China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

How Chinese Norms Are Going Global

From human rights to good governance, Chinese norms are spreading. How should Western governments react?

By Reza Hasmath and Jennifer Y.J. Hsu for
How Chinese Norms Are Going Global
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

As the United States of America and China engage in advanced discussions to resolve their trade dispute, one topic lurking in the background is the question of prevailing Chinese norms and Beijing’s growing influence in international affairs.

A good starting point to understand Chinese norms is the nation’s view on human rights, which are routinely criticized by Western governments and civil society actors. In November 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council periodic review concluded that human rights in China had “deteriorated.” The report highlighted China’s ineffective state policies in managing ethnic and religious minorities in places such as Xinjiang, and the arbitrary detention and poor treatment of human rights advocates, as notable examples of worsening conditions for human rights. These claims are reinforced by numerous reports from international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

China has long held a hard and soft line in retort to critics. The former can best be characterized as the demand that nations should respect China’s right to sovereignty and self-determination. The latter approach reminds offended parties that China has an excellent record on human rights, with one important caveat: China subscribes to human rights norms on the basis of social and economic rights first and foremost. It is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To stretch the logic further, it was a post-materialist luxury to embrace civil and political rights when a large segment of China’s population was in abject poverty. The sentiment is that citizens need to eat first, have adequate shelter, and have their basic material needs taken care of, before thinking about “luxuries” such as the right to free movement.

Indisputably, China’s approach has yielded success. According to the World Bank, the nation has lifted over 800 million people out of extreme poverty since the 1978 market reforms, and it has improved the material livelihood of the vast majority of its citizenry. It has done so by embracing experimental policies ranging from population control (via the now defunct one child policy), to restrictions on human mobility (via the hukou system – household registration), to macro-structural market reforms in the past four decades.

Tensions Between Chinese and Western Norms?

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In a post-Cold War reality, where Western rights-based approaches have proliferated globally to the extent of being seen and accepted as “universal” international norms for all nation-states to abide by, China has resisted or at minimum abstained. At least, this is how the general narrative is painted.

What we suggest is that there are not necessarily tensions between Chinese or Western versions of norms per se, but rather the major variance lies in how these norms are executed in practice. The unabated pragmatism the Chinese have taken in conducting policy sharply contrasts to Western societies where civil and political rights have generally taken a rarefied ontological status without questioning their utility in the face of other pressing and important social and economic challenges. This may explain the horror many Westerners feel over limiting the number of children an individual can have via the one-child policy; or the restrictions on internal migration in China under the hukou system. However, for China, these policies were a pragmatic adaption to an important societal challenge that required bold solutions and experimentation. The eventual policies that ensued to tackle these challenges lacked moral appeal since Beijing was guided entirely by pragmatism, which by definition, is behavior disciplined by neither a set of values nor established principles.

Spreading Chinese Norms Internationally

What is interesting to observe is that this pragmatic brand of practicing policy is spreading globally and, not coincidentally, in African and Southeast Asian nations, where China has increasing commercial investments and trade activities and growing political ties. This should not be surprising: As nation-states meaningfully engage with China, Chinese norms of practice will likewise be transferred to its partners. There is a general adage in international affairs that when two nations engage with each other over time, norms will eventually be transferred. This is aptly the case when one trading partner has uneven economic and political power, but this also occurs when there is relatively similar power on both sides.

A case in point of this playing out is in Africa where China’s economic involvement in the continent is perceived by the West as spreading corruption and weakening transparency and governance. This derives from the notion that China’s FDI and development aid packages, unlike the West, come without clauses relating to promoting transparency, accountability, and good governance. A European Union Parliament Resolution best summarizes these sentiments, suggesting China’s no-conditions investments in “African nations misgoverned by oppressive regimes” contribute to “perpetuating human rights abuses and further delay democratic progress and hinder recognition of good governance, including the rule of law and the control of corruption.”

In addition, as China seeks to establish “alternate” international institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, these institutions will inherently reflect Chinese norms of practice. They will thus only further serve to spread and solidify Chinese norms of practice to nations who become members, or are recipients of, China-lead institutions.

Another vehicle for exporting Chinese norms internationally are government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs), who are having a greater presence globally, with Africa a notable continent to examine. While there are no official statistics about the number of Chinese GONGOs in the region, an extremely conservative estimate exceeds 100, though perhaps as few as 10-15 have permanent operations and local offices. A typical example of a GONGO setting up in Africa is the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA). CFPA has recently established a three-year program setting up community-based centers that offer first aid, healthcare, and water supplies in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. In 2012, the organization launched a healthcare program in Sudan that sent volunteer doctors from China to train local midwives and nurses.

The growing presence of Chinese GONGOs abroad has some important implications. Western NGOs have traditionally been viewed as “agents of export” in terms of best practices and norms. They are seen as builders of capacity in host nations, alternative social service providers, and harbingers of democratization. In seeking to fulfill these functions, Western NGOs have worked to train and socialize local NGOs in developing nations. They have taught a “Western model” of state-society relations, whereby NGOs act as a watchdog and sometimes antagonist to the government. This presents NGOs as countervailing forces vis-à-vis the state, and sees their proliferation as a basis for future democratization. NGOs possess a range of resources and power – ranging from material to moral – and have been put forward as agents of sociopolitical change by the NGOs themselves, by international institutions such as the UN, IMF, and World Bank, and by national governments through their development agencies.

However, in the Chinese case, the NGOs doing the teaching were born, socialized, and evolved in an authoritarian institutional environment, in which they have adapted to tight state supervision and limitations. Thus, the domestic environment for Chinese GONGOs can potentially serve as a guide for understanding Chinese GONGOs’ activities overseas. Projected out further, presumably, Chinese NGOs have the strong potential to offer valuable best/worst practices and lessons to help their local host nation counterparts to operate more effectively under similarly illiberal states. In turn, Chinese GONGOs may face criticism from those who hope to use humanitarian and development aid to promote political liberalization, and fear that Chinese NGOs will strengthen authoritarian tendencies or reduce the presumed liberal-democratic influence of Western NGOs and governments.

How Should Western Government React?

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What can Western liberal-democratic nations do in response? First, there must be an understanding that nations’ and civil society actors’ overtly “preaching” to China about practicing “universal” norms and rights is the least effective way to foster change in China’s behavior domestically or internationally. While it may (temporarily) placate the Western nations’ domestic audience, this overt strategy illustrates a misunderstanding of how social and political change occurs in present-day mainland China. Most change in China comes from quiet engagement with key political influencers, internal think tanks, and business actors embedded and strongly linked within the wider Party-State structure. While these actors will take a long time for Western nations to identify, and to eventually engage with, the end result is that this is a more effective way to support potential change in Chinese society than the “preaching” strategy.

Second, funding or engaging with (Western) rights-based NGOs in China will not yield the same successes for societal transformation as was the case of Communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. China’s new Charity Law and Overseas NGO Law ensure greater restrictions on direct foreign influence for social organizations with domestic programming. These new regulations notwithstanding, the hidden rules for NGOs to engage and partially influence the central and local Chinese governments require being trusted by the state in the first instance (read: no foreign ties).

Third, it will be in the interest of Western nations to allow China a greater role and stake in existing international institutions, particularly those institutions that Western nations founded – and thus, the institutions that played a role at inception in instilling Western norms of practice. The more meaningful, long-term institutional engagement China has with Western nations, the greater propensity it will have to embrace, to some degree, the norms of practice inherent in these institutions.

Finally, viewing China as a singular coherent nation is not necessarily constructive. Parts of China, such as Beijing or Shanghai, have already moved from a materialist to post-materialist society. In other words, as the material wealth and infrastructure of Beijingers and Shanghaiese matches or exceeds many developed nations, the “luxuries” of Western norms of practice are demanded more by their residents. The reality, however, is that most of China is still economically developing – for example, just under half of the population are still considered rural – and thus, the Party-State has to manage differing expectations of its citizenry. For Western governments, this means a “one-size, fits all” approach to encouraging more rights-based approaches to jurisprudence and public policy should be more regionally-oriented.

Reza Hasmath (Ph.D., Cambridge) is a Professor in Political Science at the University of Alberta.

Jennifer Hsu (Ph.D., Cambridge) is a Visiting Fellow at the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.