Human rights: Is China really winning the public opinion war?

October 15, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

China and the West are playing a numbers game over human rights, with each side mustering dozens of supporters while issuing statements at the United Nations attacking the other side.

The battleground last week was the United Nations General Assembly, where the Third Committee, responsible for social and humanitarian affairs, was debating human rights; and, it seems, where numbers are concerned, China is winning.

China fired the opening shot. Its representative, Zhang Jun, speaking for 26 member states, called Monday for the immediate lifting of unilateral sanctions, which he said adversely affect human rights. He also voiced “grave concern” on racial discrimination, citing the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake in the United States.

The countries China represented included North Korea, Iran and Cuba, which had all been subject to western sanctions.

The following day, Germany, representing 39 states, denounced China for serious human rights abuses such as the incarceration of Uighurs in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. China’s treatment of Hong Kong was another issue.

Cuba sprang to China’s defense, issuing a statement on behalf of 45 countries rebutting the Xinjiang allegations. Separately, Pakistan issued one backed by 55 nations supporting Chinese actions in Hong Kong.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, noted, “nearly 70 countries” supported China and opposed “interference in China’s internal affairs under the cloak of Hong Kong- and Xinjiang-related issues.”

On the face of it, China’s supporters greatly outnumbered its critics. But the German statement was endorsed by 39 countries, while a similar statement last year attracted only 23 backers, a substantial increase. The rise reflected a significant shift in international sentiment, with the Pew Research Center reporting, coincidentally on October 6, that a survey of 14 nations in Europe, Asia and North America showed that negative views of China had soared over the past year.

It is also unclear how strong pro-China sentiment really is among those listed as its supporters.

This can be illustrated by looking at what happened on June 30, when the Human Rights Council debated China’s decision to impose a national security law on Hong Kong. Then, the United Kingdom, speaking for 27 countries, criticized China for legislating without the participation of Hong Kong’s people. At the same time Cuba, backed by 52 other member states, supported China’s actions in Hong Kong. This seemingly lopsided international endorsement was greeted euphorically by Chinese state media.

Subsequently, however, questions arose about the authorship of the Cuban statement. David Bandurski, co-director of China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, noted that the Cuban statement “cannot be found anywhere on the website of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or other government portals.” But it was prominently posted on the website of China’s mission to the United Nations.

In addition, Bandurski reported, he was unable to discover any of the 150-odd countries that supposedly supported the Cuban statement having even referred to that document officially, or of media coverage in those countries of the event, while acknowledging that his efforts were not comprehensive.

The statement itself, of course, reflected China’s efforts to frame foreign comments on its human rights issues as interference in its internal affairs.

In this connection, it is interesting to see what does or doesn’t constitute interference from Beijing’s standpoint. Not all comments, it transpires, constitute interference.

One interesting example is from 2003, when the Hong Kong government attempted to enact national security legislation. Beijing has cited Hong Kong’s failure to do so to justify its imposition of a China-drafted national security law this year.

Then British Prime Minister Tony Blair was scheduled to visit Beijing in July 2003, days after a protest by half a million people forced the Hong Kong administration to withdraw its bill. Before his arrival, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, asked if Hong Kong would be discussed during the Blair visit, pointedly asserted that “the Hong Kong issue is totally an internal affair of China.”

But Blair did discuss Hong Kong and – surprise, surprise – he was not reprimanded for interference in China’s internal affairs.

It turned out that Blair had nothing but praise for China. The China Daily, the official English-language newspaper, carried a report under the headline “Blair’s appraisal welcome.” There was also an editorial, “Blair’s praise shows his confidence in HK.”

So, Blair was not accused of interference because, instead of criticism, he had offered praise. China loves praise, which it never considers interference.

For China to make its position on noninterference credible, it will need to tell countries like Cuba and Pakistan to stop praising its human rights performance. But that is hardly likely to happen.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.