Human rights are rights intrinsic to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948 as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations”. International human rights law lays down the obligations of governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts in order to promote, protect and fulfil the human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.
For political reasons, when the rights listed in the UDHR were codified into legally binding instruments, they were divided into two separate covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). China has ratified the ICESCR, but not the ICCPR, maintaining that sovereignty and non-interference trump the notion of universal human rights. Instead China considers human rights to be a country’s “internal affairs” rather than a legitimate concern of the international community. China promotes a state-centric and relativist conception of human rights “with Chinese characteristics”, according to which stability, harmony, subsistence and economic development take precedence over human rights, especially civil and political rights.
China published its first White Paper on Human Rights in 1991. Issued in response to international criticism of the government crackdown on protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989, the paper states that China has a different understanding of human rights than the West due to its different national and historical conditions. The paper nevertheless marked a shift in government policy away from outright rejection of human rights as a “bourgeois” concept to a position of partial and reluctant acceptance of international human rights standards and principles. China has ratified six of the nine core human rights conventions, but has at the same time always maintained that the “right to subsistence” (生存权, a right which does not exist in international human rights law) and the right to development (发展权) are the “foremost human rights”. At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna at the end of the Cold War to affirm the universality and indivisibility all human rights, China stated:
For the vast number of developing countries to respect and protect human rights is first and foremost to ensure full realization of the rights to subsistence and development. The argument that human rights are the precondition for development is unfounded. When poverty and lack of adequate food and clothing are commonplace and people’s basic needs are not guaranteed, priority should be given to economic development. Otherwise, human rights are completely out of the question.”Liu Huaqiu, Vienna Conference Statement, The Chinese Human Rights Reader: Documents and Commentary 1900-2000, ed. Stephen C. Angle and Marina Svensson (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), p. 392.
Confidence in “the Chinese model” was boosted by the global financial crisis in 2008. At the same time, so-called “colour” revolutions in a number of countries in the early 2000s gave rise to a heightened sense of external threat in Beijing. In 2013, a notice issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s General Office called for strengthened Party leadership and management of the “ideological battlefield”. The document, commonly referred to as Document 9, cautioned against seven perils seen as threatening to undermine the Communist Party, including the promotion of universal values.
In the last ten years, Beijing’s approach to the international human rights system has shifted from a defensive attitude to a more proactive strategy. China has become an international norm entrepreneur that is seeking to “break Western human rights hegemony” (打破西方人权霸权) and change “international human rights governance”. In a series of high-profile speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the United Nations in Geneva and New York in 2017, Xi Jinping launched the concept of “a community of shared destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体), a vision for a world order that emphasises sovereignty, respect for different political systems, and “win-win cooperation” (合作共赢) among states. In 2017, the concept of a “community of shared future” was inserted into a resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council entitled “The Contribution of Development to the Enjoyment of All Human Rights.” In June 2020, the council adopted a China-sponsored resolution entitled “Promoting Mutually Beneficial Cooperation in the Field of Human Rights”, advocating an international human rights system based on cooperation between states, rather than accountability and the rights of individuals.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.