on a rotation. That it was simply China’s turn.
Whereas now in the Human Rights Council when the Like Minded Group reemerged, China was the first country to deliver a Like Minded Group statement. And I think there are some indications that China uses its influence to recruit countries or pressure them to sign on to different Like Minded Group initiatives.
Now you mentioned that China initially did not want to be portrayed as a leader. Is that because they’re hesitant to form any kind of alliance or is it because they have even larger ambitions to be able to take on a leadership role beyond these authoritarian countries, but to truly be considered more of a global leader in the world?
Rana Siu Inboden
Well, I certainly think China has ambitions to be a global leader. But I think that the reason China didn’t initially take a leadership role in the Like Minded Group is that image acted as a much greater restraint on China before. I think now that we’re not seeing that as much. We may be seeing China leading in other areas in the human rights regime. And we’re certainly seeing that in the UN Human Rights Council where in an upcoming article I detail resolutions in the Human Rights Council that China has championed and these resolutions contain a lot of Xiisms. Things like mutually beneficial cooperation.
And these are not just vague concepts, although they are vague. They are actually, I think, dangerous because behind the idea of mutually beneficial cooperation is that one, cooperation is the only way we should go about advancing human rights. That using country-specific scrutiny or criticism is not legitimate in the Chinese view. And then I also think that if a human rights initiative or any kind of attention doesn’t benefit both sides, including the country engaging in human rights abuses, then that’s not legitimate. And I think given that human rights abuses often run along national lines, it is important for countries to be able to speak out.
As we talked about after 1989, how China’s economic interests were hurt, I think ideally, we would like to see that kind of pressure being used. But instead of China merely deflecting that kind of pressure, we’d like to see that kind of pressure leading to domestic changes where human rights are continually improved and Chinese government policies draw closer to international human rights standards.
So, Rana, you have an interesting quote in the book where you write, “It is not immediately obvious why China participates in the human rights regime or how it benefits from participation.” It’s difficult for me to imagine, but does China genuinely think it upholds human rights in its own way or does China recognize the fact that they really are a global antagonist to human rights?
Rana Siu Inboden
Well, I will say that the Chinese government does have a different definition of human rights. I think some of those is genuinely held where some of the Chinese government truly believes this, but I also think that the problem is Chinese diplomats deploy these beliefs instrumentally simply to deflect pressure. So, for example, when the Chinese government talks about its economic development, I do think that the Chinese government values being able to grow the economy and deliver a higher standard of living for most Chinese people. But I think that Chinese diplomats continually deploy this argument or these statistics or these public relations anecdotes and figures to deflect human rights.
I think that the Chinese government knows it’s really not upholding human rights and this is especially evident under Xi Jinping. Things like the crackdown on the human rights lawyers movement, the weiquan movement, the horrible use of concentration camp like facilities in the Uighur region. I don’t think that any country that engages in that kind of behavior can really think they’re upholding human rights. I also think that Chinese participation in the human rights regime probably was never really intended to alter human rights, so much in China that it would jeopardize the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power.
I think China, even if it may have been open to some areas of human rights, I think that we have to keep in mind that the full implementation of human rights including all of the elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would mean that political competition is allowed. And that’s just not something I see the current Chinese regime allowing. I would also say that the kinds of ways that China is engaging in manipulating the international human rights regime which we described a country that does that is not one that is secure in its record. It’s clearly one that is trying to simply deflect human rights attention.
So, Rana, thank you so much for talking to me. I think that this is a topic that is very important as China continues to grow in power to try to understand what its goals are and how it tries to reshape the world in its own image. And I think your book helps put together some of those concerns and helps place them within a context which everybody in the West, everybody who’s believes in liberal democracy should definitely care about, which is the human rights regime. So, thank you so much for writing that.
Rana Siu Inboden
Thank you for having me
China and the International Human Rights Regime: 1982-2017 by Rana Siu Inboden
China at the UN: Choking Civil Society by Rana Siu Inboden in Journal of Democracy
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