Against a backdrop of international criticism, China defended its contribution to human rights this week. The annual Beijing Forum on Human Rights, held from September 16 to 17 this year, showcases China’s commitment to and progress on the issue of human rights just before Chinese President Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the United States.
In a congratulatory letter to the forum, Xi wrote that “the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese government have always honored and protected human rights,” according to Xinhua. Xi added that “China has been promoting economic and social development, improving people’s well-being, and toughening legal protection of human rights, among other efforts.”
“China has applied universal principles of human rights while taking consideration of its own circumstances,” Xi wrote.
China’s definition of human rights is different than the typical Western one. Rather than focusing on individual rights (such as freedom of expression or religion), China points to a broader definition of human rights that includes peace and prosperity at the top of the hierarchy. Under this definition, China is one of the major contributors to human rights, having lifted half a billion people out of poverty in the past 30 years.
It also, as a Xinhua feature on the forum pointed out, has contributed to human rights through its commitment to peace. China has not fought a war in over 30 years, and does not station military troops abroad, Xinhua stressed. In this context, China’s contributions to victory in World War II (called the “World Anti-Fascist War” in China) are also a human rights contribution – as was China’s military parade to celebrate that victory.
Xinhua bolstered China’s interpretation of human rights by quoting like-minded experts, such as Mahmoud Karem, head of Egypt’s national human rights commission. “There is something wrong with current human rights thinking, which excessively stresses Western-style democracy,” Karem said, arguing that the right to peace is frequently overlooked.
China will also attempt to showcase its bona fides on human rights issues when Xi attends the United Nations General Assembly from September 26 to 28. In particular, Xi will chair a Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. China’s Foreign Ministry said the event was tied to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women.
“The Chinese government always pays great attention to protecting women’s rights and interests, and encourages and supports women to uphold their own rights and interests through legal means,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said.
Not everyone agrees. In fact, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, recently launched the “Free the 20” campaign, which calls for the release of 20 female political prisoners, including three from China. She too referenced the 1995 conference on women, but focused on the declaration by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton that “human rights are women’s rights.”
“If you want to empower women, don’t imprison them on the basis of their views or on the basis of the rights that they are fighting for,” Power said.
China’s focus on human rights, including women’s rights, comes as critics prepare to protest Xi’s visit to the United States. Human rights advocates have expressed serious concerns over a crackdown on rights lawyers in China; over 250 were detained this summer. Critics also believe Xi has cracked down on Internet freedom, religious freedom, press freedom, and intellectual freedom since assuming office in 2013.
In an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, activist groups warned of “the significant erosion to rights during President Xi’s tenure.” The NGOs urged Obama to meet with Chinese dissidents at the White House to signal U.S. support for their cause. “We believe that President Xi cannot leave Washington without having received a clear, public message from you that his government must end its persecution of civil society,” the letter read.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has also called for Obama to be vocal about the issue of human rights during Xi’s visit. “The rise of civil society in China has been one of the only human rights success stories of the past two decades, and it is imperative the U.S. speak up to protect it,” the senators said in a letter to Obama.
Likewise, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal recommended that Obama make Xi “pay a price in international prestige by raising publicly and prominently the shameful treatment of lawyers” during their meeting.
Those activists aren’t convinced by China’s defense of its human rights record. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch told The Guardian that the recent emphasis on human rights in Beijing is part of China’s “normal approach to try to take these [human rights] issues out of a very high-profile discussion.” As soon as the visit ends, Richardson said, “[W]e just revert to the status quo.”