When China's human rights performance was reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council on October 22, a record of abject denial of the most fundamental civil and political rights was largely obscured -- by China's own National Report; by a swarm of pandering authoritarian states; and by the UN human rights system itself, which has seen an expansive array of social policy goals classified as human rights.
China's National Report cited, inter alia, 9.3 percent per annum growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP); low unemployment; investments in education and culture; housing policy; and poverty relief. Although claiming the second highest GDP in the world, China refers to itself as a developing country with "over 100 million people living in poverty."
A huge number of states -- 141 -- commented on human rights in China. That left only 50 seconds for each intervention. Since a number of the vast majority praising China used the same phrases, it appears Chinese authorities gamed the process to drown out criticism.
States repeatedly praised China for assistance to citizens in rural areas, the disabled and children; cultural events; and even environmental protection; numerous delegations, including that of Uzbekistan, praised human rights education in China. Turkmenistan praised China's success in including minorities in the National Congress of the Communist Party.
Several states shamelessly applauded and encouraged some of China's most egregious human rights violations. Singapore praised China's strict Internet censorship. Saudi Arabia urged China to continue to prosecute those who "offend others in the name of promoting human rights." None of the Muslim states mentioned China's often-violent suppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority. The highest praise for China was voiced by Syria, whose delegate looked forward to China's election to the Human Rights Council, which is virtually assured during the current UN General Assembly.
Some European Union member states, viz. Cyprus, Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia and Romania, made anodyne, bureaucratic statements, throwing away an opportunity to support the people of China and betraying the EU's commitment to promoting human rights on the international level.
Only 25 UN members expressed even mild concerns about human rights violations, most centering on use of the death penalty, violations of freedom of religion and other fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and association, persecution of human rights defenders, and mistreatment of minorities, especially the people of Tibet.
Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States lodged the strongest critiques. Pushing a wide-ranging series of recommendations into the scant 50-second time slot, the USA even mentioned Xu Zhiyong and Yang Maodong, two persecuted human rights defenders.
The Chinese delegation said it was regrettable when security actions were called ethnic cleansing; when criminals were considered human rights defenders; and when "political procedures" were called persecution. Reacting to several references to the disappearance of Cao Shunli, an activist who had attempted to participate in the UPR, China defended its right to prosecute civil society activists when they sought to "instigate unlawful gatherings to make trouble." The Chinese delegation said the state needed to protect "national interests" and citizens from "harmful information" on the Internet. Religious organizations needed to be registered in order to protect their members. Abortions to comply with population policy, they claimed, were always carried out with the "consent" of the mother. The government said it was considering reforming the "education through labor" program.
The Chinese officials said that in Tibet, there had been notable improvements regarding illiteracy, poverty and life expectancy. Freedom of assembly was "guaranteed," as long as it did not "undermine the legitimacy of the state" and "social stability."
Chinese policy is the brave new world of human rights, a human rights without freedom. It is a human rights where priority is given to entitlements as opposed to freedoms; where free speech and assembly are ruthlessly suppressed to protect state interests; where there is no political choice; where human rights are defined and conferred on the individual by the state, and can thus be taken away by the state. The Chinese version of human rights finds justification in the development of international human rights law. The international community has watered down the meaning of human rights by designating a multitude of "needs" to be met by government services as "human rights." This process has been promoted by China and other authoritarian states (or what the Chinese officials called "developing countries"), which deny the inviolability of individual human liberties. Liberal democracies have largely acquiesced. They now find themselves a threatened species.
Aaron Rhodes is a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights between 1993 and 2007, and helped establish the International Campaign for Human rights in Iran in 2008.