China, human rights

Document Type



China observers in the United States generally share two observations on China today: that China has made impressive progress in economic development in the past three decades, and that China has maintained a poor human rights record since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. On the economic front, China overtook Japan and became the second largest economy in 2010. In a joint study with China's Development Research Center of the State Council, the World Bank recently predicted that even if the Chinese economy grows a third as slowly in the future, it will outstrip the United States in terms of overall GDP before 2030. Along with its growing economy, China has gained more voting power in both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and has increased its profile in G20 meetings. On the human rights front, both Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department reported continuous deterioration of human rights in China. In its 2010 country report on human rights, the State Department noted a "negative trend" in key areas of China's human rights record, including suppression of civil society, censorship of the Internet, and violation of ethnic minorities' rights. The World Bank also warned in its report that China must adopt an approach that better balances economic and social development to sustain economic growth.

Great fear arises, however, when the above two elements are put together. Questions about the ramifications of China's rise and the future of world order are repeatedly raised. Does China represent a totally different set of values? With its newly acquired capacity, will China reshape the global order based on those values? These seem particularly relevant questions given the perplexing international order we are facing in the era of Iraq War. 4 On the other hand, China often portrays its development path as something unique, or, "with Chinese characteristics." For some, though, Beijing's slogan of a "peaceful rise" may sound more alarming than assuring. This phrase may just betray the secret that there is enormous uncertainty about the future. In other words, China's own rhetoric often reinforces rather than mitigates the fear of a reshaped international order.

This article aims to challenge the way these questions are framed. By examining human rights as an example in the area of international law, this article argues that while China continues to be defensive on human rights, either by overstretching the notion of sovereignty, or by limiting human rights to a developmentalist point of view, a major shift emerged in its basic legal and political strategy in its relations with the United States on human rights after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It shifted from a defensive discourse to an offensive discourse by embracing the legal norms and standards established by existing international law and demanded that the United States comply with them. The popular view about China in the United States still insists on an old-fashioned conceptual framework. It creates new fears and yet offers little new insights. The so-called "realism"-characteristic of the Bush Administration's political philosophy within neocon policy circles-is simply out of touch with reality.



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