Human rights and the need for a new mode of critical engagement with China

Human rights and the need for a new mode of critical engagement with China


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in January, the Chinese one-party state has faced sustained criticism in international media for its handling of the disease. Media coverage has highlighted early efforts by Chinese bureaucrats to suppress news of the incipient epidemic, it has criticised heavy-handed police action against doctors confronted with an unknown virus, it has drawn attention to people publicly humiliated or arbitrarily detained during efforts to enforce ‘social distancing’, it has pointed out the use of unrestrained mass surveillance to trace the spread of infections, and it has emphasised recent efforts to distract from the origins of the epidemic through propaganda, censorship, and the spreading of conspiracy theories. At the same time, Chinese people have found themselves at the receiving end of xenophobia and racist attacks while out of the country. As we write this, a major British newspaper has just released an article on Chinese students fleeing the United Kingdom in response to xenophobic ill treatment, and China and the USA are locked in bellicose exchanges sparked, in part, by openly Sinophobic statements made by the US president.

Beyond the importance of an unequivocal denunciation of anti-Chinese racism, all this highlights the need to better understand Chinese society and politics, and to find new modes of critical engagement with China’s one-party state. In the West, however, China remains poorly understood. This is especially apparent in academia and the media. ‘China studies’ often remain a niche field of the social sciences. The number of European newspaper correspondents in China is a fraction of that posted to, say, the USA. There is therefore an urgent need for scholars and commentators in the West to develop an understanding of China that goes beyond Western-centric accounts of human rights, and of the underlying relationships between individual, state, and societal institutions. The grounding of debates about Chinese society and engagement with the Chinese one-party state in such an understanding can be, we suggest, the basis for enhanced international cooperation during the pandemic, and for a pluralist and internationalist global order to follow in its wake. This, however, requires the well-informed critical interrogation of the political order, which China has created over the past seven decades and which it is now eagerly promoting around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is weakening the global economy, institutional processes and destabilising social structures, and the world that will emerge from the pandemic is likely to differ notably from the one that preceded it. In the process of remaking, China will play a significant role, as the world’s most populous society, as a centre of global socio-economic processes, and as a political power intent on disseminating its model of governance at the international level. COVID-19 has been political from its beginning, and the futures it might entail, in terms of processes of governance, public policy, and the organisation of state-society relationships, requires careful consideration. In this regard, differing and disparate models of human rights merit special attention, as COVID-19 may entail at least temporary redefinitions of individual rights and liberties in countries around the world. These redefinitions, informed by disparate understandings of human rights, may have significant political consequences in the long run. Therefore, it seems important to ask how China, as a world power of growing influence, has addressed attendant concerns during the epidemic so far, and to consider what the prevalent notions of human rights are in which actions of the one-party state have been grounded.

The Chinese one-party state views the concept of human rights as developmental, variable over time, and dependent on the respective national situation. According to the perspective of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the concept of human rights must allow for nationally specific, diverse interpretations. The CPC’s approach to human rights protection is “people-centred”, which means that it prioritises people’s interests defined as the right to subsistence and development. The CPC’s emphasis on this right is historically contingent, as the country suffered from periods of poverty, of which the most traumatising and recent one, the Great Famine during China’s Great Leap Forward, dates back to the end of the 1950s (Dikötter, 2011). Yet, such basic subsistence rights are different from non-material political or civil rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and so forth, that are meant to protect the individual from state intrusion (Kent, 1999), captured in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and especially in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that China has not ratified. Hence, this primary right is predominantly defined in material terms, in reference to stable employment, income, social security, health care, and so forth. China evaluates its progress towards human rights on the basis of “people’s sense of gain, happiness and security”. Thereby, the CPC’s understanding of human rights mainly reflects the principles outlined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that China ratified in 1976.

Has the response to COVID-19 by the Chinese one-party state reflected its human rights approach that puts its people first? We do not think so. An appropriate response to the outbreak by the local government was not only delayed for weeks, but critical voices have been systematically suppressed. After the 2003 SARS outbreak, the Chinese government established the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which included an early warning system. Yet, it seems, this system was hijacked by vested interests of local officials, obstructing the input of urgent and relevant information by the medical doctors first detecting those cases. This mismanagement and concealment substantially went against the people’s interests. It only served the short-term benefits of a specific group, local officials, who tried to save their face, which was detrimental to the people’s overall health situation in Wuhan and beyond. The subsequent lockdown of cities has curbed the spread of COVID-19 significantly; yet, it has taken a substantial economic and psychological toll on its people. China’s surveillance system, which was in place already before the outbreak, took an even more drastic form during the outbreak. Beyond controlling people’s every step and punishing them for any transgression, some were also forced into quarantine. This raises the question of how the Chinese one-party state defines dignity, which is included under its human rights approach. Furthermore, the question needs to be asked whether the one-party state’s extensive surveillance system, before and during the epidemic, is actually in conflict with its human rights approach that emphasises “free development of all people” and “self-actualisation”. Finally, even China’s state media and local level officials have experienced a backlash from the Chinese people for inadequately framing stories and demanding gratitude towards the party for the handling of the outbreak.

In summary, the issues that have surfaced in China in the course of the COVID-19 outbreak are clearly affecting the Chinese people, in terms of their health, their mental and material well-being, and their dignity. All these issues form part of Chinese people’s human rights, as supposedly guaranteed by the Chinese one-party state. Moreover, Chinese people have publicly and openly demanded non-material human rights, such as freedom of expression, in the wake of the death from COVID-19 of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor. Li had detected the novel coronavirus early on, only for his discovery to be suppressed and Li to be punished by the Chinese authorities. It seems that, in a state of emergency, human rights protection does not matter anymore. In this context, it is important to note the fundamental difference between autocratic states and democratic states: Democratic states in Asia have refused to impose a lockdown of the scale imposed in China, and they have handled the outbreak in significantly different ways. Accordingly, there is no “one best solution” to the outbreak. Handling the outbreak in an adequate manner requires reason, deliberation and respect for human rights. This has been demonstrated by other Asian countries, such as South Korea and Singapore, as well as by Taiwan, which, even though China does not recognize it as independent, has developed autonomous democratic processes of governance. On the world stage, China has staked a strong claim to exceptionalism, in terms of its mode of governance and its way of conducting politics (Ho, 2014). We suggest that China should nonetheless acknowledge the success of other countries in containing the disease, with different and less draconian measures.

Dikötter, F. (2011) Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. London: Bloomsbury.
Ho, B. (2014). Understanding Chinese Exceptionalism: China’s Rise, Its Goodness, and Greatness. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 164-176.
Kent, A. (1999). China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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