Video Policy Brief III: Mainstreaming Human Rights in our Engagement with China | Nicola Macbean

CPI/IAPS Video Policy Brief number three: Mainstreaming human rights in our engagement with China – Nicola Macbean from Andreas Fulda on Vimeo.


“In this CPI/IAPS Brief I consider the challenges of addressing human rights problems in China.

The last few years have seen a deterioration in respect for human rights in China. There has been a sustained effort by the Chinese authorities to restrict the civil and political rights of those speaking out for human rights. The detention of lawyers in July 2015 was intended to send a clear message to other human rights defenders: you have no right to challenge the government’s record on human rights.

 The government has also sought to restrict the financial and other support available to Chinese civil society through domestic laws on charitable organisations and the new Overseas NGO Law. Chinese scholars report greater restrictions on what they can teach and write about. International exchange on law and policy has become far harder. Independent voices within China’s media experience suffocating levels of censorship.

 Although respect for human rights is now part of the constitution human rights are also increasingly being portrayed as “Western values”. Denigrating human rights helps to justify suspicion of overseas NGOs and their funders. In this charged climate, criticism by Western organisations or governments is dismissed as politically motivated while the police make indiscriminate allegations of state subversion against human rights defenders.  

 True, there has been welcome progress on human rights since the 1980s. There has been an impressive decline in levels of poverty and the criminal justice system offers better protections to suspects in routine criminal cases. Laws promise access to justice and safeguards for the most vulnerable.

Yet, the implementation of much protective legislation falls short. Chinese people are now more rights aware. They have higher expectations of their government and are less tolerant of deaths in custody or allegations of torture.  Many turn to social media to voice their concerns, though censors are quick to shut down debate.

Many within the Chinese government understand the need to improve human rights. The current approach, however, is deeply flawed. It is focused on the institutional supply side and seeks to silence the demand from rights-holders or their advocates for redress.  There are inherent limits to a system where those responsible for abuses of power or failures to protect cannot be challenged or held accountable.

European policy makers understand the importance of human rights in relations with China. There is not only a strong moral argument and public pressure to act, but also recognition that a China that respects human rights will be a more reliable and acceptable partner on other important issues. China’s disregard for human rights emboldens other governments and undermines global consensus on international norms.

The country’s apparent indifference to the views of its citizens or the good opinion of the rest of the world has left European policy makers struggling to develop effective strategies. There are few policy levers: China is no longer an aid recipient, instead it offers investment. International civil society and funders are disengaging from China as the space for cooperation with local partners contracts.  The politicisation of human rights has led many business leaders and media pundits in western countries to advocate an exclusively commercial relationship with China.

The rise of authoritarian governments and a populist backlash against human rights in liberal democracies have prompted many human rights organisations and funders to engage in fresh thinking.  Those of us who worry about human rights in China should be part of this conversation. Although China’s size, language and politics require special attention, its problems are not exceptional. The challenge from the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, for human rights organisations to be more effective in addressing poverty and inequality is particularly pertinent with respect to China.

The backlash against human rights challenges us to examine how we communicate the importance of human rights. Too often human rights are treated as an expendable luxury rather than integral to everyday life. If we are to reinvigorate respect for human rights, I suggest we should make the mainstreaming of human rights across all areas of policy and practice a priority.

There is a very wide range of European organisations that engage with a country as important as China: from trade associations to business and finance to the police, universities, law firms and the cultural industries.  Human rights feature little in their relations. A decision to mainstream human rights into their cooperation with China could change that.

Three steps come to mind. A human rights impact assessment to identify possible risks and opportunities in the relationship. Second, a commitment to promote the human rights principles of non-discrimination, respect for human dignity and the right to participate as part of their engagement with China. And third, ensuring transparency and accountability.

Impact assessments would have a sectoral focus. For example, what might be the impact on academic freedom or freedom of association of a new project? Will participation be limited to officials? Has there been an attempt to include an independent civil society in consultations?  None of these measures calls for the kind of direct criticism China so dislikes.

Governments could encourage a process of mainstreaming human rights with policy support. Business already provides a model with the auditing of supply chains. Beneficiaries of public funds should be routinely expected to demonstrate how they have integrated human rights into their engagement with China. Government departments should be required to consider how new initiatives with China will advance human rights.  Human rights organisations also have a role to play in offering specialist advice.

Women’s equality has been advanced by gender mainstreaming. We now need to take this experience into the human rights field. If we are to stand up to those who challenge the idea of the universality of human rights we need to demonstrate the courage of our convictions and mainstream awareness and respect for human rights across all areas of policy and practice, including foreign relations. If business, law firms, universities, and all the other organisations that engage and profit from their relationship with China fully integrate human rights into their cooperation the issue would lose some of its political sensitivity. This should allow a more open and honest conversation among all stakeholders.”

Nicola Macbean is the founder of the The Rights Practice and is the former Director of the Great Britain-China Centre. She was educated at the University of Cambridge, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fudan University and London University.

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