May 23, 2021
Prefatory Note: The post below is a slightly modified version of Policy Paper #4 RESPONDING TO CHINESE VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS, published previously on the website of the Committee for a Sane China Policy.
It reflects my view that the protection of human rights is being geopolitically manipulated to mobilize public support for an anti-Chinese foreign policy in the West that risks generating a dangerous geopolitical confrontation. Such a confrontation is costly, amounts to war-mongering, and diverts U.S. attention from self-scrutiny and global peacebuilding.
Whether a second cold war is already underway is a matter of interpretation, but even those reluctant to reach such a depressing assessment would have to acknowledge that unless there are strong efforts made to support what I would call ‘inclusive global multipolarity,’ the drift toward such a dismal near-term future will become inevitable.
The need to sound the alarm has reached a level of urgency.
Originally published at RichardFalk.org
There is no doubt that Chinese government encroachments on the fundamental human rights of its population have become more pervasive and serious in several respects during the leadership of President Xi Jinping. This unfortunate development has been increasingly highlighted, often with inflammatory intent, by Western leaders and media outlets – apattern that is contributing to increasing tensions between China and the West, especially the United States.
This emphasis on Chinese violations of human rights is reinforced by complaints that China acted irresponsibly and oppressively in its early responses to the COVID-19 challenge, is defying international law in the South China Sea, and has not participated in the world economy in a fair and proper manner, hence justifying such American responses asblocking exports of high-technology items to China, persuading European governments to avoid tying their internet network to Chinese 5G technology, placing burdens on Chinese investment in the United States, and above all in mounting a global propaganda offensive against China.
President Biden in his speech to the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021 highlighted what he called ‘competition’ with China as well as with Russia, blaming each for bad behavior, while saying that the U.S. seeks to avoid a new cold war and looks forward to cooperation with China in areas of shared concern, most notably in relation to health and climate change.
At the same time the, central thesis of the Munich speech was disturbing, a confusing call for solidarity among democratic countries, highlighting NATO’s mission in ‘prevailing’ over the challenges mounted by the rise of autocratic nationalism all over the world.
For those able to recall the bellicose rhetoric of prior decades, this call is highly resonant with Cold War slogans about the ‘free world’ resisting the totalitarian Soviet bloc. It was also confusing by combining alliance solidarity with Biden’s call for the formation of a united front of democratic states, forgetting that many U.S. allies are far from achieving democratic credentials – consider the Philippines, India, Brazil, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia.
There are also unacknowledged worries in the West about competitiveness arising not from Chinese improper behavior towards its own people, but from its growing technological creativity and regional military muscle. The so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ has historically prompted nervous dominant states seek to turn back a challenge to their preeminence by initiating a war while still enjoying military superiority, which is feared will soon be overtaken.
The dangers of confrontation with China are especially great given the flashpoints in the South and East China Seas, and especially in relation to Taiwan. China seems intent on establishing its regional supremacy while the United States seeks to reassert its long-dominant regional role by displaying its formidable naval presence as a sign of readiness to meet political threats with shows of force, a recipe for dangerous forms of unintended escalation.
There are additional concerns arising from the anticipated further military buildup in the Indo-Pacific regions, based on $27 billion additional budget requests over the next five years. In the background of intensifying militarization is the related public expression by high-ranking Pentagon officials that in view of China’s regional buildup of forces, the U.S. would be under great pressure to use nuclear weapons.
A top admiral urged strategic planners to grasp this reality by understanding that the use of nuclear weapons in a forthcoming crisis would not be possible but probable, and should be prepared. Such a conclusion was reinforced by recent war game simulations showing that China would prevail at conventional levels of interaction.
Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis has there been a situation in which ‘rational’ security analysts acknowledged a dependence on nuclear weapons to meet strategic goals, and not just as serving in a deterrent role.
It is against this background of mixed messages that U.S. policy toward human rights in China should be shaped, especially if the goal is to avoid war and establish an overall atmosphere that encourages cooperative engagements.
This critical goal would best be served by reducing tensions that could give rise to hazardous and hostile confrontations, and even outright conflict. This paper seeks to thread the needle so as to separate genuine concerns about human rights from the overriding priority of not stumbling into a cold war – let alone a hot war – with China.
In that spirit it sets forth a profile of China’s human rights record, including taking account of its considerable positive sides, and expresses a skeptical view as to whether overt hostile criticisms, policies, or actions are justified or effective, adopting the view that such a pushback is certain to be resented by Chinese leaders and dismissed as hostile propaganda. It is certain to be ineffective in changing China’s controversial domestic policies.
Declaring this, however, does not dispose of the problem. As with the Cold War and regime-changing interventions, the denunciation of human rights violations by an adversary of the United States, usually in exaggerated form, has proven extremely useful in mobilizing Congressional, media, and citizen support for coercive diplomacy, taking a variety of forms, including military buildups, sanctions, interventions, threats, and covert destabilizing operations.
When John Bolton, a relentless right-wing geopolitical hawk when it comes to opposing Muslim political aspirations in the Middle East and elsewhere, expressed fury over Donald Trump’s unwillingness to do anything substantial about the plight of the approximately 12 million Turkic speaking Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, we should realize that his concern is not about human rights or the plight of the Uyghurs, but is about seizing the opportunity to use human rights concerns to bludge on the Chinese and arouse anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States already inflamed by Trump’s frequent allusions to the ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘China virus.’.
Some Perspective on China’s Human Rights Record
It is difficult to disentangle Western anti-Chinese propaganda from an objective appraisal of China’s record on human rights. This difficulty is compounded by certain Asian values and traditions that help explain government behavior, which when given a special Chinese twist, diverge in approach from Western liberal approaches that give priority to individual freedoms.
There is no doubt that China’s policy toward Tibetan, Eastern Mongolian, and Uyghur minorities raise serious human rights issues that have been reliably reported by respected human rights organizations.
The allegations include involuntary detention and abusive treatment in so-called ‘reeducation camps,’ forced sterilization, denials of freedoms of expression, religion, and cultural identity, family separation, and discrimination in paid work.
Yet the underlying issues are complex, and can be interpreted from contradictory perspectives. Concerns about human rights, especially when associated with discontented ethnic and religious minorities, are inevitably interrelated with questions about the interplay of territorial sovereignty and specifying the acceptable nature of national identity.
This includes grappling with the indistinct relationship between duties to uphold the internationally protected human rights of minorities and responses to social movements based on claims of autonomy and separation.
In such cases, human rights issues need to be balanced against measures undertaken to maintain the unity of the state. There are legal ambiguities and factual complexities about who has the authority to strike a balance between collective human rights and governmental responsibility to uphold the unity of the state. What constitutes a reasonable balance? Who decides? There are no firm answers.
International law has long wrestled with this complexity. On the one side exists a strong affirmation of the right of self-determination that inheres in every ‘people’ and it set forth in Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
On the other side is the common understanding in international law, as confirmed by an influential 1970 UN resolution, as prohibiting claims of self-determination that seek to fragment or threaten the unity of existing sovereign states. The language of the preamble to the UN resolution is clear and uncontested: “…any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a State or country or at its political independence is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the [UN] Charter.
This conceptual confusion is accentuated to the extent that international law confers the right of self-determination on a ‘people’ while endowing ‘states’ with ‘sovereignty,’ which often encompasses more than one people. Governments are legally empowered to exercise virtually unrestricted authority within recognized territorial boundaries to curb movements that exhibit separatist tendencies.
Yet when national policy is being challenged by ethno-political movements seeking greater degrees of cultural and political autonomy, including language rights and questions bearing on the freedom of religion, issues of human rights and sovereign authority are inevitably intertwined.
In these contexts, independence demands, nationalist claims, and secessionism tendencies are often disguised beneath assertions of human rights grievances, partly to arouse a sympathetic international response. Not only is a careful balancing of facts, law, and rights called for, but account must be taken of how and why some human claims are ignored while others are strongly confirmed.
International alignments often explain these glaring differences of response. The human rights wrongdoing of geopolitical adversaries is exaggerated, while comparable wrongs of friends are overlooked or handled discreetly.
Perhaps, this unequal response is to some extent understandable given the way the world is politically organized, but when, as here, there is present a dangerous tendency to use human rights issues to stoke the fires of geopolitical contestation, caution and prudence are called for.
We observe a toxic correlation of recommended toughness in relating to China in the context of trade and the South China Sea disputes with inflammatory complaints about Chinese violations of human rights. Such behavior threatens confrontation, serious crises, even war, and so has very different implications than justifiable efforts to counteract abusive exercises of state power by the recent military takeover of the government in Myanmar.
Some of China’s policies toward the Uyghurs seem to be clearly in violation of international human rights standards. Such behavior is unacceptable, but even here the facts are not as clear in its character as China’s most fervent critics contend.
China has long adopted controversial measures to curb population growth and was widely criticized for its one-family policies, but also widely praised for avoiding demographic pressures that might have intensifies expansionist policies, causing conflict.
There is doubt that China also exhibits intolerance toward political dissent and opposition politics that would be viewed in many national settings as violating civil and political rights. More than elsewhere, China has established intrusive surveillance mechanisms to monitor the behavior of its citizenry that encroach upon the privacy of its citizens.
But China is hardly the only country in the world where this is occurring. In general, the drift throughout the world is toward authoritarianism with respect to state/society relations, and however regrettable, this trend often discloses the political will of the nation as expressed through periodic elections, and although noted with concern by Washington, is not allowed to influence U.S.foreign policy, especially if authoritarianism prevails in an ally or friendly country.
As a result, this focus on China’s authoritarian policies and practices seems less concerned with the rights of the Chinese people and better understood as a means of ramping up geopolitical pressures.
Again, police brutality in response to public demonstrations in Hong Kong seem unacceptable from the perspective of a truly free society; note, however, that the Chinese government response is far less harsh than the far bloodier Egyptian response to peaceful demonstrations in recent years, and yet no media or State Department scrutiny has been forthcoming in that case. In contrast, the Hong Kong confrontational demonstrations are given intensive, one-sided, and totally sympathetic media coverage.
Fairly considered, the human rights picture in China looks quite different if economic and social rights are taken into account. China, perhaps more rapidly and impressively than any country throughout all of history, has overcome the extreme poverty of as many as 300 million of its citizens, providing for health, education, housing, food security, and infrastructure development in ways that many affluent countries of the West fail to do, despite centuries of effort.
China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ the largest public works project ever undertaken – while controversial in some respects – has produced many beneficial outcomes in Asia and Africa that have enabled developing countries to better meet the needs of their peoples, and indirectly contribute to the realization of economic and social rights.
China’s Human Rights Record and U.S. Foreign Policy
When attempting to devise an appropriate U.S. foreign policy response to China’s human rights record, there are several issues that need to be distinguished:
· What is the overall Chinese record on human rights if fairly appraised, given some uncertainties as to evidence and behavior reflective of cultural divergencies?
· Should U.S. foreign policy highlight Chinese violations of human rights?
· Would highlighting be effective in improving the protection of human rights in China?
· Would such highlighting increase the likelihood of heightened geopolitical tensions, reduced global cooperation, and greater conflict in the South China Seas?
Assessing the Record
China’s record on human rights is definitely mixed. If judged by Western liberal standards it can be faulted for serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. If appraised by non-Western and Global South standards, its achievements with respect to economic and social rights stand out, and compares favorably with many Western countries.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains many provisions confirming economic and social rights, and is considered expressive of customary international law, despite being originally set forth as ‘declaratory’ and ‘non-binding.’ In the public discourse about China, even the most respected Western human rights NGOs accord China zero credit for this amazing record of poverty alleviation, and thus its overall reputation is denied a proper appraisal.
The most serious internationally actionable allegations with respect to China involve the treatment of the Uyghur minority. As mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that allegations involving serious human rights violations by China in Xinjiang involving the Uyghurs seem based on extensive evidence.
In the words of the Human Rights Watch World Report for 2020, China’s “‘Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Extremism’ has entailed mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage.”
But whether pressure from outside China will help or hurt the Uyghurs is problematic. It should be kept in mind that some of these charges against China are difficult to evaluate, and rest on rationalizations relied on by many governments under the heading of anti-separatism and counter-terrorism.
As such, they are subject to controversy and much of the evidence relied upon is clouded by partisan political interpretations relating to legally ambiguous issues such as the discretion of the territorial sovereign with respect to the treatment of minority nationalities that exhibit violent separatist tendencies.
The most serious charges of ‘genocide’ seem certainly exaggerated and unfounded by reference to international standards, which impose exacting standard of intentionality.
In this instance, to allege genocide, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did on the basis of discredited assessments by Andrew Zenz, seems outrageous considering verified population increases among Uyghurs in recent years. Such extreme charges are politically motivated, highly provocative, legally unsupportable, and hence, diplomatically irresponsible.
Would Highlighting be Effective in Improving China’s Human Rights Record?
Overall, when dealing with major countries, including the United States, improving compliance with human rights comes about as a result of developments from within territorial borders. Criticism from outside, even from the UN or other international institutions, tends to be ignored or discounted as hostile propaganda.
Such a pattern not only reflects the statist nature of world order, but is also a reaction to the cynical use of human rights discourse to justify hostile attitudes toward foreign adversaries or geopolitical rivals. Such patterns of behavior were very characteristic of the selective emphasis on human rights throughout the Cold War: a country with a left or Marxist outlook was condemned for human rights violations while countries that were aligned with the West were not criticized, much less sanctioned, no matter how serious their violations of fundamental human rights.
Against this background it would be a mistake for the U.S. Government to emphasize allegations of Chinese human rights violations when seeking to work out relations with China that accord with the national, regional, and global priorities that should serve as the foundation of American foreign policy, including cooperation on climate change and monetary stabilization.
It would seem that mainstream human rights NGOs in the West should be sensitive to similar cross-cutting considerations bearing on current policy priorities in international relations, although to a lesser extent than the U.S. government, as their undertaking is to report on human rights as objectively, reliably, and persuasively as possible.
At the same time, civil society actors should be cautious about accepting insufficiently evidenced allegations of human rights violations that seem to intrude upon China’s territorial sovereignty, especially given the inflammatory character of the present diplomatic setting in which those advocating an aggressive approach toward China seek to play the human rights card.
The most effective way to engage China on human rights would be to rely on discreet methods of communication through private and peace-oriented channels that do not seek to exert public pressures and are diplomatically linked to an underlying commitment to encourage global cooperation with respect to shared issues such as climate change and conflict resolution.
A genuine concern with human rights in China must acknowledge that any improvement in the situation depends on internal Chinese developments that cannot be exploited to generate hostile propaganda and are not funded or encouraged by covert destabilizing operations.
Foreign Policy Imperatives in the Present Era
Unlike the Cold War in which the focus was placed on the containment of Soviet military expansion, especially in Europe, and on contesting the ideological embrace of Marxist ideas of political economy within the Global South, the challenges posed by the rise of China are entirely different, and call for different types of response.
For one thing, China poses no threat to core U.S. security interests, especially in this post-Trump period when the United States seeks to revive a Eurocentric alliance in the course of reviving its global leadership role. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has largely pursued its geopolitical ambitions by non-military, economic means, except in maritime areas close to its shores and in border disputes with neighboring countries.
This difference in geopolitical profile strengthens the incentives to avoid tensions that could lead to risky military confrontations in the South and East China Seas; from this perspective, avoiding excessive criticism of China’s violations of human rights would seem helpful from a war prevention perspective.
There is no reason to laud China’s domestic political environment, but high-profile complaints about Xinjiang and Hong Kong will be met with counter-allegations about American shortcomings with respect to human rights and would likely intensify the confrontational atmosphere.
Also different is the nature of the global agenda. Although it would have been a welcome contribution to world peace if the United States and the Soviet Union had more vigorously cooperated to produce a monitored and comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty, the need for cooperation in responding to climate change is unprecedented.
If the dangers posed by global warming are not addressed cooperatively it will produce a worldwide disaster, and China – as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions – is an indispensable partner in managing a positive response.
It is worth remembering that if overcoming the threats posed by Hitler’s Germany had not involved cooperation with the ideologically alien Soviet Union during World War II, which included suspension of most Western criticisms of the excesses of Stalinism, the outcome of war might not have resulted in victory for the Western democracies.
The Soviet Union posed no economic threat to American global economic primacy. China does pose such a threat, and so could lead the United States to make irrational responses that would weaken the global role of the dollar as reserve currency and produce a downward spiral of trade and investment that would hurt all countries, and quite possibly inducing a new world depression of even greater gravity than the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Here, as with climate change, the interests of the West favor a geopolitics of accommodation, compromise, and a search for win/win outcomes. In this regard, accentuating the human rights failures of China is imprudent, ineffective, and dangerous under present conditions.
Copyright 2021 Richard Falk
1. White House Briefing, February 19, 2021.
2. Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, Sept. 24, 2015,
3. See, for example, Austin Ramzy, “China’s Oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang, Explained,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 2021.
4. Declaration of Principles concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States, Commentary on Principle (e), UN General Assembly Res. 2625, Oct. 24, 1970.
5. Human Rights Watch (HRW), Human Rights Watch World Report, 2020 (HRW, 2020), p. 1.
6.. See, for example, James Millward, Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: A Critical Assessment (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2014).
7. On the high legal bar with respect to genocide, see: Judgment, Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, ICJ Reports, 1996).
8. On Pompeo’s claims, see Edward Wong and Chris Buckley, “U.S. Says China’s Repression of Uighurs Is ‘Genocide,’” New York Times, Jan. 19, 2021 . For a well-reasoned and documented rebuttal of the data relied upon in making those allegations, see Gareth Porter and Michael Blumenthal, “U.S. State Department accusation of ‘genocide’ relied on data and baseless claims by far-right ideologues,” The Greyzone, Feb. 18, 2021.
Originally published at RichardFalk.org
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