The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of China on the UNHRC

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The Good, The Bad and the Ugly of China on the UNHRC

China celebrates its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. Elsewhere, reactions are mixed.

Described as a "black day for human rights" and "asking the fox to look after the chickens,” China's recent election to the UN Human Rights Council (alongside Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia) has been met with outrage by many concerned groups. However, there are varied human rights interests in China and the impact may be more nuanced; in the fumble for gravitas after the election, the human rights organizations want the voice they've always lacked in China, the UNHRC looks to maintain a sliver of legitimacy, and China … well, China's boasting.

Arguably, on the domestic front, China's attitude toward human rights has been, at best, combative, but its spot on the Council could provide some much-needed spotlight. At the moment, however, that spotlight is being used as propaganda. As expected, the state media fawned over China's acceptance; Xinhua, ignoring the protests in the run up to the election and the international outcry afterward, commented, "China's election to the UN Human Rights Council Tuesday also serves as the international community's acknowledgement of China's significant achievements in the field of human rights."

Roseann Rife, East Asia research director for Amnesty International, tells The Diplomat, "We are certainly hoping a lot of good can come from it. It really represents a true desire to be more engaged in the work of the council, to demonstrate leadership by example." Over at Human Rights in China, the outlook is perhaps a bit more severe, as they suggest the power China wields and its human rights record is a danger to the council's important work. Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China says, "The geopolitical and economic influence of powerful member states like China can effectively carry forward or make hollow the Council's mandate that its members 'shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.'" Horn adds, "This is not a new risk. This is the world we live in – a world of imperfect global institutions." 

Adding to his colleague's statement, Ye Shiwei, a senior program officer also with HRIC, tells The Diplomat, "China will be going home to a host of different human rights challenges that it still needs to overcome and still needs to meet the demands of its citizens for reforms." He adds, "Because Chinese citizens are increasingly demanding these rights as well, it will be increasingly difficult for China to say that human rights are only Western constructs."

After it was announced that China got the seat, editorials across the land proclaimed that any human rights abuses claimed by the West and rights organizations are mere fanciful political point scoring. As the Global Times put it in its Chinese edition: "Western human rights issues with China are active friction points…Western political discourse and soft power help them to build a 'moral high ground'."

China staunchly defends its human rights record – roundly considered dire by international rights organizations – but Rife believes that China fully embraces the concept: "It is something the Chinese government has embraced, so much so that it has put it in the constitution."

While some might expect that China will now be made accountable as a member of the council, so far, China is using the opportunity to say that the world recognizes the Middle Kingdom as a bold socialist paradise and that the "Western media" and rights organizations are completely in the wrong and in cahoots. A state media report said on Thursday, "Though China is supported by most UN members…certain Western human rights groups can hardly hide their sour attitude; they just can't resist making rash criticism on China and other developing countries." China's ongoing suspicion and general dismissal of international rights groups is nothing new, and this is something that could affect progress on the Council, as rights groups stress their input is essential.

Other human rights organizations – some of which have been lobbying against China on the UNHRC – see the outlook as positively disastrous. Renee Xia of the China Human Rights Defenders says, "China can twist the arms of other member states to vote on important human rights issues…like by offering aid, investment, debt-forgiveness and business opportunities, or threatening to retaliate." But, according to Xia, this is already par for the course in Chinese involvement: "China has been destructive to the Council before – in undermining the UNHRC's independent expert mechanism (Special Procedures), in insisting on language that undermines human rights protection, especially during debates on issues involving internet freedom, freedom of speech, etc."

In the past, China has insisted on gradients of human rights by circumstance, something Xia believes "undermines the very core principle of universality of human rights by pitching economic social rights against civil political rights under the name of country-specific circumstances," citing population, culture, lack of development, and security concerns."

With its current membership, many believe the council has lost any legitimacy it once had – and some say it never had any. Comments HRIC’s Ye Shiwei, "I think the Council's legitimacy really relies on the performance of each of its members – human rights practices at home and not just what the members say and do at council sessions. It's important to remember that the human rights council and the various human rights mechanisms are not just diplomatic, bureaucratic processes." Rife is more pragmatic, saying, "I think it's really hard to say that simply by joining the council it's going to have a negative impact on the entire council's legitimacy. There are members of the council that have been there, are there now, that also are not meeting all the obligations they have for human rights."

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights in China commented that it is imperative for China to heed the advice of NGOs such as theirs in order to advance the cause of human rights both in China and on the Council. Both of those organizations' websites are blocked in China – along with many other human rights websites. For a look from the state perspective, curious readers may wish check out the government run chinahumanrights.org to read white papers like "Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China." Or, head on over to Tibet Human Rights where one can learn all about how the "Dalai clique" is responsible for all of Tibet's ills and the region's 94 percent "voter turnout."

From there, it's not difficult to see how international rights organizations are wholly ignored – if not demonized. Indeed, human rights organizations are often portrayed as the villain in China's great march of development in China's state run media – right alongside the boogeyman of "Western media." They're viewed as annoyances by the powers that be, and, as such, find themselves off the Chinese internet and treated as members of a grand conspiracy.

If China and the UNHRC have one thing in common, it's ignoring and dismissing international analysis and criticism. While the state media in China has been throwing what can only be described as a month-long hissy fit over a joke made by a child on a late-night U.S. television program, the protests against China joining the UNHRC haven't seen a milliliter of ink in China's tightly controlled state media. On the contrary, China's human rights troubles are imaginary if you ask the Chinese media. The previously mentioned editorial states, "(The West's negative attitude) formed a 'human rights in China are getting worse' illusion that blinds countless people. This is one of the world's largest illusions; even many Chinese people, including some intellectuals, are carried away by this illusion."

The UNHRC has long been under serious criticism for being run by tyrannical, subjective nations, shored up by countries like China and Russia in order to sustain internal rights abuses. With its legitimacy widely questioned, when the new members take their seats on January 1, they've got an uphill battle for relevance.

As the new Chinese government took hold, the idea that China's human rights situation had nowhere to go but up was short lived; however, many still hope things are changing and the Council could be a new front on that war—a battle China's citizens are slowly but surely entering. Ye Shiwei says, "I think China along with its allies are certainly going to try use the Council as a platform to advance Asian and cultural relativist arguments about human rights, but the strongest rebuttal against that position is that Chinese students themselves are openly and very loudly demanding protection of human rights."

Thus far, regardless of opportunities to make China accountable for the human rights of the world, China's place on the Council, at the moment, is being treated on the ground as little more than a trophy for the Chinese Communist Party, an acknowledgement of their superiority in the field of human rights. As China adjusts the self-plucked feather in its cap, human rights organizations, the "Western media" and the concept of human rights are taking a beating from China's government media. China's most achievable mission in the human rights field is to convince the rest of the world that human rights are largely flexible; it's a valid conversation, but if the discussion is on some of the human rights many consider non-negotiable, the Council is a tailor-made soap box for the Middle Kingdom.

Tyler Roney is a Beijing-based columnist for The Diplomat and an editor of the magazine, The World of Chinese.