Oscar Long

Defending the Indefensible?

China’s unflinching defense of its own and other countries sovereignty has hampered the efforts of the UN in dealing with genocide and other human rights abuses. Although gaining support from the regimes who benefit from Chinese trade and support, it is alienating the people who suffer under the  oppressive regimes it supports and China is also is doing damage to its reputation on the international stage.

In many ways, China has just been opportunistic in its dealing with Sudan. China needs oil, Sudan has it. The negative criticism from the west and specifically the US regarding Beijing’s military aid for Bashir’s government has hurt China’s image but could also be justifiably perceived from a Chinese point of view as meddling when you take into account some of the undesirable regimes the US and Europe ally themselves with. That is not to say anyone should condone China’s actions regarding Sudan. They are providing the means for which Bahir can commit genocide. But as so often is the case, when China is being criticised they have so many examples of the West carrying out similar behaviour that the criticisms are easily fobbed off as a promotion of western policies that are set out to benefit the West.

China is caught between wanting to be taken seriously on the international stage but also at the same time clearly defending its sovereign right to govern how it sees fit. In the same way that the US overlooks China’s Human rights abuses when it comes to trade, it could be argued that China is just pursuing its own trade ties and bringing a nation which has been heavily critcised in from the cold with the intention to hopefully end the unrest and human rights abuses there through trade and engagement.

The Chinese argument for vetoing Security Council sanctions against Sudan, which was that they were the veto for the developing world as they themselves were a developing country would, if true and it did not result in countless deaths would be a valuable asset to the security council, as a voice that represents the developing world is what is needed on the security council.

Unfortunately, China’s use of their veto was to protect their trading partner so as they can keep getting oil and it was not the voice of the Sudanese people who have been killed or left homeless because of China’s veto. Although China has helped the economies of many developing countries, it risks alienating a lot of the citizens of these countries by supporting regimes who mistreat the people they are governing.

The argument of cultural relativism as a means in disregarding human rights is tired, weak and usually used by regimes who have a questionable legitimacy to be in power as a blanket to hide behind so they can carry out human rights abuses.

China is notoriously slow when it comes to change. But as pointed out by Jack Donnelly nearly all western religious and philosophical doctrines throughout history have been incompatible with human rights as we know them today. Its safe to say that nearly all western countries who have broken away from the shadow of religious morality or hereditary aristocracy and have become liberal and social democratic welfare states, for the vast proportion of people in these states their quality of life has improved with the improvement of their rights (Donnelly 2007).

As seen in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan; human rights are compatible with “Asian values”. There is so nothing within China’s indigenous culture which should prevent them from respecting and endorsing human rights.

That brings us to what is the best method for getting regimes to respect human rights in their own country and to also get states to put pressure on other countries who fail to respect them. Due to the economic importance of  China, the US approach to dealing with China’s domestic human rights abuses has been one of gentle persuasion. China clearly should not be providing weapons to a regime that is carrying out genocide and saying that that what is happening in Sudan does not quite meet the definition of genocide is rather ugly rhetoric to be using to try and justify their trade ties. China seems to be incredibly proud of its peacekeeping duties so using an inclusive approach by other states to get China to adhere to the human rights norms of institutions may be the best way in getting China to take human rights more seriously. As we have seen with the arab spring, the advancement of technology has helped spread ideas and although the Chinese government keeps tight controls over all forms of media, it will only be a matter of time before the citizens of China demand more in the way of quality of life and human rights. There are already large scale protests taking place in parts of China concerning workers rights.

With China’s only guiding principle seeming to be that of defending sovereignty (Bass 2011), it does pose a considerable problem when a crisis unfolds in a country and mass killings take place as has been seen in Sudan and now in Syria. Which is when states and human rights groups should apply pressure on China and shame them into taking action. No matter how much China’s economy surpasses expectations until it starts taking human rights seriously it will never gain the respect on the international stage that the US has because no one who has experienced the freedoms that we have in the West would ever want to give them up.


Donnelly, Jack, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 2, May 2007, pp. 281-306

Goodhart, Michael, ‘Neither relative nor universal. A response to Donnelly’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, February 2008, pp. 183-93

Donnelly, Jack, ‘Both universal and relative. A reply to Goodhart’, Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 1, February 2008, pp. 194-204

Franck, Thomas, ‘Is Personal Freedom a Western Value?’ American Journal of International Law, vol. 91, no. 4, October 1997, pp. 593-627

Foot, Rosemary, Rights Beyond Borders: The Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China (Oxford: 2000), Chapters 8 and 9

4 thoughts on “Oscar Long”

  1. I guess my comment/question with this piece is: Is China’s position, actions, and standing in the international realm really ‘indefensible’ as Oscar (and many others) suggests? My feelings are, from a historical perspective, China is (seemingly) acting within their own best interests in very similar ways to US foreign policy decisions in the Cold War/immediate post Cold War period. Remember (as I believe Gary Bass briefly mentions), the US was involved, and in some cases, set up many awful dictators/governments in a variety of locations through the developing world. Was this the best policy? In hindsight, many of those cases backfired on the US, but some of them provided a level of stability that the US was comfortable with. (What I mean by that is, international relations/relations with the US were stable – that is not to say that domestically anything was stable or fair. But in reality, the US helped to create these governments for its own interests, with little regard for the people of those countries). So within the ‘let’s make things safer/more stable for the US’ framework (again, while disregarding domestic rights) the US served its own interest – much in the same way China is now. I think it is defensible within that viewpoint. Is it moral? Certainly not. But world powers hardly do the moral thing, the US/EU included. The notion that when China behaves as it does, this is “…when states and human rights groups should apply pressure on China and shame them into taking action,” seems a bit vague at best, and naïve at worse. Human rights groups apply pressure to China constantly. The US does a fair amount of shaming; just look at the things that were said by Ambassador Rice and Sec. Clinton after China and Russia vetoed any action in Syria. A different tact needs to be examined – one that positively incentivizes China to make better choices of who will be their friends. (I’m thinking economically – as they have relationships with Zimbabwe and Sudan, among others, because of economic gain.)

    1. Just wondering, Jacob: you write that China’s actions are morally wrong, yet you disagree with Oscar that they are indefensible. What is the difference between the two concepts?
      To me, ‘the US used to do/still does the same’ is a factual statement. It describes the world as it is, not as it should be. Normatively, Oscar may still be right. The fact that Nixon was a dick doesn’t preclude Jiabao from being one.
      I’m not saying I disagree with you. I’m just just genuinely curious why you distinguish between actions being morally wrong and indefensible.

  2. I am in agreement with Oscar regarding China’s delusional self-assessment of its human rights record.
    Gary Bass in this article has used his obviously well-placed sources to provide a fascinating insight into the Chinese mindset when it comes to foreign policy and dealing with international relations. The officials quoted consistently defend non-intervention on the basis of respecting sovereignty (among other things). “No matter how serious it is, it is their internal affair,” the official is quoted as saying. This is an astonishing statement that effectively writes a black cheque to despots all over the world. The notion that tyrannical leaders should be permitted to slaughter their own citizens without rebuke from the international community is beyond belief. It’s quite frightening to imagine the world should China become its next hegemon.
    Sovereignty is a tenet of the principle of self-determination: the notion that a people should be free to make decisions that will determine their own destinies. Human rights abuse is anathema to self-determination. It seems bogus to me that this be exploited in order to justify inaction when atrocities occur. When a State begins to systematically abuse human rights, its right to sovereignty should be ceded. I’m sure the Tibetan monks must be having a great laugh when they read about China preaching about sovereignty.
    Listening to the rhetoric of the officials who spoke off the record to Bass in this article, I wonder whether he managed to keep a straight face throughout the interviews. A Chinese official refers to North Korea as a “normal state” that has the “right to choose how to govern” in spite of the fact that it allowed a million of its citizens to die of starvation. The depiction of Zimbabwe as the type of place you might look to settle down after retirement and the “power-sharing” that is going on there as a marriage made in heaven is, again, laughable. Bass writes that a Chinese Foreign Ministry official asked in 2007 where George Bush had latched onto Darfur as a “legacy issue”. I hope somebody put a hand on his shoulder and suggested that it might instead have something to do with the systematic slaughter of 400,000 ordinary civilians at the hands of a government-backed militia.
    I believe public condemnation of human rights violations is important as to fail to do so can legitimize these atrocities, particularly in the eyes of those who are suffering at their hands. But there can also be tangible, positive consequences for such rebukes. Bass illustrates how China was forced to change its tune in the UN on the Darfur issue after the US Secretary of State called on them to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the world system.
    While economic ties with China are no doubt pivotal for the US as it attempts to steer its ship through what has become an economic typhoon, human rights abuses and those who seek to prop-up or protect the abusers ought to be condemned. Instances where citizens are being slaughtered at the hands of their own governments ought to be intervened in. And lest the human rights ship be the one to founder, the right to sovereignty ought not become a hiding place for the abusers and their collaborators.

  3. I think Jacob’s argument goes a step further than purely stating the obvious. The “might is right” idea in the American unipolar world was maintained, while ethics and human rights issues famously faded into the background (or instrumentalized for ulterior motives). Therefore; morally wrong, absolutely indefensible ethically, but defended in practice (as proven by history). Oscar’s very apt title seems to encapsulate this Catch-22 in foreign policy-making. The implied fear/question is- as Bass also wonders in concluding- whether or not China will follow a new and improved path in reconfiguring the boundaries of foreign policy-making within realpolitik. Jacob’s approach suggests a bleak future, where the aforementioned paradox could easily be perpetuated. Henk rightfully wishes to poke some academic holes in this empiricism. Henk’s approach is conducive to escaping the potential recurrence of previous trends in power politics. The unfolding of future events will show if Oscar is indeed normatively accurate. Arguing as Oscar does is constructive towards a China that is forced to cooperate. Yet as all normative arguments go, not assertive enough to make self-interested actors to obey unconditionally. Rationalizing at the merging point of all such different approaches might just prove the most productive of all, instead of polarizing the debate.

    Adding a counterintuitive normative dimension might be interesting. Naming and shaming and reputation costs are already well-known tools of statecraft. But what if vehement criticism backfires with the consequence of permanently locking China into an opposing block of states (Foot, 2000: 267)? A lot of states are tired of adjusting and readjusting themselves according to the moral hegemony of the West. Many of them would be more than willing to adhere to sovereignty-oriented Chinese norms. At this point, it’s important to remember that norms are not impervious to time and change. Such a probabilistic question may be on shaky ground, but occasionally it is refreshing to stop taking human rights norms and democratic liberal values for granted. (Interesting to read for more “what if” questions; http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65162/azar-gat-daniel-deudney-and-g-john-ikenberry-and-ronald-inglehar/which-way-is-history-marching)

    This may not be a short-term concern, as norm-emergence tends to take its time. But I strongly believe that in the long-term- as context and perceptions undergo change Donnelly’s “cultural relativism” will prove to be more than just “ a blanket to hide behind” for those misbehaving superpowers. Relative universality is not just instrumental in shaping a pluralistic (as opposed to majoritarian) human rights regime. In a world where norms are tailored to China’s liking, won’t we all wish that the human rights regime was locked into cultural relativity?

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