By Andrea Worden
In January 2017, after his success at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi Jinping traveled to Geneva to deliver a rare, invitation-only speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations. Most of the top UN officials were present, and Secretary- General António Guterres gave opening remarks that failed to include even a mention of human rights. Human Rights Watch described Xi’s reception in Geneva by UN officials as an “obsequious red carpet treatment,” and said the measures to protect Xi and ensure the event unfolded without disruptions were “highly unusual.”
These measures included emptying the complex of many of the approximately 3,000 staff who work there, closing parking lots and meeting rooms, and prohibiting accredited nongovernmental organizations from attending. Only one of the gates to the sprawling Palais de Nations complex remained open, and there were reports of long lines for security checks. Moreover, junior staff at the UN were reportedly drafted to escort the 200 members of the Chinese delegation accompanying Xi. Police thwarted the efforts of a few Tibetan activists who tried to unfurl a Tibetan flag.
Xi’s high-profile speech in Geneva, titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” echoed some of the themes of his well-received Davos speech –– positioning China, and Xi himself, as the vacuum-filling leader of a globalized, interdependent and interconnected world. In his wide-ranging speech, Xi rejected trade protectionism and isolationism, and called for countries to cooperate on trade, climate change, nuclear disarmament, terrorism, global health issues, and other cross-border issues, while respecting the sovereign equality of all nations.
The notion of “building a community of shared future for all humankind” (goujian renlei mingyun gongtongti) has appeared repeatedly in Xi’s speeches in international fora during the past five years, since, according to Xinhua, the concept was first advanced at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. It appears to be an official catchphrase for China’s growing leadership role in global governance. In terms of human rights, the contours of a “community of shared future” are fairly clear. Beneath the lofty and vague rhetoric, China’s position on human rights is consistent with its longstanding approach and policies, but Xi’s speech in Geneva and other official Chinese statements seek to frame the Chinese view as a new approach to global human rights governance, with China at the helm.
The bedrock principle for China is sovereign equality and non-interference. In his speech, Xi stated:
“Sovereign equality is the most important norm governing state-to-state relations over the past centuries and the cardinal principle observed by the United Nations and all other international organizations. The essence of sovereign equality is that the sovereignty and dignity of all countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected, their internal affairs allow no interference and they have the right to independently choose their social system and development path. ”
Other points in Xi’s speech relating to human rights, which Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu, the head of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, has echoed in his statements and activities at the Human Rights Council throughout 2017, include the following:
- Use dialogue, consultation and cooperation to deal with differences
- Reject double standards in the application of international law
- Promote “openness and inclusiveness” and “reject dominance by just one or several countries”
- Major powers should “build a new model of relations featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”
- China puts “people’s rights and interests above everything else” and its accomplishment in lifting “over 700 million people out of poverty” is a “significant contribution to the global cause of human rights”
- China “is ready to work with all the other UN members states as well as international organizations and agencies to advance the great cause of building a community of shared future for mankind.”
The Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva has vigorously promoted China’s views on human rights in the Human Rights Council this year through resolutions, statements and side events under the rubric of “a community of shared future” –– an indication that China is taking more concrete and assertive steps to position itself as a leader in the Human Rights Council.
Despite the fact that the UN human rights framework is grounded on the principle of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, China nonetheless is pushing its version of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” which prioritizes the right to development and economic rights over individual civil and political rights, and insists on a relativistic approach to human rights based on each country’s unique history, culture, values, and political system.
China’s slogan, “building a community of shared future,” made its way into two resolutions that were adopted during the Human Rights Council’s 34th session (HCR34) in March 2017: a resolution on the “Question of the realization in all countries of economic social and cultural rights” (A/HRC/34/L.4/Rev.1) and a resolution on “The right to food” (A/HRC/34/L.21). Human Rights Council resolutions are not legally binding, rather they are the political expression of the views of the HRC members (or a majority) and generally “are a means of gauging the international community’s level of political commitment and degree of willingness to discuss a specific question regarding human rights or related fields.” States may table HRC resolutions as a step in the process of establishing a new thematic issue in the HRC.
In an official statement on the website of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, the Chinese government overstates the significance of the inclusion of its “community of shared future” slogan in the resolutions adopted during HRC34. In both the resolutions, the phrase appears in one of many preambular (i.e., introductory, not operative) clauses, tucked among other aspirational language. The official Chinese statement proclaims, however: “This is the first time that the concept of ‘community of shared future for human beings’ is incorporated into the Human Rights Council resolutions, officially making it an important part of the international human rights discourse.” The PRC statement goes on to claim that the adoption of this concept “demonstrates China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”
On March 1 during HRC34, Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu delivered a joint statement on behalf of a group of 140 countries titled “Promote and Protect Human Rights and Build a Community of Shared Future for Human Beings.” The statement summarized several key points from Xi’s January speech, including: sovereign equality must be respected; human rights should be promoted and protected through dialogue and cooperation and not politicized; and countries should aim for win-win cooperation and outcomes.
On March 8, the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva and the Chinese “government-organized NGO” (GONGO) China Society for Human Rights Studies cosponsored a side event titled “Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind: A New Approach to Global Human Rights Governance,” during which, according to a Xinhua report, Chinese human rights experts from universities and research centers “elaborated the idea of a community of shared future for mankind in the context of human rights governance, saying interpretation of human rights ideas cannot be taken out of their cultural contexts.” Needless to say no Chinese human rights lawyers or activists participated in the side event.
During the June session of the Human Rights Council (HRC35), China again organized a side event on “building a community of shared future,” and again delivered a joint statement on behalf of more than 140 countries, titled “Joining Hands to Reduce Poverty, Promote and Protect Human Rights.” At the side event titled “International Seminar on Human Rights and Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” Ma Zhaoxu stated that peace and development were the prerequisites for human rights, and “development provides the basic conditions for realizing various human rights.” Such statements from China ––that development is a prerequisite for human rights ––undermines the consensus language in numerous UN resolutions and declarations China has agreed to, for example, text in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) (1993) that provides:
Paragraph 5. All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Paragraph 8 (in relevant part). Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. In the context of the above, the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels should be universal and conducted without conditions attached.
Paragraph 10 (in relevant part). The World Conference on Human Rights reaffirms the right to development, as established in the Declaration on the Right to Development, as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights.
As stated in the Declaration on the Right to Development, the human person is the central subject of development.
While development facilitates the enjoyment of all human rights, the lack of development may not be invoked to justify the abridgement of internationally recognized human rights.
China’s activities in Geneva and the Human Rights Council during the first half of the year set the stage for its major initiative in the HRC in 2017. In June, at HRC35, China sponsored a resolution titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights.” At first glance, the resolution seems unproblematic, but upon closer scrutiny, and in light of the explanation given by the United States for why it voted against the resolution, it appears that by tweaking certain language, China effectively privileged the right to development over other rights and attempted to dilute certain human rights norms.
The U.S. described China’s resolution as “attempting to reframe the relationship between development and human rights in a way that deviates from consensus texts adopted by UN Member States.” The United States called for a vote on the resolution (most resolutions are adopted without a vote), and China’s resolution was adopted by a vote of 30 to 13, with 3 abstentions. With the resolution’s adoption, the Council requested the Advisory Committee of the HRC to operationalize paragraph 6 and “conduct a study on the ways in which development contributes to the enjoyment of all human rights by all, in particular on best experiences and practices, and to submit the report to the Human Rights Council before its forty-first session.” China will undoubtedly figure prominently in this study, which may serve to advance its “development first” agenda at the Council.
In an article published by China Society for Human Rights Studies after the resolution was adopted, a professor at Peking University wrote: “At present, China has put forward the idea of creating a community of shared future for all mankind, which means that China will participate in global human rights governance more actively and will play a more important role in it.” In June 2017, the People’s Daily, reporting on a conference convened in Tianjin on the theory of building a shared future and global human rights governance, wrote that the concept “had become an important topic in the global human rights discourse.”
The People’s Daily extolled the adoption of the resolution in Geneva, describing the resolution expansively in an editorial as a recognition of the concept “development promotes human rights”:
“The introduction of the concept of ‘development promoting human rights’ into the international human rights system for the first time marked a major shift in the global human rights discourse and is a huge victory for developing countries… The adoption of the resolution also symbolizes the elevation of developing countries’ right to speak on human rights… and will promote greater justice and rationality in the international human rights system.”
The editorial also stated that “for a long time Western governments have monopolized the international human rights agenda and discourse, and that some people in the West often use human rights as a pretense to export their values, even to the extent of using them as an excuse to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.”
An article in Study Times (学习时报) praised the resolution, also stating that it was the first time the concept “development promotes human rights” entered into the international human rights system, which followed China’s major concept “building a community of shared future for humanity” being written into a UN Security Council resolution–– both instances of China contributing its proposals to global human rights governance.
The People’s Daily editorial and other Chinese media reports proclaimed that the Western “monopoly” on human rights governance is over, and that China will now firmly take the lead on behalf of the developing world.
What this means, in short, is that China will continue to promote, and attempt to expand, the importance of the right to development and economic rights, while at the same time endeavoring to curtail and weaken the enforcement of civil and political rights. The UN and its member states, including China, have in various UN instruments, however, recognized that both sets of rights – civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, are universal, interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and must be treated on the same footing and with the same emphasis.
The significance of China’s resolution, which is more rhetoric than substance, can best be understood by examining the explanation the U.S. gave for why it voted against the resolution. The U.S. stated in its explanation that it rejects “any suggestion that development goals could permit countries to deviate from their human rights obligations and commitments.” It further provides specific examples of how China selectively took text from various UN instruments, including the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), to misrepresent the relationship between human rights and development. The statement also suggests a contentious negotiation process with China over the language of the resolution. The U.S. stated:
[W]e regret that the resolution draws from these instruments in a selective and imbalanced way that often omits key language that fully explains the relationship between human rights and development, or changes consensus language to materially alter its meaning. We and others have negotiated in good faith to restore this carefully negotiated balance in this resolution. The sponsors made only minimal changes to address these concerns and the changes fall far short of achieving balance. As one example of many, preambular paragraph 5 draws from VDPA paragraph 8, but omits the crucial term “democracy,” and unhelpfully changes “respect for human rights,” to “realization of human rights.”…. These and other distortions of consensus language reinforce the incorrect message that development is a prerequisite for states fulfilling their human rights obligations – a message that is clearly inconsistent with states’ commitments reflected in the VDPA.
Germany, which also voted against China’s resolution, delivered a statement on behalf of the EU, stating that human rights and development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, but China’s resolution positioned development above human rights. The German representative said that the EU believed that the path of development must accord with all human rights, and that development has two main pillars: one is human rights, democracy, rule of law and good governance, and the other is sustainable development.
Moreover, paragraph 10 of the VDPA emphasizes that sustainable development cannot be realized in a situation in which human rights are not respected and protected. The German diplomat also noted that China had selectively used text from various international human rights instruments and distorted the relationship between human rights and development, creating a hierarchy in which development was placed above human rights. Accordingly, the German diplomat stated, the EU could not support the proposed resolution.
After China’s resolution was adopted, the Geneva-based NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) urged the international community and Chinese civil society to pay close attention to the lobbying of the Chinese government on the international human rights platform, and to be on guard against the Chinese government’s efforts to replace UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
As readers of China Change are well aware, Xi Jinping’s “community of shared future for all human beings” excludes many of China’s own citizens. Those human beings left out of Xi’s “shared future” include Chinese human rights defenders and lawyers, democracy and civil society activists, Tibetans, Uyghurs, petitioners, Falun Gong believers, Christians, Buddhists, petitioners –– the list goes on. Xi’s highly choreographed, invite-only, no-civil society-allowed speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations in January was a stark example both of the lack of inclusiveness in his “shared future,” and the tolerance for China’s human rights record at the UN.
Governments and civil society actors will have an important opportunity to address China’s efforts to replace settled UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics”’ standards, along with a multitude of other human rights issues, when China undergoes its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the fall of 2018. China will likely use its next UPR as a platform to bolster its leadership role in the HRC.
Many of China’s supporters or those beholden to it will undoubtedly praise China’s June 2017 resolution on development and extol the wisdom of “building a community of shared future for humankind.” The deadline for civil society reports is March 2018, and China’s national report is due by the end of July 2018. Governments are also supposed to consult with domestic civil society groups and other stakeholders in the drafting of their national report. Cao Shunli died because of her efforts to participate in the formulation of China’s national report for its second UPR in October 2013. To honor her memory and struggle, the US and other like-minded national governments and international NGOs should actively support Chinese civil society efforts to participate in the UPR process.
 The 13 countries that voted against the resolution, in addition to the U.S. were Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, U.K., Germany, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, Albania, Belgium, and Croatia. The 3 abstentions were Korea, Georgia, and Panama.
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).