China has generally pursued a protective agenda within UN human rights institutions with a sharp focus on avoiding criticisms of China by the UN and other governments. To this end, it has also sought to weaken the ability of the UN to report on states that abuse human rights.
There are strong signs, however, that China is assuming a more active role within the UN Human Rights Council. Against the backdrop of power transitions associated with the Arab Spring, it has recently emerged as a spokesperson for states seeking to affirm the paramount responsibility of the state to enforce public order.
In other ways the Arab Spring has exposed deep tensions between China’s traditional statist conception of sovereignty and its efforts to be regarded as a benign and responsible global power. These tensions are displayed by China’s oscillation between more and less permissive approaches to intervention in the context of the crises in Libya and Syria.
These issues are deeply affected by wider internal debates about whether a more assertive foreign policy is required to match China’s growing global power and whether a strong commitment to non-interference is still tenable in the light of its expanding international economic and strategic interests.
In the short term, the implications of China’s rise for the international human rights system are likely to depend heavily on the country's internal trajectory. If its leadership is able to steer it through its many domestic challenges, it is conceivable that China will begin to adopt a less defensive attitude towards human rights both at home and abroad and that new possibilities will open up for joint working with Western states on international human rights issues.
In the longer term, it seems likely that China’s increasingly complex global economic and strategic interests will further compromise its commitment to strict conceptions of state sovereignty and non-interference, as powerful business and military constituencies and nationalistic elements of the general public clamour for these interests to be protected via a more activist foreign policy befitting China’s global power.