Henk van Zuilen

Defending The Dragon

The evolution of China over the past thirty years has been marked by an unprecedented increase in human wellbeing. By one estimate, over six hundred million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty by three decades of sustained economic growth (Shah 2010). Much of this can be attributed to the state-led reorientation of the economic system guided by successive party establishments. Nevertheless, the role of the Chinese government in committing and shielding human rights abuses, both domestically and abroad, has drawn fierce criticism from actors as diverse as the UN Human Rights Council, the United States and Amnesty International. The Chinese response to such critique typically fits into one of three categories: the alternative model, state sovereignty and cultural relativity arguments. Understanding these arguments and their weaknesses can help strengthen their critics’ positions.

The alternative model argument is probably the most popular. Two conceptually distinct ideas fall under this category. Domestically, human rights abuses are framed as a price to be paid for a greater social good. For example, political reform would risk Soviet-style fragmentation and collapse. Respect for individual and collective labour rights would stunt economic growth. In either case, violations of human rights are treated as an unavoidable trade-off. Adopting the Western model would undermine Chinese stability and prosperity. Internationally, Chinese government officials plead for informal diplomacy as a tool for influencing state human rights violators. More pro-active measures are criticised for being ineffective. Public shaming causes backlash, sanctions hurt the population instead of the leadership, and intervention leads to humanitarian disaster. The Chinese way is presented as a more pragmatic alternative in both domains.

The objections to the domestic and international Chinese alternatives overlap. First, these justifications rely entirely on superior outcomes, which is an empirical question. The debate over whether democracy hinders or promotes economic growth is by no means decided. Nor are public pressure and international sanctions universal failures. Indeed, the rise of leadership-specific sanctions has been in response to exactly the kind of concerns raised by China. Second, both models have severe limitations when it comes to particular cases. Domestically, it is difficult to argue that the extensive political and cultural repression in Tibet has improved the lives of the average Tibetan. Nor is it clear why the only stable solution to the 1989 student protests was violent suppression. Internationally, Chinese government officials are unable to give a convincing account of  how their model would prevent another Rwanda (Bass 2011). A truly pragmatic approach would entail approaching different situations with different solutions. In practice, the Chinese model entails limiting political freedom wherever possible domestically and non-intervention internationally. The complex reality of human rights cannot be addressed by such a limited approach.

The state sovereignty argument is closely related to the Chinese model for international human rights diplomacy. However, rather than arguing that quiet diplomacy is the most effective way of exerting influence, this line of reasoning holds that states should refrain from intervening in each other’s domestic affairs altogether. Weakening the Westphalian norm of external sovereignty would lead to international disorder and conflict. Adhering to the rule of non-intervention in the face of serious human rights abuses delegitimises intervention under the guise of humanitarianism.

This argument is not entirely unreasonable. Certainly Russia cited the protection of civilian populations as its reason for invading Georgia in 2008. Similarly, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was probably at least partially motivated by human rights concerns. However, China’s strict interpretation of state  sovereignty seems out of touch with recent developments. First, there has been a general shift away from absolute to conditional sovereignty, exemplified by the development of the responsibility to protect. Second, China itself has acknowledged that limitations to state sovereignty exist. For example, it is a signatory to the genocide convention and has contributed peacekeepers to UNAMID. These are also exceptions with the potential to legitimise states meddling in their neighbours’ affairs. China must therefore defend on a case-by-case basis why the risk of weakening the rule of non-intervention outweighs the international community’s responsibility to protect. Third, the rule of state sovereignty only governs inter-state behaviour. Perhaps rather obviously, it does not excuse bad behaviour domestically. For these reasons state sovereignty cannot be a carte blanche for supporting egregious human rights abusers in Sudan and North Korea, or for avoiding China’s domestic responsibility.

The cultural relativity argument is perhaps the least convincing. In this reading human rights are deemed not to be universal but limited to the Western cultural sphere. The 1990’s saw this idea manifested as the briefly popular “Asian values”, an idea propagated in particular by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, but also referred to by Chinese officials (Zakaria 2002). More timelessly, the value of national traditions has been championed by Trinity’s own Edmund Burke. Many countries have excused themselves from criticism by referencing some variant of the argument for national self-determination in the ethical domain.

Donnelly (2007) deals with claims of what he terms substantive cultural relativism so efficiently that paraphrasing him can only detract from the argument. Nevertheless, with specific reference to the Chinese situation two points of refutation stand out. First, as Zakaria (2002) and Fukuyama (1998)  have also argued, cultural traditions are huge collections of contradictory values in which a basis for any political system can usually be found. This explains the divergence of polities in the Confucian cultural region. Even the Chinese and Taiwanese, historically the same people, now have radically differing forms of government. Second, these arguments assume the freedom of the nation to choose its own political system. Without democratic representation there is simply no way to know whether the Chinese way is an expression of the cultural consensus or forced onto an unwilling people by a self-serving government. The best guess under these circumstances is to assume the applicability of human rights, as: “[t]he most effective response yet devised to a wide range of standard threats to human dignity[..]” (Donnely 2007: 287).

In conclusion, the Chinese human rights record remains inconsistent. On the one hand, no single state has lifted so many out of poverty so quickly. On the other hand, serious human rights violations continue to be committed and condoned both domestically and abroad because of the Chinese government’s actions. The three most common types of defence put forward by the Chinese government are unconvincing for various reasons. Continued pressure from states and NGOs has previously sorted some limited effects in the international sphere, for example in the Chinese policy reversal on Sudan (Bass 2011).  Understanding the Chinese government’s defence of its human rights record may help strengthen the critics’ discourse.

3 thoughts on “Henk van Zuilen”

  1. I think Henk makes some really interesting arguments in this piece; his comprehensive examination of China’s approach to human rights is pretty thorough and shows up some really interesting arguments surrounding the 3 explanations put forward by the Chinese government. I particularly like his exploration of the differing models of the Chinese approach to human rights considering that their own record is pretty atrocious.
    I do have some contentions with the whole argument that China’s non-interference is a completely bad thing for differing reasons and for some shocking reason; I do find myself to be leaning more towards the Chinese argument, that interference can be a bad thing, because as we have seen in the past often, state intervention can lead to catastrophic consequences. Importantly, I must not that I do not buy the whole state sovereignty argument; I do find this a Chinese attempt to save their skins from even further scrutiny. I don’t think that there is an issue with China’s moto of non-intervention, however agreeing with Henk, I do believe there is certain issues that need to be addressed when considering their decisions to intervene in some way, like the case of Sudan, or the possibility of them being able to prevent another Rwandan genocide.
    Henk is right, the Chinese record is inconsistent, they see China as this amazing state that his lifted millions of people from poverty, but they (the diplomats, the Chinese Government) are deluded when it comes to evaluating their human rights record, both domestically and internationally.

  2. I like Henk’s take on this weeks focal article and in particular his categorisation of Chinese human rights policy defense at home and abroad. As Henk concludes, critics must first understand the defense mechanism employed by the Chinese government in order to dismantle it afterwards. While Henk shows that the Chinese justification for human rights violations is fundamentally flawed and inconsistent, the truth is that each justification continues to be widely employed (not just by Chinese authorities).

    This begs the question why states get away with defending human rights abuses in this way? For one, the international human rights regime is undermined by the lack of enforcement mechanisms. As such, respect for human rights is contingent upon the goodwill of states. More importantly, however, the lack of consensus surrounding the legitimacy and universality status of human rights creates shelter for non-compliance. For as long as academics and decision-makers remain divided upon the essence and scope of human rights, the international human rights system remains weak. Human rights must be unanimously recognised, accepted and enshrined as universal. They need to be elevated above principles of sovereignty and cultural relativism. Moreover, the combat of poverty should not be contingent upon human rights violations. Even though Donnelly (2007) qualifies human rights as a construct of modernity without anthropological or ontological universality, he maintains that human rights possess conceptual universality. Yet, he argues that this does not prove that such rights exist and what they would command. Few are those who actually reject the idea that human beings possess rights simply by virtue of being human or that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has made significant progress in this respect. To this end, human rights must first gain what Goodhart (2008) has termed “global appeal”. Goodhart may be right in arguing that ultimately semantics get in the way of defining standards. I would like to believe that academics and decision-makers would prioritise and defend practical universality.

  3. I think Henk’s evaluation of China’s human rights position is extremely thorough. He comprehensively outlines the three positions that China has taken on this issue and at the same time raises good points as to why these defences do not stand up to scrutiny. In particular I like the specific examples of human rights abuses within China given by Henk. These examples are apt for Henk’s argument as they highlight that none of the above arguments can defend either Taiwanese repression or the 1989 “incident” as China prefers to call it. These examples show that any Chinese defence of human rights is convenient rhetoric that has no bearing on reality and which constitute awful excuses for deplorable behaviour. As the international community gradually grows more interdependent it is worrying that China wishes to remain so staunchly behind the Westphalian system of state sovereignty.

    Unfortunately I think that a totalitarian government and oppression of the public go hand in hand. As Henk points out the cultural relativity argument cannot be proven as the people of China have not been allowed to choose which system they live under. As long as the Chinese people are forced to live in a country where they cannot even choose their own form of governance then oppression and human rights violations will be inevitable. It remains to be seen how far quiet diplomacy can get us in the case of China but hopefully it can someday get us past this hollow rhetoric.

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