China and the International Human Rights Regime
Hirak Jyoti Das, Senior Research Associate, VIF

China’s rise marked by the combination of high economic development, swift modernisation and authoritarian political structure has been highly attractive for other developing states to imbibe and follow course. In reality however, the downsides of the ‘economic miracle’ in terms of growing income inequality, social and economic discrimination, incidents of forced labour etc have been censored and freedom of expression is curtailed to perpetuate its success story and maintain the tight grip of the ruling regime. China during its political history since 1949 has prioritised political stability and undertook harsh measures including imprisonment, disappearances and capital punishment to suppress political dissent. Moreover, the alienation of ethnic and religious minorities has continued.

China’s economic prowess in the current decade especially since Xi Jinping’s presidency in 2013 has enabled the state to project itself as a regional hegemon and an active participant in multilateral bodies to exert its influence and reinterpret global norms including human rights. It has signed number of human rights treaties and on formal terms accepted international human rights framework. The increased penetration of the Chinese government in the human rights bodies has however jeopardised and weakened the mechanisms to ensure compliance and accountability. The country’s attempts at re-interpretation of international norms as well as outright support have benefited other authoritarian states to justify the status quo. Scholars have categorised China’s foray in the human rights regime into three phases i.e. from 1971 to 1989 in which it maintained a largely low profile, from 1990 to 2013, marked by active diplomacy to deflect criticism while presenting the illusion of compliance to project its ‘peaceful’ intentions and from 2013 to the present during which it actively sought to reshape the human rights framework through effective use of political and economic tools. The article would seek to analyse the role of China in the international human rights regime and underline the methods applied by the state to pursue its objectives.

China’s Foray in Human Rights Regime

People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) participation in international human rights regime can be traced to its entry in the UN in 1971 after the seat was transferred from Taiwan or Republic of China (ROC). China after its entry declared any treaty signed and ratified by the ROC as null and void including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The two covenants made the rights under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as legally binding (Sceats & Breslin 2012).

The country in the initial period generally maintained a low-profile in human rights discussions and the overall position was driven by Third World solidarity. Notably, it criticised the rights abuses as a consequence of Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan and Vietnam’s involvement in Cambodia (Hilali 2001; Ross 1991).

China became a full member of the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in 1982. It signed and ratified conventions on elimination of discrimination against women in 1980, racial discrimination in 1981, status of refugees in 1982, suppression of crimes of apartheid and prevention of crimes of genocide both in 1983 (UN 1997; UN 2020; UN 2020; UN 2020, ICRC 2020). China participated in the drafting of the 1987 UN Convention against Torture and signed the treaty in 1988 (Sceats & Breslin 2012). The engagement of the country with the multilateral bodies during the initial period was largely constructive.

The harsh response of the Chinese government against the student-led Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989 which according to British sources killed 10,000 people led to widespread international criticism and arms embargo (BBC News 2017). The subsidiary expert body of UNCHR, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities adopted a resolution on the “Situation in China” on 31 August 1989 expressing concerns and its implications on the human rights. It urged the Chinese government to grant clemency to political prisoners. It was the first time; a permanent UN Security Council member came under the limelight for domestic human rights violations. The Chinese delegation responded by suggesting the incident as a rebellion supported by external hostile forces to violently overthrow the government. The government action was therefore justified and distinct in nature from the question of human rights. The resolution was claimed as a ‘brutal’ interference in the internal affairs (UN 1990).

The international pressure towards China’s domestic conduct grew in the subsequent years. The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities under UNCHR introduced resolution on the “Situation in Tibet” in 1991 raising concern over violations of fundamental human rights that threaten the distinct cultural, religious and national identity of the Tibetan people (Tibet Justice 2020). The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities emerged as a crucial arena to highlight China’s human rights record and resolutions particularly on Tibet were tabled on an annual basis except 1991. In 1991, the section on the “Situation in China/ Tibet” was omitted to gain China’s diplomatic support in the UN Security Council (Sceats & Breslin 2012).

China’s efforts to block the annual resolution on the “Situation in China/ Tibet” in the UNCHR sub-commission emerged as foreign policy priority. It applied the system of rewards and punishments towards the member-states of the commission. The commitment to support non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council (UNSC) and diplomatic visits and economic engagement were used as political leverage to influence the voting of the member-states. Due to Chinese diplomatic efforts, the UNCHR resolutions were defeated on 12 occasions between 1990 and 2005 (Piccone 2018).

On an ideological level, the subject of human rights was broadly projected as a western tool to de-legitimise the Chinese government. The government in order to counter the western pre-dominance in dictating and defining human rights norms took measures and published series of white papers on human rights in the 1990s. In 1993, the China Society for Human Rights Studies was set up to coordinate work on the subject and propagate Chinese characteristics about human rights on domestic and global level. It prioritised socio-economic rights over political rights; collective rights over rights of the individual and asserted that the status of human rights is dependent on the states’ level of development and the political, social, economic and historical peculiarities (Sceats & Breslin 2012). Therefore, a single international legal standard is an unfair criterion to test its compliance with human rights norms. It also argued that rights could be enjoyed under the condition of stability. Therefore, statist notions and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs were propagated to divert criticisms on the human rights violations. The Chinese government argued that the citizens are permitted to exercise individual rights unless it violates the state interests and the collective interests of the society (Hurlock 1993; Sceats & Breslin 2012).

Moreover, China capitalised on the US and western rhetoric over the War of terror after the 9/ 11 attacks. It proposed security as fundamental human right and harsh ‘counter-terror measures’ including surveillance, arbitrary detentions, harassment and capital punishment were justified to uphold state security (Clarke 2019).

It also emphasised on bilateral forums to address issues of human rights rather than multi-lateral forums and country-specific resolutions. Several states as well as the European Union (EU) by 1996 agreed on bilateral human rights dialogue to nurture a cooperative environment to engage with the country. China’s policy during this period was aimed at formally accepting international conventions and avoiding direct confrontation with other states (Sceats & Breslin 2012).

China in Human Rights Council (HRC)

The 53-member UN Commission of Human Rights (UNCHR) by early 2000s faced increasing criticism over its excessive politicisation that affected its functioning. The then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that states including those with poor human rights records have actively sought participation in the UNCHR not for emboldening their commitment but to divert criticism. Therefore, in order to address the drawbacks, the UNCHR was dismantled and replaced by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 (UN 2006).

In order to address the issues of accountability, the selection process was tweaked in which member states in the 47 seats council are elected directly by the 193 member General Assembly and not from the ECOSOC. The member states are individually elected by majority of 96 votes and members after two consecutive terms are not eligible for re-election. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, country-specific resolutions to draw attention to violations and provision to suspend member states by two-third majority vote were introduced (Chilton & Golan-Vilella 2016; UN 2006).

Notably, the US, Israel, Marshall Islands and Palau were the only four states to vote against the resolution to establish the UNHRC. The US under George W Bush objected to the establishment of the new council for failing to address the concerns over politicisation and for maintaining its ‘disproportionate’ focus towards Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. After Barak Obama assumed presidency in 2009, he supported the overall goal and purpose of the council and decided to participate in order to influence and reshape the body. It served three terms in 2010-2012, 2013-2015 and 2017-2018 (CRS 2020). Eventually, the US under Donald Trump resigned in June 2018 citing biasness against Israel and poor human rights records of several member states including China (Dwyer 2018).

China participated in 30 rounds of institution-building negotiations, since the establishment of the council in 2006. While welcoming the initiative, it questioned the relevance of country-specific recommendations that may cause political confrontation among member states. Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Yishen opined that the UPR mechanism may cause overlap with other rights treaty bodies and special mechanisms (UN 2006). It suggested one-third support to introduce and two-third majority to adopt country specific resolutions in the Human Rights Council. China’s proposals were however rejected (Piccone 2018; Sceats & Breslin 2012).

China, at the same time, benefitted from the new geographical distribution of seats increased the share of Asian and African states upto 26 in the 47 member council, their traditional support base in multilateral bodies. During the two terms i.e. 2006-2009 and 2010- 2012, it sought to weaken monitoring and scrutiny mechanisms and backed the position of states that shared its views on opposing a more activist human rights agenda. It took measures to impede the human rights regime’s ability to target specific states (Piccone 2018; Sceats & Breslin 2012). China until 2013 largely maintained a defensive attitude aimed at countering direct criticisms.

After Xi Jinping assumed presidency in 2013, China’s engagement with the human rights body has witnessed a transition from defensive posture to a more assertive policy to reshape the procedures and norms of the council. Jinping encouraged Chinese officials to enter in more leadership roles in multilateral forums to increase the state’s influence and pursue its objectives. The economic and diplomatic leverage was maximised in the council between 2014 and 2016. The country also utilised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that promised loans, investments and infrastructure development projects in 70 states to strengthen its influence in the multilateral forum. In terms of trade relations, the government can force Chinese firms to cut off ties with states critical of its policies. The fear of losing access to the entire Chinese market that comprises 16 percent of global economy discouraged states from attacking the country (Matthews & McCuaig-Johnston 2020).

China formally promised to uphold economic, social and cultural rights while the domestic human rights situation continued to deteriorate. The country’s membership enabled it to obtain control over country specific appraisals through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, reviewing treaty compliance and short listing the participation of the civil rights organisations. During its tenure, the intervention in the council’s functioning including the country specific resolutions in Syria, Eritrea and Belarus increased (OHCHR 2018). It pushed for changing the globally accepted language on human rights defenders that could help the state to determine the legitimacy of their activities. The amendment proposed by China was however defeated on 22 March 2016 (Piccone 2018).

In light of the growing capabilities, China proposed its first ever resolution to the UNHRC in June 2017 on the theme, “The Contribution of Development to the Enjoyment of All Human Rights”. It focussed on sustainable people-centric development through international cooperation and recognising “different national realities, capacities and levels of development” (China UN Mission 2017).

In consonance with its statist approach, the precondition in terms of respect for national policies and priorities, while complying with relevant international rules and commitments was emphasised. The terminology from the Xi Jinping thought” such as “recognizing a community of shared future for human beings” and “welcoming win-win outcomes” was inserted in the resolution (Piccone 2018; Human Rights Watch 2019). 30 states including India voted for the resolution and 13 states including the US, the UK and Japan voted against the resolution on 22 June 2017 (Rights Docs 2017).

The support for China framed resolution boosted its confidence and the government proceeded to propose a second resolution in March 2018 on the theme, “Promoting the International Human Rights Cause through Win-Win Cooperation”. The aforementioned resolution was opposed only by the US. Broadly, it focussed on lofty ideals of development, security, cooperation and fairness. It talked about the benefits of the Chinese model of state-led development for collective human rights and social stability. China insisted that at national level, human rights can only be enforced under the conditions of domestic security and stability. It is therefore pertinent to preserve public security and support national efforts to combat crimes (Xinhua 2018, Human Rights Watch). The subject of domestic security and national sovereignty remained a constant theme in the resolution.

The country maintaining its defensive posture in the resolution stated that human rights should not be used as a tool for attack. The international community should discourage double standards, politicization and naming and shaming and rather learn from different models of human rights. The resolution is continuation of China’s attempts to evade the real commitment to address actual instances of rights violations, strengthening accountability mechanisms, allowing open visits, involvement of civil society in appraisals etc. It rather emphasised on intergovernmental and quiet dialogue instead of international criticism and interrogation (Fisher 2018). For China, bilateral dialogue on human rights is easier to manage and dilute criticisms.

The diplomatic cornering of the US in the human rights forum eventually led to its withdrawal in June 2018. China in the current phase is increasingly seeking to not only challenge but revise the core concepts of human rights by inserting state centric notions. According to the Human Rights Watch, it has intimidated and harassed UN staff and experts on treaty bodies and special procedures to remove the UN country team and non-governmental organizations critical of its policies. China’s tactics also include providing false or misleading responses, lobbying, and threat of trade cut off, forcing NGOs to tow with the government line, propaganda campaigns and controlled trips to whitewash its atrocities. It also introduced amendment for revising state obligations to cooperate with UNHRC mechanisms on 26 September 2017 (Human Rights Watch 2017, 2019; Piccone 2018). Notably, the amendment was co-sponsored by Russia, Venezuela and India.

In June 2018, the Chinese delegation introduced amendment to a resolution demanding NGOs to receive and utilise funding in a transparent manner. The initiative was intended to corner groups critical of its policies and unwillingness to concede to ‘One China’ policy. Moreover, it demanded NGOs to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. The amendment was however defeated. Nevertheless, it continued efforts to boost its role during this current period (Human Rights Watch 2017, 2019; Maizland 2019).

Current human Rights Situation

The human rights situation after President Jinping’s consolidation of power in 2017 is marked by continued crackdown on political dissent. Political and human rights activists have faced arrest and imprisonment on vague charges of subversion and threat to state. Several activists are prevented from travelling abroad and international experts have been refused access. It has used its economic leverage to sideline and censor exiled political activists.

In Hong Kong, the government has introduced series of measures to cut down the limited autonomy and the political rights of the people. The introduction of the new National Security Law in June 2019 has introduced rigorous provisions including life time sentence over charges of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces; assigning public property damage as act of terrorism; extradition of convicts for trial in mainland China; prohibition of guilty individuals to run for public office; diluting judicial autonomy etc. The large-scale protest was met with excessive force and protest leaders including students have been arrested (Human Rights 2019, 2020, Amnesty International 2020; BBC News 2020).

In Xinjiang, the “Strike Hard campaign against violent extremism” launched in 2014 has led to mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination and disruption of the cultural and religious heritage and identity of the Turkic Uighur people. Political activists have been routinely arrested and sentenced to long years in prison on trivial charges claiming subversion and disruption of societal order. It has been estimated that nearly 1 million are detained in re-education camps. There are reports of detained people being forced to provide labour below the legal minimum wage effectively creating a culture of bonded labour. Moreover, the children of detainees or arrested individuals have been separated from their families and enrolled in state-run institutions without parental consent or access. In the efforts to further expand the mass surveillance measures, Integrated Joint Operations Platform, social credit system and facial recognition technology have been introduced in Xinjiang (Human Rights 2019, 2020, Amnesty International 2020).

Besides Xinjiang, religious rights continue to remain under threat in Tibet. In mid 2019, thousands of monks and nuns have been expelled from the Yachen Gar monastery in Sichuan and subjected to re-education. There have been reports of destruction of number of Buddha statues all over the state. The government is encroaching in the internal affairs of monasteries and legal exams have been introduced to screen monks willing to endorse state policies. Christian groups have suffered harassment, arbitrary detention and imprisonment. In Hui Muslim dominated areas such as Gansu and Ningxia, government has prohibited the public use of the Arabic script and mosques have been destroyed and re-built to comply with Chinese architectural design. Despite China’s increasing grasp over human rights institutions, several states and UN bodies have continued to impress on improving the human rights standards (Human Rights 2019, 2020, Amnesty International 2020; Steger 2018).

In August 2019, the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) offered credible reports of mass detention; restriction of cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance etc in Xinjiang. China blatantly denied the use of excessive force but conceded that vocational educational and employment training centers have been set up to rehabilitate offenders of religious extremism or separatism.

On the basis of CERD’s observations, 23 states in the Third Committee session on 29 October urged China to comply with national and international laws. China’s assertive role in the multi-lateral bodies can be witnessed after it mobilised 54 states including Pakistan offered a counter-statement justifying its measures in the interest of counter-terrorism and de-radicalisation (Charbonneau 2019; UK Government 2019).

Evidently, China’s re-interpretation of human rights norms have helped other states with weak democratic institutions and populist and authoritarian leaders to perpetuate the status quo by relying on the tropes of national sovereignty, non-interference, security and counter-terrorism. The incident also highlighted the split in the international comity of states over the definition of human rights between those supportive of state-centric notions and group of largely liberal democratic developed states such as Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the US and the UK (Tiezzi 2019; Human Rights Watch 2019, 2020).

China has used the inconsistency of the so called “First World club” such as the human rights abuses by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, treatment of ethnic and religious minorities in Europeans states etc to draw attention to the double standards. It has also continued to accuse the US and ‘other detractors’ of hindering its development and undermining its stability. Moreover, during the high-profile visits of leaders from liberal democratic states, the issue of human rights is largely muted.

The US as part of the trade war against China introduced sanctions pertaining to the subject of human rights. It imposed sanctions on the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and eight Chinese tech firms for its role in human rights violations in October 2019 (Nikkei Asia Review 2019). However, Donald Trump’s personal appreciation for autocratic leaders including Xi Jinping has undermined the US posture.

China’s pursuits have been rewarded in the current year after it was appointed as member of the Consultative Group in the Human Rights Council between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021. It enables China to oversee the appointment process of human rights experts on subjects such as freedom of speech and religion; water and sanitation; housing; food; health; poverty; and conditions in countries such as Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea. It is likely to further benefit China’s efforts to sabotage the human rights norms (Albert 2020).

Reportedly, 82 organisations largely from central and Eastern Europe have submitted joint petition to UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres to cancel China’s appointment in the consultative group for its continued suppression (Central Tibetan Administration 2020).

In order to overcome the challenge from China on the international human rights regime, Human Rights Watch has suggested that there is need for a radical break from the business as usual approach which would require offering support and platform for political activists by governments, international institutions, academia and global civil society groups; depart from quiet diplomacy approach; offer alternative to China’s financial support; strengthen mechanisms to uphold accountability etc. Moreover, there is a need for states critical of China to pursue course correction and improve its domestic human rights standards to counter China’s allegations that helps it to deflect criticisms (Human Rights Watch 2019).


China’s economic rise has emboldened its capacity to influence the mandate in the multilateral forums. In view of the criticisms faced since 1990s, it did not seek to antagonise or quit from the human rights regime but rather formally adopted the treaties to entrench its influence. The state within the forum sought to reshape the definition of norms to suit its purpose and gathered consensus from other authoritarian and weak democratic states. After Xi Jinping’s ascension to power, it has opted for active involvement rather than maintaining a defensive posture. At the same time, it has utilised the political and diplomatic leverage to increase its sway. In terms of censorship, China has expanded its reach by bullying other states to desist from providing assistance, refuge and shelter to political activists. In order to overcome China’s role in weakening human rights norms, there is a need for concerted efforts by states willing to uphold the universal nature of human rights and strengthen political and financial mechanisms to cut the growing economic dependency on China.


(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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