US-China conflict: human rights moving to forefront

October 02, 2018 11:59
Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has transformed into a surveillance state. Photo: Reuters

Ten years ago when I authored a short book on human rights to coincide with the Beijing Olympics, I wrote that the human rights situation was bad but used to be worse. Today, such a simple observation would be difficult to make. The situation has become highly complex as a rising China argues that it is not subject to western norms and seeks to project a new conception of the world and China’s role in it.

Human rights will move to the forefront of the increasingly harsh US-China confrontation next month as the United Nations Human Rights Council holds a review of China’s human rights record. Ironically, while the Trump administration has withdrawn from the council, it is still likely to play an active role in cross-examining China on sensitive human rights issues, particularly its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, about a million of whom have reportedly been incarcerated in internment camps along with other Muslim minorities such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

In the last 10 years, especially since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has transformed into a surveillance state where people – those who are not human rights defenders, or members of ethnic or religious minorities – are allowed a degree of individual liberty but where anyone who crosses political red lines drawn by the Communist Party, of which Xi is the leader, will be dealt with brutally.

The emphasis on domestic control is reflected in the internal security budget, which substantially surpasses that for defense. Last year, China spent US$197 billion on internal security, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based research institute. Over a decade, the figure increased nearly tenfold.

China has also developed advanced facial recognition software and is building a database to enable it to recognize any of its 1.3 billion citizens within three seconds. The plan is to integrate the nationwide camera system with the facial recognition technology to build a vast surveillance network.

Last October, a congress of the Communist Party of China pronounced that China had entered the new era of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This proclamation was embedded in the party constitution and, this year, into the state constitution as well.

In recent years, China has adopted unusual language to deflect human rights charges, language that is part of a new discourse on China’s concept of human rights. Thus, when asked to release political prisoners, China invokes its “judicial sovereignty”. When criticized for censoring the internet, China invokes its “cyber sovereignty”.

China has also described its vision of the future. President Xi is proposing a grand concept, which he first proposed in 2015 when he addressed the UN General Assembly: creating a community of shared future for mankind.

China is no laggard when it comes to promoting its ideologies. Few people know it but the United Nations Human Rights Council has already incorporated Xi’s concept into one of its resolutions.

In March 2018, China proposed a resolution entitled “Promoting Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights”. It sounded innocuous and, on March 23, it was adopted in a voice vote, with 28 countries in favor, 17 abstentions and one opposed. That vote came from the United States.

The Chinese had worked long and hard to achieve this victory. Over the years, China has gone from the defensive to the offensive, criticizing western countries, especially the US, on human rights and depicting itself as a champion of human rights. It has cultivated support from developing countries and, last December, hosted what was hailed as the world’s first South-South Human Rights Forum.

Last spring, a month after the “new era” clause was incorporated into the Chinese constitution, a seminar on “Building Chinese Human Rights Discourse System in a New Era” was held in Changsha, in south-central China. Experts from around the country discussed the “urgent” need to build China’s own human rights discourse system.

Chinese thinkers argue that the western discourse, including on human rights, should be replaced by a Chinese discourse. There is general agreement that China will shortly become the world’s largest economy, and many argue that China will also surpass the US politically and culturally as well to become the world’s premier power.

Once China has proved itself superior in all aspects, the thinking goes, there will be little need for it to adhere to western values and norms, including those on human rights.

In the meantime, on Nov. 6, the Human Rights Council will meet in Geneva to review China’s human rights record. The council’s rules allow non-members, such as the US, to take part.

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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.