Written by Shogo Suzuki.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has long been considered a conservative power with regards to sovereignty and intervention. China’s history of being reduced to a ‘semi-colony’ at the hands of the Western powers and being forced to undertake ‘modernisation’ to fulfil the Western-dictated ‘standard of civilisation’ has left a powerful legacy of suspicion and antipathy towards foreign powers imposing their own visions of ‘the good life’. In today’s context, this means that Beijing remains inherently ambivalent towards Western attempts to intervene in other states’ sovereignty under the guise of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and transform the latter into liberal democracies.

At the same time, however, it is important to keep in mind that China’s own position towards human rights abuses has evolved significantly. While it is true that Beijing’s own record of human rights protection remains poor, its increasing internalisation of global human rights norms means that the PRC is finding it increasingly difficult to ignore blatant and large-scale abuses of human rights. Ultimately, this means that it cannot always insist on demanding upholding the norm of non-intervention, even if it may remain uncomfortable with Western-led intervention. A typical example of this tension can be seen in China’s reactions to NATO intervention in Kosovo. While Beijing remained a staunch opponent of NATO’s actions, the basis of its criticism was that the latter had failed to obtain proper authorisation to intervene. In other words, the PRC was—at least on paper—opposed to intervention in Kosovo on procedural grounds. Crucially, it found it difficult to argue that the international community should not try and stop the imminent humanitarian catastrophe just for the sake of upholding the sovereignty norm.

Such changes—subtle though they may be—do reflect a very real change in Beijing’s attitude towards humanitarian norms, and humanitarian intervention. Yet, on occasions when the PRC does say ‘no’, many people fall back on simplistic explanations that approach depicting China as a selfish actor that has little room for norms and morals in its foreign policy. Put crudely, there is an implicit assumption that the Chinese government is almost a ‘monster’ that protects dictators for the sake of its own selfish interests. In the recent controversy surrounding Beijing’s intransigence regarding possible future interventions in Syria, one report refused to acknowledge adequately that Beijing’s position with regard to humanitarian intervention has not been one of consistent opposition in recent years. Instead, a typical realpolitik argument was invoked: ‘Beijing is acting alongside Moscow as a deliberate choice, building a coalition of interests…China may now be in a position to ask Russia to return the favour at a later date’. This depiction of China as an almost heartless, unethical state continues. The report concludes: ‘Civilians are continuing to die in Syria in their dozens. To say that China’s achievement has been building closer ties with Russia implies that China’s diplomacy is not at all about principles and protecting civilians in a far-off nation, but about hard-headed self interest.’

Such biases are common when it comes to the analysis of Chinese foreign policy. Sophie Richardson points to this bias when she writes: ‘When China does not back international action at the Security Council, the question that immediately arises is: Why is China shielding this country?…Assailing other major powers’ culpability in causing or failing to end a particular crisis is especially rare when China plays a prominent role in the country at issue.’[1]

When we take Richardson’s criticisms seriously, Chinese objections start appearing less unreasonable or unethical than they may seem on the surface. For a start, overthrowing an autocratic leader does not mean that the situation is going to get better: In Libya, there have been reports of militia looting and driving out 30,000 people from their homes in a series of reprisal attacks after the fall of Gaddafi. Second, intervention in Syria could prove to be highly costly: Chen Shuangqing, for instance, notes that intervention in Syria would be difficult compared to Libya, because of a) Alawite domination of the state security apparatus; b) strength of the Ba’ath Party and the co-optation of the Syrian middle classes; and c) the disorganised, fragmented nature of the anti-Assad uprising. [2] It is telling that Li Baodong, China’s representative in the UN neither denied the existence of a potential humanitarian problem, nor suggest that the international community should leave the Syrians to sort out their civil war by themselves. As Li reiterated, what was needed most was ‘…political dialogue and to defuse disputes “rather than complicate the issue”….under the current circumstances, placing “undue emphasis” on pressuring the Syrian Government would not help to resolve the crisis, but would further complicate the situation’.[3]

All of this means that China is not going to ‘heartlessly’ veto every attempt to solve a humanitarian crisis by means of intervention. In fact, there are interesting attempts by Chinese scholars to make humanitarian intervention more effective. Ruan Zongze, for instance, has proposed the concept of ‘Responsible Protection’. Ruan’s proposal for ‘Responsible Protection’ does not necessarily deny the use of force. However, he calls for intervening parties to be more accountable for the post-conflict society and state the create: here, Ruan argues that ‘the “protectors” should be responsible for the post-“intervention” and post-“protection” reconstruction of the state concerned. They should absolutely not smash and go, leaving a terrible mess to the country and people subject to “protection”.’ He goes on to state that ‘the United Nations should establish mechanisms of supervision, outcome evaluation and post factum accountability to ensure the means, process, scope and results of “protection”.’

Depicting China as a ‘monster’ certainly help grab headlines and is useful for political posturing. However, it fails to appreciate the evolution of Chinese thinking towards humanitarian intervention. Needlessly ‘shaming’ China or pointing an accusing finger towards it will only alienate China from engaging in and cooperating in international humanitarian activities, and is counter-productive. Instead we need to take China and its concerns towards intervention—and other institutions of global governance, for that matter—much more seriously. China is an important voice in the world, and its voice will matter much more in the near future, and it deserves to be heard, no matter how different its political system may be.

Shogo Suzuki is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester.


[1] Richardson, China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, p. 4.

[2] Chen Shuangqing, ‘Xuliya weihe bushi libiya’, Shijie zhishi 21, 2011, pp. 44—45, p. 45.

[3] UN Document SC/10536, ‘Security Council fails to adopt draft resolution on Syria as Russian Federation, China veto text supporting Arab League’s proposed peace plan’.

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