Defending The Dragon
HENK VAN ZUILEN
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.