China Trying to Redefine Human Rights in Latest Campaign, Says D.C. Analyst

The Chinese government is engaged in a new campaign to change fundamental understandings of rights and freedoms, a security analyst told Newsweek after a senior official exalted Beijing's variety of democracy and listed Xinjiang among the "shining examples of China's human rights progress."

Beijing's attempts to shift these core paradigms are playing out on three fronts: at the United Nations; in its promotion of surveillance technologies abroad; and through an escalating information component on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, according to Washington national security analyst Lindsay Gorman.

Part of what she described as a "broader strategy" was apparent this week when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi addressed the U.N. on Monday and put forward his country's "people-centered" human rights philosophy, in which the notions of security and peace came before democracy and freedom.

"Increasing people's sense of gains, happiness and security is the fundamental pursuit of human rights as well as the ultimate goal of national governance," Wang said in a virtual address at the 46th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

"Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom" were common values, the minister stated, but countries with differing cultures and systems should promote human rights according to the "national realities and needs of their people."

China's ruling Communist Party declared victory over COVID-19 last year and recently said it had eradicated absolute poverty in the country in 2020. It was able to lift every citizen above its target of 2,300 Chinese yuan ($355) per year, the party's leading newspaper People's Daily said, linking the success to Xi Jinping's leadership.

Wang praised the accomplishment, achieved, he said, a decade ahead of schedule.

The diplomat had also spoken earlier at the Chinese foreign ministry's Lanting Forum, where he called for a reset of U.S.-China relations and listed requirements of the new administration in Washington. The lifting of sanctions and tariffs on Chinese companies and goods would create the "necessary conditions" for future cooperation, he said.

But Wang's speech was notable among observers for its description of China's political system. The country "always upholds and promotes people's democracy," he said.

"There is no fixed model of or standard answer to how to realize democracy. True democracy must be rooted in the realities of a country and serve its people," he added. China's "socialist democracy," Wang said, was "the most representative democracy."

The minister also raised eyebrows when he applauded Beijing's work with ethnic minorities, calling Xinjiang and Tibet "shining examples of China's human rights progress."

Wang's statement was "not an accident," tweeted Gorman, an expert on emerging technologies and security at the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy.

"Beijing is engaged in a multi-dimensional campaign to slowly shift global ideas on human rights away from a focus on individual freedoms and toward notions of economic development," Gorman told Newsweek.

She noted: "One front of this campaign has been underway over international law at the United Nations. Another is in promoting and selling sophisticated surveillance technologies that prop up police command centers around the world and undermine freedom from state surveillance."

"A third is the information and propaganda component of the campaign that goes beyond mere denials," she added.

A report this month by the Associated Press and the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab highlighted China's recent drive to fill the social media information space during the pandemic. Hundreds of state-affiliated accounts on Twitter and Facebook—both banned in China—have helped promote the conspiracy that COVID-19 is a bioweapon created by the United States.

Hua Chunying, spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry and director of its Information Department, is thought to be a key player in the campaign. She tweeted quotes from Wang's speech this week, including his interpretations of democracy and human rights.

"The thesis Beijing is promoting is that the individual liberties—like freedom of expression and opinion, right to an impartial tribunal, freedom of assembly—that undergird the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are inferior to economic development or, in the case of COVID-19, public health," Gorman said.

There's a risk that these efforts could reshape human rights from the ground up if democracies are not mindful.
Lindsay Gorman, Alliance for Securing Democracy

China's argument presented a "false choice," she said in her analysis. "Free societies have historically been better guarantors of prosperity and security than repressive ones."

Irrespective of how Beijing wants to present itself, China currently ranks near the bottom of The Economist's Democracy Index, Gorman notes.

"These disinformation efforts are dedicated to 'telling the China story well' to an English-speaking audience in the West in order to advance China's global goals," the researcher said, referring to Xi's 2016 slogan which has permeated the Communist Party as it tries to compete in the information space and boost the country's soft power.

Digital Arbitration

Twitter is among the major social media websites being pressed to do more to counter misinformation online. Earlier this month, the company revealed its ban of former President Donald Trump's account was permanent—even if he runs for office again.

In January, the Twitter account operated by the Chinese Embassy in Washington was suspended after one of its tweets ran afoul of the website's policy against dehumanization. The embassy had posted a link to a China Daily article which declared that Uyghur women in Xinjiang were no longer "baby-making machines" thanks to the Chinese government's education work.

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed this week that the account remains temporarily locked due to the embassy's failure to delete the offending post, which was removed from the timeline and replaced with a notice.

Gorman said Hua's recent tweets—including the assessment of human rights progress in Xinjiang—were barely "toeing the line" of Twitter's glorification of violence policy.

Twitter said Hua's tweet was not in violation of its policies.

The China Model

Wang's U.N. speech took place on the same day British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab issued the United Kingdom's statement to the Human Rights Council.

Raab said evidence of the "deteriorating human rights situation in China" could not be ignored, citing the systematic violation of rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, where rights group say more than a million Uyghur Muslims and other mostly Turkic minorities have been interned in so-called "re-education" camps.

Independent experts needed to be given "unfettered access" to investigate reports of torture, forced labor and forced sterilization in Xinjiang, Raab added.

This week, the parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands passed separate motions declaring Beijing's policies in Xinjiang to be genocidal.

In his addresses, the Chinese foreign minister likened criticism of Beijing's policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong to "smears" which were "fabricated out of ignorance and prejudice."

"We oppose using human rights as an excuse to interfere in other countries' internal affairs," he said, while describing the Communist Party's work in Xinjiang as "countering violent terrorism and separatism."

China's foreign ministry reiterated Wang's remarks on Wednesday, saying "deradicalization measures" have prevented terrorist incidents in Xinjiang for four years.

The ministry also revealed that China has invited the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to visit Xinjiang this year. Discussions about the trip were ongoing, it said.

Gorman, who is watching new media platforms likes TikTok and other technologies, is wary of how the Chinese model might play out in the global south.

She said: "There is high demand for technology and systems that address public security and promise efficiency, especially in the developing world.

"Among countries that may not have the strongest governance systems to start with, there's a risk that these efforts could reshape human rights from the ground up if democracies are not mindful," Gorman added.

Chinese Foreign Minister Addresses Press
File photo: Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. Greg Baker-Pool/Getty Images