Sonya Sceats
Associate Fellow, International Law
Chinese police take away an elderly woman for petitioning on Tiananmen Square on 4 December, 2013.  Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.Chinese police take away an elderly woman for petitioning on Tiananmen Square on 4 December, 2013. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Though China is beginning to open up to international human rights norms, its stronger involvement in the UN Human Rights Council says more about its growing foreign policy confidence than it does about positive changes to its domestic situation.

On 12 November, after more than a year of concerted lobbying by its diplomatic service, China regained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

States with poor human rights records have long prized voting rights in UN organs charged with promoting and protecting human rights in order to use this position to weaken these bodies' scrutiny functions. China has led the way in this approach but there are signs that in opting to exert influence from 'inside the tent' it has also been gently socialized into accepting, if only tacitly, that rights abuses committed by a state within its own borders are a proper concern of the international community.

It was not always so. From the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989 onwards, China staunchly objected to criticism of its own and other states' human rights failings by claiming this constituted 'interference' in domestic affairs. More recently, this policy line has softened as China becomes more confident that its soaring global power makes any resolution censuring it practically impossible.

This is evident, for example, in China's careful public messaging about the ongoing atrocities in Syria. When explaining its votes against Syria resolutions in the Security Council, Human Rights Council and General Assembly, China has challenged the efficacy of these initiatives but not their legitimacy. It has expressly condemned the violence but insists that international efforts are better directed at supporting a political solution.

China also struck a slightly less defensive tone when its own record was in the spotlight recently as part of the Human Rights Council's 'universal periodic review', which ensures that every state, no matter how untouchable otherwise, has its human rights performance appraised by other states approximately every four years.

China was reviewed as part of this process for the second time on 22 October. Compared with the first review in 2009, when China 'categorically rejected' efforts by some Western states to highlight crackdowns in Tibet, it was less defensive in the face of similar criticisms this time, although it objected to politicization of what it styled 'security action to protect civilians' and chided that 'only the person wearing the shoes will know if they fit'.

More striking was the high number of developing states that called on China to make more progress in the field of civil and political rights. More than a dozen drew attention to China's failure to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Most merely noted that China was taking steps towards this end, but Ghana and Tunisia called on it to speed this work up. Tunisia went even further by urging China to ensure a climate conducive to the activities of human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors. It is highly unlikely that developing states would have addressed these contentious issues if they thought there would be significant blowback from China.

China also surprised the diplomatic world by using the review to announce a sixteen-fold increase in voluntary contributions to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights over the next four years. However, more cynical observers noted China's record of undermining the independence of the Office and predicted that it will use this funding to secure greater influence over the Office's staffing and programming priorities.

From a broader perspective it is important not to overstate the modest progress described above. This second universal periodic review of China was perhaps most notable for the controversies surrounding heavy-handed efforts to stop prominent Chinese human rights defenders travelling to Geneva. Cao Shunli, who angered the authorities by litigating when they failed to disclose information regarding the drafting processes for China's official submission for the review and its national human rights action plan, disappeared the day she was due to board a plane. She later surfaced in a detention facility. Another activist, Chen Jiangfang, was arrested at the airport and later issued with an administrative penalty notice for 'disrupting public order'.

Indeed the human rights situation inside China is felt by many to be deteriorating under the new leadership as it braces for unrest in the difficult years ahead. In April, the General Office of the Communist Party issued a new communiqué, known as 'Document Number 9', urging the Party at all levels to guard against ideological dangers to its leadership including universal values and the promotion of civil society. Universities are reported to have been ordered not to teach on seven topics including universal values, press freedom and civil rights.

Clearly China's less defensive diplomacy in this field is not, therefore, a reflection of any new found enthusiasm for human rights, but rather its growing confidence in foreign policy generally. This is why, after his 'cold shoulder' treatment for meeting the Dalai Lama in May 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron will say as little as possible about human rights in his trip to Beijing this week.

In our October 2012 report China and the International Human Rights System, we noted that after years of pursuing a low profile at the Human Rights Council, China was beginning to 'show some power. It was coordinating and speaking on behalf of coalitions of states against agendas that it found deeply threatening in the context of the Arab Spring, such as the promotion of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. During the Council's 21st session in September 2012, the last before China had to rotate off the Council after two consecutive terms, China delivered three more joint statements on behalf of allied states, this time on issues it positively promotes at the UN including poverty and development.

It will be interesting to see what lies ahead when China resumes its membership of the Human Rights Council from 1 January 2014.

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Further Resources

Project: China and the International Human Rights System