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China’s Global Threat to Human Rights

Protesters in Hong Kong, June 5, 2019.

 

© 2019 Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It doesn’t matter where I am, or what passport I hold. [Chinese authorities] will terrorize me anywhere, and I have no way to fight that.

—Uyghur Muslim with European citizenship, Washington, September 2019

China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide.

At home, the Chinese Communist Party, worried that permitting political freedom would jeopardize its grasp on power, has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism. Abroad, it uses its growing economic clout to silence critics and to carry out the most intense attack on the global system for enforcing human rights since that system began to emerge in the mid-20th century.

Beijing was long focused on building a “Great Firewall” to prevent the people of China from being exposed to any criticism of the government from abroad. Now the government is increasingly attacking the critics themselves, whether they represent a foreign government, are part of an overseas company or university, or join real or virtual avenues of public protest.

No other government is simultaneously detaining a million members of an ethnic minority for forced indoctrination and attacking anyone who dares to challenge its repression. And while other governments commit serious human rights violations, no other government flexes its political muscles with such vigor and determination to undermine the international human rights standards and institutions that could hold it to account.

If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression.

To be sure, the Chinese government and Communist Party are not today’s only threats to human rights, as the Human Rights Watch World Report shows. In many armed conflicts, such as in Syria and Yemen, warring parties blatantly disregard the international rules designed to spare civilians the hazards of war, from the ban on chemical weapons to the prohibition against bombing hospitals.

Elsewhere, autocratic populists gain office by demonizing minorities, and then retain power by attacking the checks and balances on their rule, such as independent journalists, judges, and activists. Some leaders, such as US President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, bridle at the same body of international human rights law that China undermines, galvanizing their publics by shadow boxing with the “globalists” who dare suggest that governments everywhere should be bound by the same standards.

Several governments that in their foreign policies once could be depended upon to defend human rights at least some of the time have largely abandoned the cause. Others, faced with their own domestic challenges, mount a haphazard defense.

Yet even against this disturbing backdrop, the Chinese government stands out for the reach and influence of its anti-rights efforts. The result for the human rights cause is a “perfect storm”—a powerful centralized state, a coterie of like-minded rulers, a void of leadership among countries that might have stood for human rights, and a disappointing collection of democracies willing to sell the rope that is strangling the system of rights that they purport to uphold.

Beijing’s Rationale

The motivation for Beijing’s attack on rights stems from the fragility of rule by repression rather than popular consent. Despite decades of impressive economic growth in China, driven by hundreds of millions of people finally emancipated to lift themselves out of poverty, the Chinese Communist Party is running scared of its own people.

Outwardly confident about its success in representing people across the country, the Chinese Communist Party is worried about the consequences of unfettered popular debate and political organization, and thus afraid to subject itself to popular scrutiny.

As a result, Beijing faces the uneasy task of managing a huge and complex economy without the public input and debate that political freedom allows. Knowing that in the absence of elections, the party’s legitimacy depends largely on a growing economy, Chinese leaders worry that slowing economic growth will increase demands from the public for more say in how it is governed. The government’s nationalist campaigns to promote the “China dream,” and its trumpeting of debatable anti-corruption efforts, do not change this underlying reality.

The consequence under President Xi Jinping is China’s most pervasive and brutal oppression in decades. What modest opening had existed briefly in recent years for people to express themselves on matters of public concern has been decisively closed. Civic groups have been shut down. Independent journalism is no more. Online conversation has been curtailed and replaced with orchestrated sycophancy. Ethnic and religious minorities face severe persecution. Small steps toward the rule of law have been replaced by the Communist Party’s traditional rule by law. Hong Kong’s limited freedoms, under “one country, two systems,” are being severely challenged.

 Xi has emerged as the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong, building a shameless cult of personality, removing presidential term limits, promoting “Xi Jinping thought,” and advancing grandiose visions for a powerful, yet autocratic, nation. To ensure that it can continue to prioritize its own power over the needs and desires of the people of China, the Communist Party has mounted a determined assault on the political freedoms that might show the public to be anything but acquiescent to its rule.

The Unconstrained Surveillance State

More than any other government, Beijing has made technology central to its repression. A nightmarish system has already been built in Xinjiang, the northwestern region that is home both to some 13 million Muslims—Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Turkic minorities—and to the most intrusive public monitoring system the world has ever known. The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to monitor people for any sign of dissent, but the combination of growing economic means and technical capacity has led to an unprecedented regime of mass surveillance.

The ostensible purpose is to avoid recurrence of a handful of violent incidents several years ago by alleged separatists, but the venture far surpasses any perceptible security threat. One million officials and party cadre have been mobilized as uninvited “guests” to regularly “visit” and stay in the homes of some of these Muslim families to monitor them. Their job is to scrutinize and report “problems” such as people who pray or show other signs of active adherence to the Islamic faith, who contact family members abroad, or who display anything less than absolute fealty to the Communist Party.

This in-person surveillance is just the tip of the iceberg, the analog prelude to the digital show. Without regard to the internationally recognized right to privacy, the Chinese government has deployed video cameras throughout the region, combined them with facial-recognition technology, deployed mobile-phone apps to input data from officials’ observations as well as electronic checkpoints, and processed the resulting information through big-data analysis.

Data it collects are used to determine who is detained for “re-education.” In the largest case of arbitrary detention in decades, one million or more Turkic Muslims have been deprived of their freedom, placed in an indefinite detention of forced indoctrination. The detentions have created countless “orphans”—children whose parents are in custody—who are now held in schools and state-run orphanages where they, too, are subjected to indoctrination. Children in regular Xinjiang schools may face similar ideological training.

The apparent aim is to strip Muslims of any adherence to their faith, ethnicity, or independent political views. Detainees’ ability to recapture their freedom depends on persuading their jailers that they are Mandarin-speaking, Islam-free worshipers of Xi and the Communist Party. This brazen endeavor reflects a totalitarian impulse to reengineer people’s thinking until they accept the supremacy of party rule.

The Chinese government is building similar systems of surveillance and behavior engineering throughout the country. Most notable is the “social credit system,” which the government vows will punish bad behavior, such as jaywalking and failure to pay court fees, and reward good conduct. People’s “trustworthiness”—as assessed by the government—determines their access to desirable social goods, such as the right to live in an attractive city, send one’s children to a private school, or travel by plane or high-speed train. For the time being, political criteria are not included in this system, but it would take little to add them.

Ominously, the surveillance state is exportable. Few governments have the capacity to deploy the human resources that China has devoted to Xinjiang, but the technology is becoming off-the-shelf, attractive to governments with weak privacy protections such as Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe. Chinese companies are not the only ones selling these abusive systems—others include companies from Germany, Israel, and the United Kingdom—but China’s affordable packages make them attractive to governments that want to emulate its surveillance model.

China’s Template for Prosperous Dictatorship

Many autocrats look with envy at China’s seductive mix of successful economic development, rapid modernization, and a seemingly firm grip on political power. Far from being spurned as a global pariah, the Chinese government is courted the world over, its unelected president receiving red-carpet treatment wherever he goes, and the country hosting prestigious events, such as the 2022 Winter Olympics. The aim is to portray China as open, welcoming, and powerful, even as it descends into ever more ruthless autocratic rule.

The conventional wisdom once held that as China grew economically, it would build a middle class that would demand its rights. That led to the convenient fiction that there was no need to press Beijing about its repression; it was sufficient to trade with it.

Few today believe that self-serving rationale, but most governments have found new ways to justify the status quo. They continue to prioritize economic opportunities in China but without the pretense of a strategy for improving respect for the rights of the people there.

In fact, the Chinese Communist Party has shown that economic growth can reinforce a dictatorship by giving it the means to enforce its rule—to spend what it takes to maintain power, from the legions of security officials it employs to the censorship regime it maintains and the pervasive surveillance state it constructs. Those vast resources buttressing autocratic rule negate the ability of people across China to have any say in how they are governed.

These developments are music to the ears of the world’s dictators. Their rule, they would have us believe with China in mind, can also lead to prosperity without the nettlesome intervention of free debate or contested elections. Never mind that the history of unaccountable governments is littered with economic devastation.

For every Lee Kwan Yew, the late Singaporean leader who is often mentioned by proponents of autocratic rule, there are many more—Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, or Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea—who led their country to ruin. Unaccountable governments tend to put their own interests above their people’s. They prioritize their power, their families, and their cronies. The frequent result is neglect, stagnation, and persistent poverty, if not hyperinflation, public health crises, and economic debacle.

Even in China, an unaccountable system of government allows no voice to those left out of China’s growing economy. Officials boast of the country’s economic progress, but they censor information about its widening income inequality, discriminatory access to public benefits, selective corruption prosecutions, and the one in five children left behind in rural areas as their parents seek work in other parts of the country. They hide the forced demolitions and displacements, the injuries and deaths that accompany some of the country’s massive infrastructure projects, and the permanent disabilities resulting from unsafe and unregulated food and drugs. They even deliberately underestimate the number of people with disabilities.

Moreover, one need not go back far in China’s history to encounter the enormous human toll of unaccountable government. The same Chinese Communist Party that today proclaims a Chinese miracle only recently imposed the devastation of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, with deaths numbering in the tens of millions.

China’s Campaign Against Global Norms

To avoid global backlash for crushing human rights at home, the Chinese government is trying to undermine the international institutions that are designed to protect them. Chinese authorities have long pushed back against foreign concern for human rights as an infringement on its sovereignty, but these efforts were comparatively modest. Now China intimidates other governments, insisting that they applaud it in international forums and join its attacks on the international human rights system.

Beijing seems to be methodically building a network of cheerleader states that depend on its aid or business. Those who cross it risk retaliation, such as the threats to Sweden after an independent Swedish group gave an award to a Hong Kong-based publisher (and Swedish citizen) whom the Chinese government had arrested and forcibly disappeared after he printed books critical of the Chinese government.

Beijing’s approach puts it at odds with the very purpose of international human rights. Where others see people facing persecution whose rights need defending, China’s rulers see a potential precedent of rights enforcement that could return to haunt them. Using its voice, its influence, and sometimes its Security Council veto, the Chinese government seeks to block United Nations measures to protect some of the world’s most persecuted people, turning its back on the Syrian civilians facing indiscriminate airstrikes by Russian and Syrian planes; the Rohingya Muslims ethnically cleansed from their homes by the Myanmar army’s murder, rape and arson; Yemeni civilians under bombardment and blockade by the Saudi-led coalition; and the Venezuelan people suffering economic devastation due to the corrupt mismanagement of Nicolas Maduro. In all of these cases, Beijing would rather leave the victims to their fate than generate a model of defending rights that might boomerang on its own repressive rule.

Beijing’s methods often have a certain subtlety. The Chinese government adopts international human rights treaties but then tries to reinterpret them or to undermine their enforcement. It has become skilled at appearing to cooperate with UN reviews of its rights record while sparing no effort to thwart honest discussion. It prevents domestic critics from traveling abroad, denies key international experts access to the country, organizes its allies—many of them notoriously repressive themselves—to sing its praises, and often presents blatantly dishonest information.

Even when it comes to economic rights, Beijing wants no independent assessment of its progress because that would require examining not its preferred indicator—the growth in gross domestic product—but measures such as how the least favored in China are faring, including persecuted minorities and those left behind in rural areas. And it certainly wants no independent evaluation of civil and political rights, because respect for them would create a system of accountability—to civic activists, independent journalists, political parties, independent judges, and free and fair elections—that it is determined to avoid.

The Enablers

Although China is the driving force behind this global assault on human rights, it has willing accomplices. They include a collection of dictators, autocrats, and monarchs who themselves have an abiding interest in undermining the human rights system that might hold them to account. They also include governments, as well as companies and even academic institutions, that are ostensibly committed to human rights but prioritize access to China’s wealth.

To make matters worse, several countries that once often could have been counted on to defend human rights have been missing in action. US President Trump has been more interested in embracing friendly autocrats than defending the human rights standards that they flout. The European Union, diverted by Brexit, obstructed by nationalist member states, and divided over migration, has found it difficult to adopt a strong common voice on human rights. Even as people have taken to the streets for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bolivia, Russia, and Hong Kong in an impressive wave of global protests, democratic governments have often responded with lukewarm and selective support. This inconsistency makes it easier for China to claim that concerns expressed about its human rights record are a matter of politics rather than principle.

There have been rare exceptions to this acquiescence to China’s oppression. In July, at the UN Human Rights Council, 25 governments joined together for the first time in such numbers to express concern about the extraordinary crackdown in Xinjiang. Remarkably, fearing the wrath of the Chinese government, none was willing to read the statement aloud to the council, as is customary. Instead, finding safety in numbers, the group simply submitted the joint statement in writing. That changed in October at the UN General Assembly when the United Kingdom read aloud a parallel statement from a similar coalition of governments, but the initial hesitation shows the great reluctance of even the most committed countries to challenge China frontally. This fear underpins the impunity that China has come to enjoy in international circles despite the sweeping nature of its abuses.

Other governments were all too happy to embrace Beijing. In response to these two instances of collective criticism, the Chinese government organized its own joint statements of support, which shamelessly applauded its “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures in Xinjiang” that have led to a “stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment, and security.” Up to 54 governments signed on, including such notorious human rights violators as Russia, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, Belarus, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia. This gallery of repressive governments may have little credibility, yet their sheer numbers illustrate the uphill battle faced by the few countries willing to confront China on human rights.

One would have hoped that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—the group of 57 mostly Muslim-majority nations—would come to the defense of the persecuted Muslims of Xinjiang, as they did for the Rohingya Muslims ethnically cleansed by the Myanmar military. Instead, the OIC issued a fawning panegyric, commending China for “providing care to its Muslim citizens.” Pakistan—despite its role as OIC coordinator and its corresponding responsibility to speak out against abuses faced by Muslims—has championed such efforts.

Notably, however, OIC members Turkey and Albania have supported the call for an independent UN assessment in Xinjiang, while Qatar withdrew from China’s counterstatement. In total, about half of the OIC member states declined to sign on to China’s attempts to whitewash its record in Xinjiang—an important first step, but hardly sufficient in the face of such massive abuses.

OIC members and other states disinclined to challenge Beijing also participated in the propaganda tours of Xinjiang that the Chinese government organized to address criticism of its detention of Muslims. Mounting a Great Wall of Disinformation, Chinese authorities absurdly claimed that this mass deprivation of liberty was an exercise in “vocational training.” They then arranged for delegations of diplomats and journalists to visit some of those in “training.” What little opportunity there was to speak freely with the Muslim inmates quickly punctured the cover story. The staged exhibition was often so preposterous as to be self-refuting, as when a group of inmates was forced to sing, in English, the children’s song “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”

The point of these show tours was not to be convincing; it was to give governments an excuse not to criticize Beijing. They were a fig leaf to hide behind, an alibi for indifference.

World leaders who visited China, including those who see themselves as human rights champions, have not performed significantly better. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron visited China in November 2019 but made no public mention of human rights. Visiting leaders have typically excused such public silence by insisting that they raise human rights with Chinese officials in private discussions. But little if any evidence exists that this behind-the-scenes approach does any good.

Quiet diplomacy alone does nothing to shame a government that seeks acceptance as a legitimate and respected member of the international community. Instead, the photo-ops of smiling officials combined with the public silence on human rights signal to the world—and, most important, the people of China, who are the ultimate agents of change—that the VIP visitor is indifferent to Beijing’s repression.

The Elements of China’s Power

Chinese authorities orchestrate their attacks on human rights criticism in part through the centralized deployment of their economic clout. No Chinese business can afford to ignore the dictates of the Communist Party, so when word comes down to punish a country for its criticism of Beijing—for example, by not purchasing its goods—the company has no choice but to comply. The result is that any non-Chinese government or company seeking to do business with China, if it publicly opposes Beijing’s repression, faces not a series of individual Chinese companies’ decisions about how to respond but a single central command, with access to the entire Chinese market—16 percent of the world economy—at stake. For example, after the Houston Rockets general manager irked the Chinese government by tweeting his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, all of the National Basketball Association’s 11 official Chinese business partners—including a travel website, a milk producer, and a fast-food chain—suspended ties with the league.  

The Trump administration is one government that has been willing to stand up to China, best evidenced by its October 2019 imposition of sanctions on the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and eight Chinese technology companies for their complicity in human rights violations. But strong rhetoric from US officials condemning human rights violations in China is often undercut by Trump’s praise of Xi Jinping and other friendly autocrats, such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, not to mention the Trump administration’s own rights-violating domestic policies such as its cruel and illegal forced separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexican border.

This inconsistency makes it easier for Beijing to discount Washington’s human rights criticisms. Moreover, the Trump administration’s misguided withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council because of concerns for Israel has paved the way for the Chinese government to exert greater influence over this central institution for the defense of rights.

An important instrument of China’s influence has been Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI)—a trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program that facilitates Chinese access to markets and natural resources across 70 countries. Aided by the frequent absence of alternative investors, the BRI has secured the Chinese government considerable good will among developing countries, even though Beijing has been able to foist many of the costs onto the countries that it purports to help.  

China’s methods of operation often have the effect of bolstering authoritarianism in “beneficiary” countries. BRI projects—known for their “no strings” loans—largely ignore human rights and environmental standards. They allow little if any input from people who might be harmed. Some are negotiated in backroom deals that are prone to corruption. At times they benefit and entrench ruling elites while burying the people of the country under mountains of debt.

Some BRI projects are notorious: Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, which China repossessed for 99 years when debt repayment became impossible, or the loan to build Kenya’s Mombasa-Nairobi railroad, which the government is trying to repay by forcing cargo transporters to use it despite cheaper alternatives. Some governments—including those of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sierra Leone—have begun backing away from BRI projects because they do not look economically sensible. In most cases, the struggling debtor is eager to stay in Beijing’s good graces.

So rather than really being “no strings,” BRI loans effectively impose a separate set of political conditions requiring support for China’s anti-rights agenda. That ensures at best silence, at worst applause, in the face of China’s domestic repression, as well as assistance to Beijing as it undermines international human rights institutions.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, for example, whose government is a major BRI recipient, said nothing about his fellow Muslims in Xinjiang as he visited Beijing, while his diplomats offered over-the-top praise for “China’s efforts in providing care to its Muslim citizens.” Similarly, Cameroon delivered fawning statements of praise for China shortly after Beijing forgave millions in debt: referencing Xinjiang, it lauded Beijing for “fully protect[ing] the exercise of lawful rights of ethnic minority populations” including “normal religious activities and beliefs.”

China’s development banks, such as the China Development Bank and the Ex-Im Bank of China, have a growing global reach but lack critical human rights safeguards. The China-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is not much better. Its policies call for transparency and accountability in the projects it finances and include social and environmental standards, but do not require the bank to identify and address human rights risks. Among the bank’s 74 members are many governments that claim to respect rights: much of the European Union including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Subversion of the United Nations

We thought this institution could protect our rights when the government violates them. But it is no different.

–A Chinese human rights defender about the UN, Geneva, June 2016

The Chinese government, allergic to foreign pressure about its domestic human rights problems, does not think twice about twisting arms to protect its image in international forums. Because a central purpose of the United Nations is to promote universal human rights, the UN has been a key target. The pressure has been felt all the way to the top. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has been unwilling to publicly demand an end to China’s mass detention of Turkic Muslims, while heaping praise on Beijing’s economic prowess and the BRI.

At the UN Human Rights Council, China routinely opposes virtually every human rights initiative that criticizes a particular country unless it is watered down enough to secure that government’s consent. In recent years, China has opposed resolutions condemning human rights violations in Myanmar, Syria, Iran, the Philippines, Burundi, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Yemen, Eritrea, and Belarus. China also seeks to distort the international rights framework by suggesting that economic progress should precede the need to respect rights and by urging “win-win cooperation” (subsequently renamed “mutually beneficial cooperation”), which frames rights as a question of voluntary cooperation rather than legal obligation.  

When China’s human rights record came up for a routine review in 2018 and 2019 at the Human Rights Council, Chinese officials threatened critical delegations while encouraging allies to heap praise. Beijing also flooded the speakers list reserved for civil society organizations with government-sponsored groups tasked with lauding its record. Meanwhile, its diplomats gave blatantly false information to the reviewing body, threatened delegations with consequences if they attended a panel discussion of abuses in Xinjiang, and sought to prevent an independent group focused on Xinjiang from speaking at the council. To top it off, Chinese authorities mounted a large photo display outside UN meeting rooms depicting Uyghurs as happy and grateful to them.

At UN headquarters in New York, a major Chinese government priority has been to avoid discussion of its conduct in Xinjiang. Often working in tandem with Russia, China also has taken an increasingly regressive approach to any action on human rights in the Security Council, where it has veto power. For example, Beijing has been clear that it will not tolerate pressure on Myanmar, despite a UN fact-finding mission’s conclusion that Myanmar’s top military leaders should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide. Along with Russia, China opposed—though unsuccessfully—the Security Council even discussing Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. In September, as 3 million civilians faced indiscriminate bombing by Russian and Syrian jets, China joined Russia to veto a Security Council demand for a truce. 

Global Censorship

We self-police ourselves…. Everybody [who participates in the student salon] is scared. Just this fear, I think creating the fear, it actually works.

—University student, Vancouver, June 2018

In addition to longstanding practices such as censoring access to foreign media, limiting funding from overseas sources to domestic civil society groups, and denying visas to scholars and others, Beijing has taken full advantage of the corporate quest for profit to extend its censorship to critics abroad. In recent years, a disturbing parade of companies have given in to Beijing for their perceived offenses or for criticism of China by their employees.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific airlines threatened to fire employees in Hong Kong who supported or participated in the 2019 pro-democracy protests there. Volkswagen’s chief executive, Herbert Diess, told the BBC he was "not aware" of reports about detention camps holding thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang, even though Volkswagen has had a plant there since 2012. Marriott fired a social media manager for “liking” a tweet praising the company for calling Tibet a country, and vowed “to ensure errors like this don’t happen again.” The accounting giant PwC disowned a statement published in a Hong Kong newspaper supporting the pro-democracy protests said to have been placed by employees of the Big Four accounting firms. Hollywood is increasingly censoring its films for Beijing’s sensibilities, such as the digital removal of a Taiwan flag from Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in the recent sequel to the 1986 movie “Top Gun.”

This list is telling. First, it demonstrates how small and insignificant the perceived slights are that incur the wrath of various voices in China. Even though the Great Firewall prevents most people in China from learning of criticism abroad, and even though the Chinese Communist Party devotes enormous resources to censoring social media at home and spreading its propaganda there, powerful actors in China still bristle at foreign criticism. With that sensitivity in mind, companies seeking to do business with China often silence themselves and their employees even without an edict from Beijing.

Second, it shows that Chinese censorship is becoming a global threat. It is bad enough for companies to abide by censorship restrictions when operating inside China. It is much worse to impose that censorship on their employees and customers around the world. One can no longer pretend that China’s suppression of independent voices stops at its borders.

Free-speech problems are also cropping up at universities worldwide. The goal of maintaining the flow of students from China, who often pay full tuition, can easily become an excuse for universities to avoid uncomfortable subjects. In Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, some pro-Beijing students have sought to shut down campus discussions about human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet. In other cases, students from China who want to join campus debates on ideas that would be taboo at home feel they cannot for fear of being reported to Chinese authorities.  Universities have done little publicly in such cases to assert the rights of free speech.

That tendency is only compounded by Beijing’s deliberate effort to enlist Chinese citizens abroad to propagate its views and to monitor each other and report any criticism of Xi Jinping’s rule. For example, staff at the Chinese embassy in Washington met with and praised a group of students for censuring a Chinese student at the University of Maryland for criticizing the Chinese government in a commencement speech.

Chinese authorities also routinely threaten relatives in China of dissidents abroad to silence their criticisms. A technology consultant in Vancouver said: “If I criticize the [Chinese Communist Party] publicly, my parents’ retirement benefits, their health insurance benefits could all be taken away.” A Toronto-based journalist for a Chinese-language newspaper whose parents in China were harassed for her work said, “I don’t feel there is free speech here. I can’t report freely.”

Censorship is also a threat as Chinese technology extends overseas. WeChat, a social-media platform combined with a messaging app widely used by Chinese people at home and abroad, censors political messages and suspends users’ accounts on political grounds even if they are based outside China.

Rising to the Challenge

An extraordinary threat requires a commensurate response—and much still can be done to defend human rights worldwide from Beijing’s frontal attack. Despite the Chinese government’s power and hostility to human rights, its ascent as a global threat to rights is not unstoppable. Rising to this challenge demands a radical break from the dominant complacency and business-as-usual approach. It calls for an unprecedented response from those who still believe in a world order in which human rights matter.

Governments, companies, universities, international institutions, and others should stand with those in and from China who are struggling to secure their rights. As a first principle, no one should equate the Chinese government with the people of China. That blames an entire people for the abuses of a government that they had no say in choosing. Instead, governments should support critical voices in China and publicly insist that, in the absence of genuine elections, Beijing does not represent the people there. 

Just as governments have stopped promoting the convenient fiction that trade alone promotes human rights in China, so they should abandon the reassuring-but-false view that quiet diplomacy suffices. The question to ask of dignitaries visiting Beijing who claim to discuss China’s human rights record is whether the people of China—the main engine of change—can hear them. Do those people feel emboldened or disillusioned by the visit? Do they hear a voice of sympathy and concern or see only a photo-op at the signing of more commercial contracts? By regularly and publicly calling out Beijing for its repression, governments should raise the cost of that abuse while emboldening the victims.

The Chinese model of repressive economic growth can be refuted by highlighting the risks of unaccountable rule, from the millions left behind in China to the devastation caused by the likes of Mugabe of Zimbabwe or Maduro of Venezuela. Calling attention to how dictators around the world claim to serve their people while in fact serving themselves accomplishes much the same purpose.

Governments and international financial institutions should offer compelling, rights-respecting alternatives to China’s “no strings” loans and development aid. They should leverage their membership in such organizations as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to push for the highest human rights standards in development rather than to enable a global race to the bottom.

Governments committed to human rights should be sensitive to the double standards of “China exceptionalism” that can creep into their conduct and enable Beijing to get away with abuses for which poorer and less powerful governments would be challenged. If they seek to hold Myanmar officials accountable for their abusive treatment of Muslims, why not Chinese officials? If they are attentive to Saudi or Russian efforts to buy legitimacy, why not similar Chinese efforts? If they encourage debates about human rights violations by Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, why not by China? They rightly challenged the Trump administration’s appalling separation of children from their parents on the US-Mexico border, so why not also challenge the Chinese government’s separation of children from their parents in Xinjiang? 

Governments should deliberately counter China’s divide-and-conquer strategy for securing silence about its oppression. If every government alone faces a choice between seeking Chinese economic opportunities and speaking out against Chinese repression, many will opt for silence. But if governments band together to address China’s flouting of human rights, the power balance shifts. For example, if the Organization of Islamic Cooperation were to protest against the Chinese government’s repression of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, Beijing would need to retaliate against 57 countries. The Chinese economy cannot take on the whole world.

By the same token, companies and universities should draft and promote codes of conduct for dealing with China. Strong common standards would make it more difficult for Beijing to ostracize those who stand up for basic rights and freedoms. These standards would also make matters of principle a more important element of the institutions’ public images. Consumers would be better placed to insist that these institutions not succumb to Chinese censorship as the price to obtain Chinese business, and that they should never benefit from or contribute to Chinese abuses. Governments should tightly regulate the technology that empowers China’s mass surveillance and repression—and bolster privacy protections to check the spread of such surveillance systems.

Universities in particular should provide a space where students and scholars from China can learn about and criticize the Chinese government without fear of being monitored or reported. And they should never tolerate Beijing curtailing the academic freedom of any of their students or scholars.

Beyond issuing statements, governments that are committed to human rights should redouble cross-regional outreach efforts with a view to presenting a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council establishing a fact-finding mission, so the world can know what is happening in Xinjiang. These states should also force a discussion of Xinjiang at the UN Security Council so Chinese officials understand that they will have to answer for their actions.

More fundamentally, UN member states and senior officials should defend the United Nations as an independent voice on human rights. For example, until a UN fact-finding mission is created, reporting by the UN high commissioner for human rights as well as the Human Rights Council’s experts is crucial. If China succeeds in leaving the UN toothless on human rights, all will suffer.

Governments committed to human rights should also stop treating China as a respectable partner. The red-carpet treatment for Chinese officials should be conditioned on real progress on human rights. A state visit should come with a public demand to give UN investigators independent access to Xinjiang. Chinese officials should be made to feel that they will never gain the respectability they crave so long as they persecute their people.

At a more targeted level, Chinese officials directly involved in the mass detention of Uyghurs should become persona non grata. Their foreign bank accounts should be frozen. They should fear prosecution for their crimes. And the Chinese companies that build and help run the detention camps in Xinjiang, and any company that exploits the labor of prisoners or provides the surveillance infrastructure and big data processing, should be exposed and pressured to stop.

Finally, the world should recognize that Xi Jinping’s lofty rhetoric about establishing a "community of shared future for mankind” is really a threat—a vision of rights worldwide as defined and tolerated by Beijing. It is time to acknowledge that the Chinese government seeks to repudiate and reshape an international human rights system built on the belief that every person’s dignity deserves respect—that regardless of the official interests at stake, limits exist on what states can do to people.

Unless we want to return to an era in which people are pawns to be manipulated or discarded according to the whims of their overlords, the Chinese government’s attack on the international human rights system must be resisted. Now is the time to take a stand. Decades of progress on human rights are at stake.