The Human Rights Regime: A Chinese Perspective (May)

In May 2019, the Rights Writers discussed what perspectives have been left out of the major debates on their topics and how including them increase understanding or contribute to progress of the issue.

“Wow I can’t imagine living in China! I like my rights.”

I was shocked when I first heard this from my friend after she heard I had lived six years in China. That was the fourth grade. Since then, I have frequently heard this phrase, or some variation of it, when talking to others about China. However, nearly none of these individuals have ever visited or lived in China. The first time I encountered this declaration caused me great confusion. During the years I lived in China and my summer visits, I had not felt as though my rights were being violated. Although my experience was tainted with privilege, it was by no means lavish and nonrepresentative of the lives of many people in China. More importantly, my time in China was not at all the dystopic caricature presented in the West. Why, then, did people in the U.S. believe life in China to be so terrible? It was not until high school that I became aware of the continuous characterization of China as a violator of human rights and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as apathetic to the well-being of the people. Although there are seeds of truth in those characterizations, reality is much more complicated and nuanced. In order to move the conversation beyond surface denunciations of human rights in China, there must first be an understanding of the imperfections and critiques of the human rights regime, and how China’s perspective on this regime differs from that of the West.

The human rights regime is far from perfect. The two major criticisms levied against proponents of human rights pinpoint the ideological issues with the human rights regime and the practical issues of implementation. The ideological critique of the human rights regime examines the disrespect of local culture, the imposition of Western cultures and ideals onto the Third World, and the effects of human rights rhetoric and tools on public perceptions—in short, the ideological critique at the extreme is the accusation that the push for human rights is just another form of imperialism. It is a hard burden to prove that the human rights regime is a Western conspiracy to extend its global influence. However, it is important to note that international human rights law and the grounds for foreign intervention is founded on principles of violating state sovereignty, that there exist moral truths and absolutes that transcend and overpower the rights of the state. As such, the actors in the human rights regime are inherently paternalistic in their approach to reforming local cultures and behaviors. This paternalistic mindset encourages a perception of governments and perpetrators of human rights abuses as savages, a treatment of those whose rights are being violated as helpless victims, and the actors as saviors. This Savages-Victims-Saviors mindset, presented by Kenyan-American scholar Makau Mutua, professor of law at SUNY Buffalo Law School, is dangerously similar to that of the historic imperialist view of indigenous people as savages that must be saved from themselves by Western conquerors.

The second critique regards the hypocrisy of the implementors and champions of human rights. The West has been quick to shine a spotlight on the human right abuses in China, all while simultaneously disregarding the hypocritical acts committed within their own borders. Case-in-point: the United States of America. The Trump administration’s Zero-Tolerance policy at the southern border caused the separation of over 2,600 children from their parents. The Obama administration, despite declaring human rights a “top priority”, failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria after Bashar al-Assad used toxic gas on his own citizens. The Bush administration before that, pledged to “advance human dignity” around the world, all the while enforcing policies that deprived due process of captured terrorists and allowing torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”) on those captured. The list goes on and on. The critique holds that if the proponents of human rights cannot guarantee even the basics of human dignity within their own borders, what moral high ground do they have in criticizing other countries?

2015 DC Rally to Protest Torture
Courtesy of Stephen Melkisethian

These critiques are not the only reasons for China’s resisting the pressures of human rights advocates. As mentioned above, the foundation of human rights law resides on the violation of national sovereignty. No country wants its sovereignty violated; however, the issue is particularly sensitive in China. On August 29, 1842, China lost the First Opium War to Great Britain, beginning a period in Chinese history named the Century of Humiliation. The British effectively annexed Hong Kong until its return to China in 1997. China then lost the Second Opium War in 1860, where the British razed the Chinese emperor’s Summer Palace, leading to another round of heavy concessions. In World War II, China lost over 14 million people due to the brutal invasion by Japan. It is not only a narrative for the Communist Party to advance its own interests; the Century of Humiliation still reminds the Chinese people of the horrors resulting in the violation of national sovereignty.

Cousin-Montauban Campaign Of 1860
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

China’s identification with the developing world also plays a role in its participation in the human rights regime. China, along with the rest of the developing world, chooses to first prioritize economic and social rights, as opposed to the Western focus on civil and political rights. These rights emphasize collective values and rights that encourage economic growth, not just democracy promotion. These divisions between the developed and developing worlds indicate ideological divergence that is not merely caused by the CCP’s desire to continue its authoritarian rule. Combined with the sensitivity of sovereignty issues, China’s perceptions on what constitutes “rights” logically pushback against the status quo human rights regime that emphasize political and civil rights.

This final blog is by no means a defense of pervasive sexism, homophobic policies, and acts of repressing minorities perpetrated by the CCP. However, I do hope to bring to light that judgement of China cannot simply be framed as black or white and that Chinese resistance to human rights pressures is more complex than simply the CCP being repressive. The critiques as presented are in some cases extreme and require heavy burdens of proof; however, they cannot be simply disregarded. For all advocates of human rights, it is important to acknowledge these pitfalls of the human rights regime and take careful measures not to exacerbate or even help alleviate the crucial issues raised in those critiques. Current work on grassroots advocacy is a good beginning in overcoming some criticisms. Future work for human rights groups must be careful not to demonize and caricaturize countries, even if doing so increases salience of the issue with the public in the short-term. In the long-term, such actions are counterproductive and delegitimize the foundations of the human rights regime.

Social Movements in Promoting Human Rights in China (April)

In April 2019, the Rights Writers discussed the role of advocacy groups and social movements in promoting human rights and social justice in their area.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements are essential for change in human rights. They enable and motivate both international and domestic action against abuses of rights. Given China’s vast, perpetual, and seemingly unsolvable propensity for rights abuses, the impact of NGOs and social movements, or lack thereof, on China deserves close examination. Furthermore, China’s economic prowess and internal security also raises questions on the efficacy of external intervention. The extent to which civil society can operate in China should neither be overstated nor understated. Through bursts of grassroots activism and adaptive NGOs, China’s human rights record can be bettered, albeit incrementally.

China is in a unique situation in its relationship with international NGOs and its civil society. With the former, the Chinese government is politically and economically powerful enough to prevent the intrusion of any international organizations it deems a threat to its interests and resist most pressures from the international community for reform. The methods used traditionally by global NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, have little impact on the changes in behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One method particularly useful in the past has been dubbed “Naming and Shaming”, where organizations identify abuses and actors and shine a spotlight on these issues in attempts to influence nations that value human rights to act. Unlike in Romania after the Cold War, a country that was also a repressive regime where this tactic was effective in helping in bettering its human rights record, “Naming and Shaming” does not phase the CCP in most occasions. Despite both China and post-Cold War Romania having repressive regimes, weak internal civil society, and strong government control of external NGO access, one important difference contributes to why successes in Romania do not translate to successes in China: China’s economy.

As discussed in February’s blog, China’s economy and trade relations with other countries have effectively blocked any responses by those nations to the CCP’s human rights abuses. Romania did not and does not have an economy of that strength. The United States was able to revoke Romania’s most-favored-nation trade status in response to human rights violations, a move that was attempted to respond to China, and failed. “Naming and Shaming” requires both the identification of the problems and threats to responses or international image in order to be effective. China’s media and information control helps obfuscate human rights violations, and the recent public embrace of the CCP’s Uighur internment camps show that China is not afraid of damages to its national image. Other than the inefficacy of traditional tactics, NGOs that try to promote human rights from a grassroots level face stringent controls and barriers to even enter mainland China. Any organization with a mission the CCP perceives as contrary to its interests would not even be allowed to have the chance to operate. International NGOs are stuck between a rock and a hard place when deciding on their strategy for China: expend resources on likely ineffective campaigns to engage the international community or attempt a long and tedious process to operate in China knowing that approval is only given to those who serve the interests of the CCP.

On the domestic side, Chinese civil society is weak relative to the power of the central government. The modifier of “non-governmental” for any organization is almost a misnomer, since the existence of any organization in China is premised upon at least a tacit consent of the CCP with the organization’s missions and actions. In order for domestic organizations to continue their existence, they must align their interests with those of the CCP. The descriptions of the space of operations for international and domestic organizations in China seem to depict the country as irredeemable and efforts made as futile. However, the potential for change through adopting untraditional methods should not be understated.

Beijing Forbidden City Under Smog

It is erroneous to assume that the entirety of the CCP agree on the interests and priorities of the Party and the nation. It is equally flawed to believe that the primary goal of the CCP is to oppress its people. Dispelling these potential misunderstandings or biases, a closer look at changes in China’s behavior finds that despite stringent controls of NGO presence in China, in areas of environmental initiatives and labor rights, there have been incremental changes. On environmentalist issues such as pollution and climate change, China has allowed organizations such as Friends of Nature to help with the CCP’s own goals on tackling these issues. China has also hesitantly extended labor rights in the Belt and Road initiative. Although these projects are abroad, the adaptation of the missions of NGOs to better align with the interests of the CCP while still sparking change should provide a framework for other NGOs to follow. Wherever the CCP leaves room in its interests for change for the better, NGOs must nudge policy and preferences of the Party towards a position that results in better welfare for its citizens. Little change is better than no change at all.

Xi Jinping, President of China

Ultimately, the effectiveness of organizations and people that lack influence and power vis-à-vis the Chinese government rely on the adaptability of these groups. In a world where it is difficult to persuade the international community to act and implausible to spur organized protests within China, it is an imperative for actors desiring change to exploit whatever flexibility China allows within the scope of its national and party interest to better the welfare of those within the country. Human rights must not just be valued in and of itself, but instead be instrumental to future achievements.

Imperfect Information and Censorship: Media’s Imperative (March)

In March 2019, the Rights Writers explore the role the media has played in covering their issues and what effects it has had — positive and negative.

Free and independent media is crucial in their roles to inform the public and to serve as watchdogs for abuse by those in power. In China, however, these roles are not able to be realized, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) heavily controls the various news sources and censors the internet.

In 2017, Freedom House rated Chinese Press Freedom as “Not Free”, with a score of 87 out of 100. Most media outlets are controlled by the state, while other sources of information are extremely limited through China’s vast and sophisticated censorship system. This lack of free and independent media within China dismantles an important actor for internal checking of the CCP’s human rights violations. Furthermore, restrictions on the flow of information, at best, gives the CCP plausible deniability on accusations of human rights violations by outside media and, at worst, prevents knowledge of abuses from even travelling outside China’s borders.

liberty times

Despite the CCP’s iron grip on information in China, advancements in technology has also increased the ability for individuals, and commercial and government-funded media outlets in the West to uncover and report on incidents of human rights violation. For example, in the case of China’s internment of over a million Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Province, satellite imagery of the various camps, as well as testimonies from those that escaped detention, quickly debunked China’s initial denial of the existence of these internment camps. The evidence has since forced the CCP to change their narrative to instead acknowledge the existence of these camps, even though the Party has instead opted to call them political reeducation and vocational training centers. Unfortunately, measurable impacts of media coverage of human rights abuses in China has mostly been limited to this type of narrative change, often expressed through China’s state-run media outlets. The one outlier and important turning point in the relationship of Western world powers and public with China stemmed from the reporting after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Just months before the event, 72% of Americans expressed a very or mostly favorable view of China; the number dropped to 34% after the massacre. Today, however, even with extensive reporting, Western countries have been unwilling to go beyond verbal condemnation of China’s record on human rights.


Thanks to the limits on outward information flow, the CCP has often accused Western media of false reporting, and over-coverage and unfair biases against China regarding human rights. China’s accusations of false reporting are not entirely credible. In the example of Uighur internment, China initially called the reports “completely untrue” but then later admitted the camps’ existence. Furthermore, many articles by Western media outlets contain the same accounts of China’s human rights violations as official government reports, such as those from the U.S. State Department. Furthermore, coverage of China’s human rights violations is not overly abundant, even if it is largely critical. While China’s critiques of Western media fall flat, there are legitimate concerns and shortcomings of the media’s reporting when viewed through from a human rights perspective. The main criticism is the decrease in the reporting on human rights in China in favor of an increase in reporting on economic relations. If the role of the media is viewed as an agenda-setter, the increasingly economy-focused reporting signals to the public that human rights are less important than the economy. Indeed, concerns about human rights in China as a “very serious problem” ranks 7th in a Pew Research Poll, with five of the six issues deemed more important being related to the economy and national security. Furthermore, because the media is not completely independent—it must be funded somehow—the stories that news outlets lean towards covering are those that most likely attract the attention of readers. This means more stories related to domestic issues and more stories about the economy—thus a vicious cycle is born. The public is perceived to be more concerned with the economic and security relations between China and the West, therefore likely biasing the media to coverage of the economy and security.

Although concerns over the economy and national security are legitimate and important, decades of prioritizing them over human rights is responsible for the continued lack of accountability of the CCP’s actions. The media is complicit with its decreased coverage of ethical issues. The ideal coverage by the media when the foremost priority is to decrease human rights violations in China is the continuous coverage and intense and thorough investigations of the CCP’s actions. Unfortunately, such ideals are not pragmatic in the face of realistic concerns of resource distribution. News cannot (and indeed should not) focus only on human rights and cover nothing else. Nonetheless, in order to restore a sense of priority and importance of human rights to the public when interacting with China, the media must increase its coverage of the impacts and implications of the CCP’s human rights violations. It is time for the media to embrace their role as educator and watchdog.


Unintended Consequences: Trump’s Trade War Opens Avenue to Fight China’s Rights Violations (February)

For February 2019, the Rights Writers discuss their issues in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion), particularly in light of the two-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency.

President Donald Trump’s unconventional rhetoric and governing style has shifted the United States almost fully away from the upkeep of human rights. Despite America being a past global champion of human rights, the responses to China’s human rights abuses in the past two years have been lackluster. It is easy to blame the president for the muted reactions; however, Trump’s policies regarding human rights violations in China has remained largely consistent with those of past administrations. Ironically, the combination of hostile rhetoric and increased tariffs may have actually provided an opening for the United States to encourage some positive human rights actions in China. Nonetheless, critiques of President Trump’s inaction are valid. The movement of the president away from human rights issues could indicate that even with opportunities and options to push China on human rights, Trump may choose to act otherwise.

HRF Ma february 1https://ro.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fi%C8%99ier:Peng_Liyuan,_Xi_Jingping,_Donald_Trump_and_Melania_Trump_at_the_entrance_of_Mar-a-Lago,_April_2017.jpg

The largest human rights violation by the Chinese Communist Party in the past two years is the internment of over 1 million people, mostly Muslim minorities such as the Uighur and Kazakhs, in the Xinjiang province of China. Although China claims these camps to be “professional training centres – educational centres,” there is increasing evidence that these camps are a system of forced labor, alongside with efforts to control and indoctrinate the minority population in order to remove their devotion to Islam and erase their ethnic identity. Since the reveal of China’s internment of ethnic minorities in September of 2018, the United States, along with the rest of the world, has not yet formulated any policies to hold China accountable for its actions as of February 2019. This lack of policy by the United States is, unfortunately, consistent with the past incidents and is not unique to the Trump administration. Despite the State Department seeming as though they would take action in mid-September, any policies regarding the camps have yet to be rolled out. Even the 115th Congress failed to pass a bill to address China before recess (although the bill has been reintroduced in the 116th Congress). Similar to his predecessors, Trump’s administration is guilty of inaction. Most presidents have taken little concrete action to hold China accountable, such as the case of Obama after the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. The few efforts of retaliation by H.W. Bush and the 101st Congress after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and Clinton eventually failed without much internal change in China. 

One key difference between the Trump administration and previous administrations is the neglect of human rights abuses when dealing with China. This point is best exemplified in Trump’s statement calling Xi Jinping “a terrific guy” during the G20 summit in 2017 immediately after the death of democracy proponent and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who had died hours earlier in China’s prisons. The Trump administration has yet to publicly condemn the mass detention of the Uighurs. Together, the lack of concrete policy and an avoidance of public denouncing of China point toward America’s abdication of responsibility in the realm of human rights. It’s ironic, then, that the various other policies of President Trump have brought the U.S. closer to holding China accountable via politically viable methods since the end of the Cold War.

HRF Ma february 2



The primary obstacle for elected officials to address human rights abuses in foreign countries is the problem of resource scarcity, especially that of political capital. Each elected official only has the time and leverage to work on certain issues and, unfortunately, public opinion is not on the side of human rights. Only 18% of Americans think that promoting democracy in other nations should be America’s top foreign policy priority, while only 31% think that promoting and defending human rights should be America’s top priority. Meanwhile, protecting the U.S. from terrorism tops the list with 72% thinking it should be America’s top priority, and protecting U.S. jobs comes in second with 71%. Previously, it would have been very difficult to sanction China for human rights abuses, especially when those sanctions will hurt the U.S. economy as well. However, thanks to Trump’s antagonizing China and focusing on protecting U.S. jobs, the political costs for sanctioning the economic powerhouse has decreased significantly. These sanctions can be power leverage against China in trying to budge them on human rights issues.

The trade war against China and Trump’s hostile rhetoric addressing economics has put the United States in a position of power to extract concessions from China on various issues. This is not, however, a defense of Trump’s lackluster record on human rights. While it is true that the U.S. has gained more negotiating power because of the unintended consequences of Trump’s platform, the path towards rectifying human rights abuses will be long and hard. If the president cared about human rights abuses, the talks with China in ending the trade war could prove to be the first steps towards change in China. Given Trump’s past actions, however, this option seems unlikely. The more pessimistic alternative is the one that Trump decides to kill the bill addressing the camps in order to secure concessions from China involving intellectual property and technology transfers. Despite which future comes to pass, the important lesson to draw upon from Trump’s tactics is that human rights issues must be framed or combined with other issues with lower political resistance in order to create leverage and make change possible. Without a method to make human rights politically viable, the future presidents will be doomed to repeat the inaction of their predecessors.

Human Rights in China (January)

For our first month, January 2019, the Rights Writers introduce their topics and give an overview of the main actors and debates.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been arguably the single most powerful and influential player in the global arena. As the second decade of the 21st century comes to a close; however, the prominence of the U.S. has diminished significantly, creating space for other actors, none whose rise is more promising and sudden than that of the People’s Republic of China. Since initiating market reforms in 1978, China has seen its GDP grow an average of nearly 10 percent every year and its GDP per capita has increased more than 40-fold. China is also one of the eight countries in the world with nuclear weapons and one of the five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council. Given its power and status, the actions taken by the Chinese government to control its people is particularly troubling. As a Rights Writer, I will focus on the human rights abuses committed in China while seeking to answer questions on how best to rectify these abuses when interests conflict and who is in the best position to act. Furthermore, I will address the critiques of the human rights regime and tackle the questions of state sovereignty, self-governance, and cultural subjectivism.

China is no stranger to human rights violations. From Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1958, where poor agriculture and industrialization policy unfortunately timed with natural disasters resulted in about 45 million people dead from starvation, to the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1984, which saw hundreds killed and thousands arrested for protesting, to the recent internment of up to 1 million of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. And despite some sanctions taken after the Tiananmen Massacre, the United States and the West in general has not acted on their criticisms of China. Even though the news of the internment of the Uighur population breaking in September 2018, the West has still yet to issue any forms of retribution other than verbal denouncements as of January 2019. In fact, this inaction regarding China has been a trend since the failure of the Clinton administration’s attempt to withhold most-favored-nation trade benefits because of China’s human rights violations.


One reason for government inaction may be the wishful thinking promoted by intellectuals since the turn of the century. Political scientists and economists have argued that either China will slow in its growth or that, like in other nations, economic growth will bring democracy. Being able to reap the benefits of China’s massive economy while assuming that China will eventually democratize and improve their human rights record is an attractive prospect for world leaders. The reality, however, seems to invalidate both of these arguments. Not only has China managed to sustain unprecedented growth for more than three decades, but the political developments indicate that China has become more oppressive. The 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, seeking a more democratized and fair election, failed to produce the sought after results. In 2018, the National People’s Congress changed China’s constitution to remove presidential term limits, allowing President Xi Jinping to continue ruling past the traditional two terms. The Western mindset of intellectuals and policymakers that China will democratize and liberalize on its own is dangerous for the future of the international order, insincere to the values praised as inalienable, and most importantly, immoral in the active perpetuation of a regime that violates the human rights of 1.3 billion people.


Despite China’s seemingly poor human rights record, China’s justification for their actions should not be simply ignored. National sovereignty has become a central value of the Chinese government, and many of the people, ever since the First Opium War. It makes sense then, when China pushes back at the West again trying to assert influence over the country using the rhetoric of human rights. Furthermore, like many other Asian developing countries, China prioritizes economic and social rights over civil and political rights. The Confucian value of social harmony and the Marxist theories upholding the collective could be used the justify the various violations of privacy and individuality, core values in Western ethics. Besides these internal justifications, Western countries have their own incentives, even besides economic ones, to not interfere with China. Forced interference with China’s domestic actions could set a dangerous precedent in changing the definition of sovereignty in relation to great powers. Additionally, the human rights record of Western countries is not pristine either. From family separation in the United States to sending migrants to island for animals by Denmark, any opposition to China’s human rights record will be undercut by the hypocrisy of the self-righteous rhetoric necessary for change.

There are many major questions that must be answered when dealing with government perpetuated human rights violations, especially when that government is especially powerful. Questions such as: how far does sovereignty protect a government’s actions, and how can one government impose certain values upon another. These are difficult questions that may not have quick or simple answers. Over the course of this semester, I hope to critically view the human rights regime and address the differing perspectives regarding China’s human rights violations. And through this, I might provide insight into possible solutions to the ethical, political, and cultural problems surrounding this topic.