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Can China Change the Definition of Human Rights?

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Can China Change the Definition of Human Rights?

In a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council, China’s foreign minister gave China’s preferred spin to the concept.

Can China Change the Definition of Human Rights?
Credit: Flickr/ sanjit

On February 22, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech at the 46th session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. It was the first time a Chinese government official had addressed the U.N.’s top human rights body – and the speech contained important clues about Beijing’s attempt to remake the very concept of human rights to better suit the Chinese Communist Party.

The CCP has been accused of large-scale human rights abuses since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. From the targeting of businesspeople and intellectuals in the early days of the PRC to the crackdown in Tibet in 1959 to the bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution, political persecution has been a hallmark of the CCP regime – with the 1989 military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square as perhaps the most famous example. Today, the biggest blot on Beijing’s human rights record is the ongoing campaign against Turkic Muslim groups, notably the native Uyghurs, in China’s Xinjiang region. That particular outrage, which includes mass detentions, forced labor, and constant surveillance, caused the United States to accuse China of outright genocide.

Wang’s speech on February 22 devoted a solid chunk to defending China’s policies toward Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where a new national security law took effect last year. But more broadly, his remarks sought to shift the definition of “human rights” to one more suited to the CCP’s strength, by focusing first and foremost on economic development and security.

Wang’s proposition of “people-centered” human rights posits “people’s sense of gains, happiness and security” as “the fundamental pursuit of human rights.” In this formulation, economic prosperity tops the list, the nebulous concept of “happiness” replaces more concrete markers like racial and gender equality or freedom of religion, and security its elevated to a human rights priority. Wang’s full enumeration of human rights includes the concepts of “Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom.” The order here – with peace and (economic) development at the top, and democracy and freedom at the bottom – is particularly notable. In this context, Wang held up China’s claim to have eradicated extreme poverty in 2020 as “a milestone in our human rights achievement.”

As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press conference on the same day as Wang Yi’s speech, “China pursues a people-centered vision, regards the rights to subsistence and development as the primary, basic human rights, and works hard to promote the comprehensive and coordinated development of economic, social, cultural rights as well as civil political rights.” China’s emphasis on “economic” rights as taking precedence over “political rights” is why Beijing consistently brings up economic growth statistics to defend its human rights record. When Wang Wenbin argued that “Over the past 60-plus years, Xinjiang’s aggregate economy grew over 200 times, per capita GDP nearly 40 times, and people’s life expectancy from 30 to 72 years,” the implication is that this economic growth justifies whatever means Beijing used to get there.

As for the human right to “security,” another common refrain from Beijing – repeated by Wang Yi on Monday – is that its actions in Xinjiang are a justified response to terrorist activity. Chinese authorities counter accusations of rights violations by pointing out that there have been no terrorist attacks in Xinjiang since 2017, and that providing this human right to security is worth whatever cost it may carry in the Western sense of human rights – for example, freedom of speech, religion, and association.

By promoting a redefinition of human rights to include economic and physical security, China is essentially hoping to shift the goalposts so it can better compete with the liberal democracies (and particularly the United States) for the moral high ground of human rights protection. As Wang Yi put it in his speech, “Human rights are not a monopoly by a small number of countries, still less should they be used as a tool to pressure other countries and meddle in their internal affairs.” Wang Wenbin was more blunt: China wants the UNHRC to “reject interference in other countries’ internal affairs and double standards under the pretext of human rights.”

While human rights advocates in the United States and Europe may be aghast at the shifting definition of human rights, Beijing’s formulation is attractive to a large number of countries – particularly other authoritarian-inclined governments. After all, China’s repeated re-election to the Human Rights Council, according to Wang Wenbin, “testifies to the international community’s recognition of China’s human rights cause.”

All this raises the question of how the Human Rights Council will function in coming years. Will it increasingly adopt China’s new definition of human rights, which quietly sidelines civil and political rights in favor of development-focused emphasis? As the coup in Myanmar – and the lack of global action thus far – proves, this question has serious stakes that extend far beyond China.