China Enlists Foreign Voices to Counter Human Rights Criticism Ahead of U.N. Session

Last week, the U.N. Human Rights Council began its 53rd session in Geneva, where country representatives will spend four weeks scrutinizing one anothers’ human rights records. China is a major presence, given the former U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s conclusion that China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang “may constitute crimes against humanity.” Her successor, Volker Turk, announced in his opening remarks to the session his desire to open an office in China for the first time, an initiative that will likely meet Chinese pushback. Deflecting criticism and wrestling for control of the narrative, the Chinese government and state media have attempted, with the support of foreign actors, to present a sanitized, positive image of the country’s human rights performance.

This week, the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI) released a report, covered by Amy Hawkins in The Guardian, ranking China among the worst countries for civil and political rights, and noting that its economic rights appear strong when based on government statistics

In 2022, HRMI started tracking freedom of religion and belief for the first time. China also scored worst on this indicator, although the pilot study only covered nine countries.

HRMI concluded that on several measures China was the country in the world with the worst human rights record. On freedom from arbitrary arrest, only Kazakhstan scored worse.

However, on certain economic indicators, such as the right to food, health and housing, China scored relatively highly, coming near the top of more than 100 surveyed countries. For the economic indicators HRMI uses publicly available statistics published by national and international institutions, rather than surveys.

The index does point out that people in certain groups in China, such as critics of the government and ethnic minorities, often miss out on basic economic rights. [Source]

Chinese state media have framed China’s engagement with U.N. human-rights bodies in a positive light, often with the help of foreign voices. One recent CGTN title reads, “Chinese envoy briefs UN on China’s achievements in human rights cause.” China Daily recently ran a video feature with the title, “French scholar: BRI sets example in human rights improvement.” A recent Xinhua GlobaLink video featuring officials from Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and Kenya is titled, “Scholars speak positively about China’s efforts in advancing human rights.

Coinciding with the opening of the U.N. Human Rights Council session last week, China’s Information Office of the State Council, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and China International Development Cooperation Agency hosted a Forum on Global Human Rights Governance in Beijing. The forum was attended by over 300 participants from almost 100 countries. State media personnel, as opposed to human rights officials, took center stage. Li Shulei, head of the CCP Central Committee’s Publicity Department, delivered the keynote speech, and Fu Hua, president of Xinhua (China’s official state news agency), also delivered a speech.

Following the forum, foreign voices amplified Chinese government talking points on human rights. China Daily ran a video of a director of an Asia-focused research center from the Dominican Republic praising China’s eradication of extreme poverty, and other foreign “experts’ takes” arguing that the CCP has enhanced human rights. On Twitter, officials from Eritrea and Sierra Leone shared their experiences at the forum. Articles about the forum also showed up in foreign media outlets, including one in Rwanda written by Xinhua and labeled as such, and another in Tanzania whose byline listed “correspondent,” but which was copied word-for-word and without attribution from a Xinhua article

Meanwhile, Western companies continue to facilitate China’s whitewashing of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. This week, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) filed a complaint with Germany’s export control office BAFA against German car makers VW, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, alleging that they provided insufficient proof that their efforts to track their suppliers in Xinjiang comply with Germany’s supply chain law. The law, which took effect in January of this year, requires all German companies above a certain size to establish due diligence procedures to avoid human rights abuses in their supply chains. Penalties include a fine of up to two percent of total annual global sales and exclusion from government contracts for up to three years. Last month, human rights activists disrupted VW’s annual shareholders’ meeting to draw attention to its potential complicity in human rights violations in Xinjiang, where it operates a factory. At Politico, Stuart Lau, Joshua Posaner, and Hans von der Burchard described VW’s morally expensive bet that some claim gives cover to Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs:

Volkswagen denies it has ever utilized forced labor in Xinjiang. But it has been less willing to grapple with the broader accusation: That by maintaining the facility at the request of Beijing, the company — and by extension the German government, which supported the carmaker’s investments in China — is providing political cover for crimes against humanity.

“Even if there is no forced labor, it is such a big symbol for the Chinese government to show the world that they bring prosperity to the region,” said Eva Stocker, senior project officer from the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group for Uyghur rights and self-determination. “But we see it as a genocide.”

[…] “By the plant, there are seven concentration camps … so this is what Volkswagen cannot deny, but they say they are not connected with them,” Erkin Zunun, the chief coordinator of the World Uyghur Congress based in Munich, said. “Nobody can say 100 percent there is no connection to forced labor.”

[…] Volkswagen rejected the accusation that by being in Xinjiang, the company is complicit in the human rights violations being perpetrated there. “Will something change if Volkswagen leaves?” said a Volkswagen spokesperson speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have doubts about this.” [Source]

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