The US ambassador to China has rejected the notion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” in a statement marking International Human Rights Day on Saturday.

There has been a widespread crackdown on dissent since President Xi Jinping came to power, which has seen hundreds of lawyers, activists, and journalists detained in the last year alone. More than a dozen remain in some form of detention. China has defended itself against criticism of its rights record by saying that it is pursuing a path with Chinese characteristics regarding human rights.

Max Baucus. Photo: US Embassy.

The statement from Ambassador Max Baucus called for China to release detained lawyers and activists, a call that was echoed in the EU delegation’s human rights day statement.

He highlighted the cases of detained lawyers Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang, Xie Yang, and Xie Yanyi, who were detained in the crackdown on lawyers and activists last year, also known as the “709 crackdown.”

“Unfortunately, in recent weeks several more rights defenders have disappeared, including Jiang Tianyong, an advocate for the wives of China’s missing lawyers. China’s treatment of these lawyers and advocates calls into question its commitment to the rule of law,” he added.

He expressed concern for Tashi Wangchuk, who was imprisoned for his advocacy of Tibetan language education, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been detained since 2008.

US embassy in Beijing. photo:

The EU delegation’s statement also highlighted these cases, and added the cases of jailed Xinjiang writer Zhang Haitao and Uighur academic Ilham Tohti. However, it made no mention of Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen who remains detained in China after disappearing from his home in Thailand.

Baucus denied that speaking on human rights means that he or the US government is interfering in China’s domestic affairs or attempting to destabilise it.

“When I speak about human rights, I do so out of respect for China and for the dignity and worth of each and every Chinese person. I reject the notion of ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics.’ The fact remains that the Universal Declaration, which China has adopted, makes clear the international standards covering how all countries should treat their citizens,” he wrote.

Path with Chinese characteristics

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement on international human rights day saying that the country is committed to a human rights development path with Chinese characteristics.

Li Baodong. File photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“By aligning the universality of human rights with China’s national conditions, China has worked for the all-round and balanced development of people’s economic, social, cultural rights as well as civil and political rights, and embarked on a human rights development path with Chinese characteristics,” the statement from Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong said.

On Monday, the official news agency Xinhua published an editorial calling for an end to “double standards on human rights.”

Without naming specific countries, it said: “Certain western countries while turning a blind eye to their own deep-rooted human rights issues, such as rampant gun crime, refugee crises and growing xenophobia, have a double standard on human rights, alongside a sense of superiority.”

“They politicize human rights, point fingers at others and even interfere in other countries’ affairs, all in name of human rights.”

It said that a one-size-fits all approach to human rights does not exist and that each country should seek human rights suitable for its own national conditions.

A group of internationally renowned writers including Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood wrote to Xi Jinping on Saturday urging the government to release jailed or detained writers, journalists, bloggers, publishers, and activists.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.