Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a phone screen remotely addressing the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 22, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The Chinese government has rejoined the United Nations Human Rights Council, having been narrowly reelected in October 2020. Under global pressure on issues ranging from Hong Kong to Xinjiang while trying to revive its regressive resolution on “mutually beneficial cooperation,” Chinese authorities should be thinking collaboration rather than conflict.

Instead, this week Chinese diplomats opted for open hostility.

On March 3, Karima Bennoune, the UN special rapporteur for cultural rights, presented her report on the exercise of cultural rights during the Covid-19 pandemic.  Along with references to dozens of other countries, her report touched on the death of a Chinese film director; a Taoist priest who memorialized Covid-related deaths; and the consequences of Beijing’s pandemic censorship. The Chinese delegation responded by accusing Bennoune of “racist statements,” and of “ignorance towards China.” Without basis, China’s delegate claimed the report went “against ethical standards of UN experts.”

Ahmed Shaheed, the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, reported on global Islamaphobia. His report flagged concerns about the Chinese government’s treatment of Muslims, including Beijing’s control over the appointment of imams, the destruction of mosques, and torture in political reeducation camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese delegation, after claiming the report “slanders and smears China,” accused Shaheed of “wantonly spread[ing] false information, lack[ing] minimum professional ethics, and serv[ing] as a political tool for some Western countries and anti-China forces.” This attack prompted the Human Rights Council vice president to intervene, warning against “derogatory or inflammatory remarks” against special rapporteurs. China’s delegate resumed his remarks and accused Shaheed of having “misbehaved,” demanding he be “[held] accountable,” and said the UN’s special procedures system itself should be reformed.  

No government likes criticism, but the Chinese government has a disturbing track record of not just rejecting criticism but threatening the experts and offices across the UN human rights system responsible for bringing human rights violations to light. These more personal and public attacks, coupled with patently hypocritical calls for accountability, may signal a darker turn. Human Rights Council members are expected to “uphold the highest standards” of human rights, but China appears to be sinking to the lowest.