China is making headway in its campaign to redefine the conversation around human rights

Xi Jinping

Emboldened by its increasing influence in the UN, Beijing is ramping up its attempts to reframe the international human rights conversation.


On December 10 and 11, Beijing hosted the 2019 South-South Human Rights Forum. Touted as a platform to extol the progress of participating nations in the area of human rights, participants used the platform to criticise the West’s obsession with human rights and to promote Beijing’s alternative vision of rights protections.

With North Korea, Syria and Pakistan among the forum’s participants, China’s palaver offered a unique take on human rights. The host has come under fire from international governments and human rights groups for its detainment of more than a million Uyghur Muslims. Among the attendees was an adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who stands accused of deploying chemical weapons against the Syrian civilian population during the nation’s bloody civil war.

In a speech that heavily criticised the West, Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s political and media adviser, eulogized China’s ability to “redefine human rights.”

Traditionally Beijing has avoided international human rights conversations. However, in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been more energetic in promoting its human rights counternarrative.

The government in Beijing has sought to reframe international human rights conversations around development, security, and sovereignty. Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu told delegates last week, “the people of each country all have the right to decide for themselves their human rights development path.”

The United Nations is vital to promoting the Chinese worldview

The United Nations (UN) is a central pillar of China’s strategy to reshape the global conversation on human rights.

Many nations in the west have traditionally seen UN bodies as irrelevant and have expressed little appetite for positioning their diplomats in leadership roles. Identifying an opportunity, Beijing secured Chinese heads for four of the UN’s 15 agencies. Chinese nationals run the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Industrial Development Organisation and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). By contrast, the US leads just one agency.

By moving closer to the UN’s levers of power, China has the ability to set the agenda. It is using this influence to move UN bodies away from civil development goals and bring economic development to the forefront.

The UN Charter demands that heads of UN bodies act to further the common good and do not operate at the behest of their native governments. However, there have been signals that Beijing is using its diplomats at the UN to legitimise its domestic policy agenda.

Chinese diplomats have advanced 24 memoranda of understanding (MOU) in support of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across UN agencies.

Wu Hongbo, the former undersecretary-general of the United Nations and head of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), expelled Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, from a UN forum on indigenous issues. Liu Zhenmin, Wu’s successor at the UNDESA, attempted to remove Isa from the forum again in 2018.

Additionally, since a Chinese national assumed the leadership of the ICAO, Taiwan has seen its request to attend the body’s annual conference denied.

Increased financial contributions to the UN budget are providing Beijing with further clout

China’s rise in the UN has been gradual but Donald Trump’s contempt for international institutions and increasing European disunity are allowing Beijing plenty of room to manoeuvre.

While the US and its European allies have sought to scale back contributions, China has increased its commitments to the UN’s general budget and peacekeeping forces in an attempt to secure more leverage.

In 2013, Beijing provided just 3% of the UN’s peacekeeping budget. It had increased this share to more than 10% in 2018. The Chinese government also provides a standby peacekeeping force of more than 8,000 soldiers, in addition to the 2,500 troops serving in UN security operations across the globe, contributing more troops to UN missions than the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council combined.

China has also increased its contributions to the UN regular budget and ploughed money into UN development funds. Beijing established a US$1billion peace and development fund and committed US$100 million for African Union military assistance.

Beijing’s efforts are paying off in the halls of New York

Beijing’s efforts to break the West’s control of the international human rights narrative are paying off. China’s worldview is seeping into the wording of UN documents, which now highlight “win-win cooperation” and “a community with a shared future.”

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, has also praised BRI publicly and held it up as a model for global development. Last year, China was also able to convince the UN Human Rights Council to modify its approach and pursue “mutually beneficial co-operation” rather than criticising bad actors.

But nowhere has China’s rising influence been more apparent than in the UN’s response to Beijing’s incarceration of its Uyghur minority.

When the British representative at the UN, Karen Pierce, secured the signatures of 22 nations on a statement urging China to allow the UN unrestricted access to its prison camps in Xinjiang, China responded by securing the backing of 54 nations for a document praising Beijing’s “remarkable achievement in the field of human rights.”

Uyghurs sitting outside a Mosque in Shache, Xinjiang province.
At least one million Uyghurs have been detained and forced into “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang, China.
Photo: Flickr

Emboldened by its increasing influence in New York, China is now more eager to promote its viewpoint as an alternative to the West’s preoccupation with individual rights. China’s message, which places the rights of the nation and the pursuit of economic development ahead of the rights of the individual, resonates with many authoritarian governments and developing nations and is gaining support across the world.

While Beijing is still some distance from replacing the US as the hegemon in the UN, its emergence as an influential voice in New York and its success in driving UN agencies away from civil development goals will be a cause of concern for human rights activists everywhere. Nations with chequered human rights records are being afforded a way of justifying and legitimising their actions when viewed through the distorting lenses of national security and economic development.

Players like Aung San Suu Kyi, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Hun Sen, and Rodrigo Duterte are trying to downplay and deny the rights abuses that occurred on their watch. The rise of China’s counternarrative offers an opportunity to absolve themselves of wrongdoing.