Exporting authoritarianism: new book examines China’s approach to international human rights

Most members of the international community view the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan as a disaster for the country’s nascent democracy and a clear and present danger to Afghan women and girls.

But for China, the retreat of NATO and the collapse of Afghanistan’s government represent an irresistible economic and strategic opportunity. Indeed, as the state-owned Global Times reports, Chinese utilities and mining companies “are hoping to resume major cooperation projects that have been stalled for years due to instability and security concerns, once the situation stabilizes.”

Of no surprise to readers of Pitman B. Potter’s latest book, China’s geopolitical ambitions appear unaffected by serious human rights concerns on the ground in Afghanistan.

Indeed, as Potter explains in Exporting Virtue? China’s International Human Rights Activism in the Age of Xi Jinping, the Chinese government believes human rights are rooted in access to development rather than in protection from authoritarian abuse.

He cites the country’s 2019 human rights white paper: “The (Communist Party of China) pursues development as its top priority in governance and rejuvenation of the nation and the key to solving all China’s problems. It vigorously builds up productive forces and strives to better protect human rights through development, and has thereby aroused great enthusiasm among the people.”

And he observes how this development-based concept of human rights is granted and guaranteed, not by the country’s constitution, but by the CPC itself.

“The fundamental rights of citizens under the (People’s Republic of China) constitution are neither absolute nor independent, but rather are conditional on submission to the collective interests of state and society and the political interests of the Party-state,” he writes.

Little wonder, then, that myriad groups — including the United Nations Human Rights Council, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch — have accused the Chinese government of a number of serious human rights violations.

Potter writes: “Human rights abuses in Xi Jinping’s China have been well documented in areas such as censorship, torture and abuse of prisoners, extensive use of the death penalty, abuse of criminal process for political purposes, suppression of religious freedoms, abuse of ethnic minorities, denial of LGBTQ rights, and the use of surveillance technology, to name but a few.”

The Chinese government may be eager to participate in human rights deliberations on the international stage, but it is less committed to enacting the conventions it signs, citing the oft-repeated claim of unique “Chinese characteristics.”

And while most countries view international human rights bodies as vehicles to project power and influence abroad, China sees them also as stages on which to defend authoritarian abuses at home.

What’s more, the PRC’s whitewashing campaign extends far beyond the corridors of political power.

Potter writes: “Activism by Chinese nationals to oppose political expression at universities with which the regime disagrees has intensified, as exemplified by demands for the resignation of an ethnic Tibetan elected president of the students’ association at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, and protests against a presentation on human rights abuses in Xinjiang at McMaster University.”

Part of the Asia Pacific Legal Culture and Globalization series from UBC Press, Exporting Virtue is a meticulously researched and forcefully argued indictment of faux human rights activism that “seems mainly to be an exercise in justifying authoritarianism, virtue claims notwithstanding.”

To his great credit, Potter does not in any way cheerlead for a new Cold War on China, nor does he write anything that could inflame the recent rise in anti-Asian racism.

On the contrary, he presents his arguments in a thoughtful and measured way. His aim is clearly to provoke meaningful discussion, not incite harmful rhetoric.

1 Comment

  1. The CCP was to be blamed for the anti-Asian sentiment across the States and other countries, especially after the outbreak of Covid-19. There is no human rights nor freedom in China, even in Taiwan, we have fought for our society for a long time.
    The Western government should review each student from China, otherwise the academic freedom will be more severely interfered by China.

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