On the afternoon of July 1, as Hong Kong residents grappled with a new national security law and wondered how much space would be left to “act out our freedom,” a new media platform operated by Shanghai’s Liberation Daily, the official organ of the municipality’s CCP Committee, was busy keeping score. The headline in the Shanghai Observer was euphoric: “27:53! A test of strength plays out at the Human Rights Council over Hong Kong’s national security law.”

The Shanghai Observer report responded to events at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council the previous day, at which two statements had been delivered back to back. The first statement (available here), was delivered by Julian Braithwaite, the UK’s ambassador to the WTO and UN in Geneva, on behalf of 27 countries. Braithwaite emphasized that the Joint Declaration between China and the UK is “a legally binding treaty, registered with the United Nations,” and that China’s passing of a national security law “without the direct participation of Hong Kong’s people, legislature or judiciary of Hong Kong undermines ‘One Country, Two Systems.’”

The second statement, delivered by Cuba on behalf of more than 50 countries, countered Braithwaite by emphasizing the principles of non-interference and the sovereign right of states to safeguard national security. “We believe that every country has the right to safeguard its national security through legislation, and commend relevant steps taken for this purpose,” the Cuban statement said. “In this context, we welcome the adoption of the decision by China’s legislature to establish and improve a legal framework and enforcement mechanisms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) for the purpose of safeguarding national security, as well as China’s reaffirmation of adherence to ‘One Country, Two Systems’ guideline.”

The apparent weight of support for Cuba’s statement in favour of China’s favoured frames of non-interference and national sovereignty over the Hong Kong national security law has justifiably been read by some as a clear illustration of just how far the UN Human Rights Council has tipped in China’s favour, particularly since the 2018 decision by the United States to withdraw from the council. Axios, which provided a helpful map of countries defending and criticizing Hong Kong’s new law at the HRC, noted that most supporters of China’s position have signed on to its Belt and Road initiative, and that many African countries joining Cuba’s statement are also negotiating debt repayments with China.

“This is one of the clearest indications to date of which countries are challenging a rising superpower, at least on human rights, and which are lining up behind it,” David Lawler wrote in his big picture summary of the HRC story.

Taking a closer look at coverage of the Human Rights Council story, however, one of the most interesting aspects is the way the apparent divide is reported and amplified internationally only through Chinese state media.

In other words, if there is a clear global media divide over the understanding and application of human rights and international relations principles in this case, it is not between the West (the 27 countries criticizing China, for example) and “the rest” (the Global South, etcetera). The divide is in fact between Chinese state media, which have a clear and unmistakable message, and everything else. While Chinese media have pushed the frames of non-interference and national sovereignty in regards to Hong Kong, these frames cannot be readily detected in other coverage around the world – unless Chinese state media content is being amplified through non-Chinese channels.

A Silent Axis of Shame

Some have referred to the countries supporting the pro-China statement at the Human Rights Council as an “Axis of Shame.” But outside the HRC statement, the countries comprising this “axis” seem to have said nothing themselves, and their media seem to have reported nothing, about Hong Kong and the national security law. The only country that seems to have actively spoken out on its own in support of Hong Kong’s national security law, and against tying it to the issue of human rights, is Russia, which did not sign the June 30 statement from Cuba. As Russia’s TASS news agency reported, Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, called the HRC discussion “biased and politicized.” But this statement was made through Gatilov’s Twitter account.

A Google advanced search in English for “Human Rights Council” + “Hong Kong” + “Cuba” turns up just a handful of sources that are not Chinese state media. These include Axios and Fox News, which reported on both HRC statements.  

Aside from Axios and Fox News, sources reporting news of Cuba’s countering statement all have either content sharing arrangements with China’s official Xinhua News Agency, or share content from Russian sources, notably Sputnik, that are ultimately sourced from Xinhua.

Malaysia’s The Star website, for example, ran a Xinhua News Agency report on July 1 attributed to “Aseanplus News” with the headline: “52 countries welcome China’s adoption of HK security law.” The story was labelled in front as being sourced from Xinhua.

The Macau Daily Times reported on July 2, using Xinhua copy, that “the number of countries, which signed the joint statement Cuba read at the session, is expected to rise.” A headline the same day on the website of the Philippine’s Daily Tribune read: “52 countries welcome new bill.” The copy was again from Xinhua, and an identical report appeared also in Bangladesh’s The Daily Observer

Pakistan’s The Nation, published by the Nawaiwaqt Group, which signed a cooperation agreement with Xinhua in December 2019, ran a report on July 1 emphasizing the Cuban statement, and citing as sources both Xinhua News Agency and the Global Times. But the report was in fact taken directly from Russia’s Sputnik, which links in its lede to the original Xinhua News Agency news blurb on the June 30 Human Rights Council session. The headline for the Xinhua brief: “Urgent: Cuba on behalf of 52 countries welcomes China’s adoption of law on safeguarding national security in HK.”

But one of the most revealing aspects of this media divide is the origin of the text of the Cuban statement. While the UK statement at the Human Rights Council was posted in full to the government’s website, Cuba has apparently not made its statement public. It cannot be found anywhere on the website of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or other government portals.

Where do we get the text of the Cuban statement? From the website of China’s permanent mission to the United Nations. That begins to look like an odd bit of puppetry. Is this Cuba’s own statement? Or is it China’s statement delivered by Cuba?

All other sources referencing language contained in Cuba’s statement are from Chinese state media, or from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said on June 30 that China “highly appreciates the voice of justice that Cuba and the other countries so loudly aired. This proves again that justice is in the heart of the people and that the majority of the international community understand full well and respect China’s just and legitimate efforts to safeguard national security.”

And yet, how strange it is that this “majority of the international community” has otherwise been so completely silent. And how unlike the UK statement, which essentially says what the countries that signed it, as well as the European Union, have also said independently (for example Sweden, Germany, Japan). 

Given that it was Cuba that introduced the pro-China statement at the Human Rights Council, we might suppose Cuban media covered this story. But it appears they did not. Searching the English-language online edition of Granma, the official paper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, there are no results for “Hong Kong.”

Granma’s Spanish-language coverage does turn up reporting on “Hong Kong” over the past week, but the articles, just three, simply report the passage of the Hong Kong national security law, and US-China wrangling over the issue. There seems to be no mention whatsoever of Cuba’s own statement. And the framing of the Hong Kong story in Granma does not echo the statement’s emphasis on national sovereignty and non-interference, save in remarks that are clearly sourced to China’s foreign ministry (and the US response, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is mentioned as well).   

What of other countries reportedly supporting the Cuban statement?

One country to join Cuba’s statement was Nicaragua, where there was no evident support in the local media, or in government sources (based on targeted URL searches). La Prensa, a daily newspaper based in Managua, reported a “crisis” in Hong Kong on July 4 as a result of the “controversial” new national security law, re-running stories from the BBC and Deutsche Welle. Another leading Nicaraguan publication, La Jornada, reported on July 1, using copy from the Spanish news agency Europa Press (which also cited RTHK), that police in Hong Kong had prohibited demonstrations by “pro-democracy opposition” citing the risk of Covid-19 infection. There was no mention of the statements at the Human Rights Council. Confidencial, another of the country’s main print publications, has had no coverage of China and Hong Kong in recent weeks.

It bears noting that media in Nicaragua have also reported regularly on human rights issues in China. Before suspending publication in September 2019,  El Nuevo Diario, long one of the country’s top newspapers, featured on its front page a full video report from the New York Times in which members of China’s Uighur ethnic community outside China told harrowing stories of their relatives currently being held in detention centers in Xinjiang. 

Saudi Arabia was another supporter of the Cuban statement at the Human Rights Council. But the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) has apparently had no coverage in English of Hong Kong’s national security law over the past week, and in Chinese mentions only a brief telephone exchange between the foreign ministries of the two countries over the “strategic partnership.” The website of Al-Arabiya, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest broadcasters, reaching a pan-Arab audience, has reported nothing concerning Hong Kong in Arabic, only mentioning in a report on currency fluctuations that “the yuan stabilized as investors avoided forming big positions due to concerns about diplomatic tension between Washington and Beijing over civil liberties in Hong Kong.” In English, however, the broadcaster has run stories from Western news wires, including this one from Reuters on June 30, noting strong tones of objection over the national security law from the UK, Japan, Taiwan and Europe.

In Africa, the Cuban statement was joined by the Republic of Djibouti, whose sparse media is closely controlled by the state. Searching the French-language content of the national broadcaster, Radiodiffusion-Television de Djibouti (RTD), no coverage at all of China or Hong Kong can be found since June 26 (when the issue was “the development of Sino-Djiboutian relations”). In Mozambique, there was again no coverage at all of the Hong Kong issue in the state-owned daily newspaper Noticias. The same was true for the privately-owned daily O Pais.

Egypt’s Masrawy news portal, which serves the larger Arabic-speaking community in the Middle East, reported, using copy from AFP, that the national security law in Hong Kong is “controversial,” and it did not mention the Cuban statement at the Human Rights Council. The Egypt Independent, one of the country’s leading English-language sources, uses only news copy from Reuters and the Associated Press when reporting on recent events in Hong Kong, and there is again no mention of the Human Rights Council. Daily News Egypt, a top English-language daily news site in the country, shamelessly re-posted Xinhua News Agency propaganda about the great achievements of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, but made no mention still of Hong Kong’s national security law or the HRC. (To be fair, Daily News Egypt has liberally run content from many news agencies, and a report on “concentration camps” in Xinjiang also appeared to the right of the Xinhua propaganda.)

This is by no means an exhaustive search, and it relies on imperfect machine translation of languages (Urdu, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish) this writer cannot read. I welcome the input of others who might have seen the Cuban statement on Hong Kong proudly reported as a matter of shared values.

But it certainly appears that the sovereignty and non-interference frame on the Hong Kong national security law is China’s frame alone (and Russia’s), and is not shared beyond the political manoeuvre of the Cuban HRC statement, which no other government has mentioned or otherwise echoed independently.

Framing may be the primary point here. The Cuban (Chinese) statement, though of course a serious reflection of China’s impact on human rights mechanisms, was primarily an effort by China to assert its own frame on human rights issues — as they pertain especially to its domestic affairs. An important part of this ploy is to frame its preferred positions on national sovereignty and non-interference as reflecting the overwhelming global majority on human rights.

What does it tell us when the “majority of the international community” is so silent?

[Featured image: Screenshot from UN TV of Cuba making its statement on Hong Kong’s national security law at the Human Rights Council on June 30, 2020.]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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