New Action Plan in Beijing
How China Defines Human Rights

human rights and china
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On September 9, 2021, the Information Office of China's State Council, basically the country's government cabinet, released a document titled: "Human Rights Action Plan of China (2021-2025)" , that is, an action plan on human rights in China. Despite the title, the paper received little international attention. Other issues dominated the headlines, such as the People's Republic's real estate and energy crisis and Beijing's military aggression against Taiwan. But it is worth paying attention to the action plan. After all, the leadership in Beijing is using it to try to counter the Western definition of human rights. 

China has issued several such action plans since 2009. Now, however, the paper testifies to the expanded scope and increased self-confidence of a regime that wants to rise to become a technocratic autocracy with global influence.

The Chinese narrative on human rights in the action plans is rather defensive. The "livelihood security" of the people is placed above individual rights. Occasionally, the authors denounce Western failures such as racial discrimination and criminal cases. On the Chinese side, on the other hand, success in building "moderate prosperity" in society is celebrated as proof of the CP's human rights achievements.

The issue is overloaded: Everything is "human rights"

An examination of the six sections of “rights” in the action plan will reveal a lot about China’s motivation, justification and narrative. The first section on “economic, social and cultural rights” and the third section on “environmental rights” are essentially long lists of actions to guarantee the rights to basic livelihood, to work, and in health and education, as well as for a green and sustainable development. The long list is detailed and includes matters such as food and water supply to earthquake-safe housing, from workers retraining to coal mining safety, and of course environmental protection. It even sets a target to limit short-sightedness among students to under 65 percent, as a matter of human rights.

Like recapping a mini “state of the union,” the ruling regime predictably continues to place the economic development of the entire society ahead of the basic rights of individuals. To put this into perspective, if these measures can be claimed to constitute basic human rights protections, then the whole annual federal budget of any country might as well be lauded as “human rights achievements” by that government, which may not be entirely wrong, but night serve to diffuse the attention on real human rights problems. 

Voters to be "mobilized

The second section of the action plan, “civil and political rights,” most notably spelt out some of the proposed protections for individuals’ judicial, electoral, religious and other rights.  For instance, a proposal to reduce custody periods before trials for the defendants contrasts greatly the current reality in post-National Security Law Hong Kong where large number of individuals were denied bail and held in custody for more than half a year or even longer than one year for some. Obviously the real situation is even worse in the Mainland of China. While there may be some attempts at judicial reforms to tackle this problem at the local level for non-political crimes, it is unlikely that there has been any re-awakening for self-restraint at the central government level for the plenty of those accused of charges of national security or political natures. After all, it goes without saying that any matters that the ruling regime considers to be national security in nature would be dealt with above any other laws or legal, including human rights, protections.

In this section, under electoral rights, China will also target to “mobilise” its more than 1 billion voters to participate in the upcoming elections at all levels. That will easily make China the largest “democracy” in the world, although the document never used that particular word. On the other hand, this shows China’s confidence to manifest people’s participation to achieve the justification for the regime’s rule under its “one-party” constitutional confines, using all the mechanisms that are being tested and carried out right now in Hong Kong and Macau to vet, disqualify and detain undesirable candidates before they can stand to run.

However, the fourth section on “protecting the rights of particular groups” lacks the same level of details and setting of goals to achieve as in other sections. These “particular groups” include minorities, women, children, elderlies and the physically challenged. Most notably, for the section on minorities, the stated objective is to “perfect the regional autonomous rule system, consolidate the unified Chinese cultural agenda, support faster development of regions of minority races, and protect the lawful rights of minorities.” In other words, it is akin to a colonial statement of rule rather than protecting minority self-rights or even against discrimination. Also missing, of course, are the LGBTQ+ community among these “particular groups” to be protected.

The long goal: Redefine global human rights standards

Having defined the scope and itemised the Chinese human rights action plan, the last two sections “human rights education and research” and “participating in global human rights governance” shows China’s will to expand the influence of its human rights narrative both domestically and internationally. The regime is confident enough not to completely avoid the discussion of the human rights issue domestically, and at the same time go on the offensive to advocate this vision globally, redefining the basic ideals, principles and priorities of human rights, through “thorough participation in the United Nations’ human rights organization, taking a leadership and constructive role to ensure the healthy and sustainable development of international human rights.”

While one may be easily tempted to write off China’s narrative as self-gratification, the serious global observers would do better by understanding and realising the immense appeal of this narrative to the masses in China as well as many in other countries in the world, from developing nations to even western countries with liberal democracy traditions. As the west continues to be stuck in a quagmire stemming from a combination of ineffective political leadership, divisive politics, racial tensions, COVID-19 and more, China, having absolute control in all aspects political, economic and social, and with its vast market potentials for profits to offer, has its appeal to become the dominant source of political philosophy of the next century — at least so its leaders have come to confidently believe.

The global observers must seek to respond to this Chinese human rights narrative by focusing on its diversion from real protections for individuals’ rights to regime-building exercise for autocracy and the monopoly on truth. This response may well borrow from the last two chapters of the Chinese action plan to include education and research on these contrasting views on human rights, and challenging to take leadership in global human rights governance, including United Nations and beyond.

The Chinese human rights narrative reinterprets the protection of individual rights as a prop for autocracy. While China helped develop the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and even ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, China's actual policies are markedly different: Beijing states that it “will promote the free, well-rounded and common development of all individuals as the general goal — that is, “all individuals” as a group. This allows the ruling regime to redefine such common wellbeing for all to be one conducive to consolidate its own absolute rule, in a society already devoid of democratic institutions and judicial independence, with little regard for the “inalienable rights” of each individual member of society that is supposed to be protected by the UDHR.

Yet, the confidence demonstrated by the Chinese leadership in advocating these new global standards — similar to the recent populist crackdown on big businesses and persons of influence including entertainers — stems from the perception of their own success in stoking domestic nationalist fervors in a highly controlled society with relatively stable economic conditions. This is obviously a model of governance and the human rights narrative that China looks to export to the rest of the world where democratic institutions are lacking, or those nations whose rulers wish to follow China’s authoritarian control on political power, by adopting new laws on “national security,” “foreign interference” and other measures to legitimise their autocratic systems.

In the end, it must be reiterated that without objective, meaningful and enforceable legal and constitutional protections for individuals’ rights, including a bill of rights for every citizen,  backed up by an independent judiciary and real rule of law, any talk about human rights agenda is not standing on firm ground. Any other ways to redefine human rights are simply attempts to hijack the cause.

Charles Mok is currently a director of Tech for Good Asia. He was an Internet entrepreneur and represented Information Technology in Hong Kong's Parliament (LegCo) as a Member of Parliament from 2012 to 2020.