A UN review shows the limits of China’s loud microphone communications strategy
As the Chinese government seeks “center stage,” its compliance with its human rights obligations should be there as well.
Credit: Derek Brumby / iStock
In a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress on March 7, 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said, “China is moving closer to the center of the world stage. … But we don’t have enough microphones, and our voice is not loud enough. Some are still hogging the microphones, and there are quite many noises and jarring notes about China.”His statement makes it seem like a chaotic brawl at a karaoke parlor.
However, this metaphor also has serious implications. China needs more “microphones,” meaning media outlets and platforms to convey Beijing’s views. These outlets need to be “louder,” or with wider distribution. Meanwhile, “some” people are controlling or “hogging” the means of creating global opinion and the government would want to silence the “jarring noises.”
But will this communications approach work in shaping global opinion? Specifically, can it work at the UN?
A review of China’s record of one of the core human rights treaties—the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)—may provide an answer to this question. No matter how hard Beijing tries, its ability to control the global discourse will be limited by its unwillingness to comply with its human rights obligations.
In February 2023, the Chinese government’s compliance with ICESCR came under review, and on March 6, 2023, the committee released its findings. In the 22-page document, the Chinese government’s positive aspects were given a mere two pages and, then, in a diplomatic but firm tone, the committee raised many concerns that challenged the Chinese’s self-congratulatory narrative of unceasing progress.
With respect to the Uyghur region, the committee raised concerns about China’s “homestay campaigns,” in which Han officials literally stay overnight in Uyghur homes as part of an effort to surveil and supposedly “become family” with those Uyghurs not sent to the camps (in most cases, women and children). It raised concerns about forced abortions and forced implantation of intrauterine devices. The committee also noted reports of widespread discrimination. It urged the government to dismantle systems of forced labor, implement International Labor Organization Forced Labor Conventions, and give UN independent experts unhindered access.
With respect to Tibet, the committee highlighted the resettlement of herders without free, prior, and informed consent. It raised concerns about a “large-scale campaign to eradicate Tibetan culture and language” and the “coerced residential (boarding) school system imposed on Tibetan children,” where an estimated 78% of six to 18-year-old Tibetan children attend school. Separated from their family members, Tibetan children in these boarding schools are primarily taught in Putonghua Chinese and denied religious education.
In Hong Kong, the committee warned that the 2020 National Security Law “has de facto abolished the independence of the judiciary.” They urged the government to review the law and ensure the full independence of the judiciary. It also raised concerns about the government’s policies related to the right to form trade unions, a concern heightened by the sudden arrest on March 9, 2023, of the former chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Elizabeth Tang.
But ICESCR’s concerns weren’t limited to the Uyghur region, Tibet, and Hong Kong. The committee noted concerns about the lack of independence of the judiciary, the limited space for civil society organizations, and the suppression of human rights defenders and lawyers working on economic, social and cultural rights—an issue that was the focus of a joint submission by Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD).
The committee also acknowledged the lack of any “all-encompassing anti-discrimination legislation” and it encouraged the government to pass such legislation and “consider criminalizing hate speech and hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons."
What does all this mean?
The number of serious human rights concerns raised by this UN committee leads to a communications dilemma for the Chinese Communist Party, since paramount leader Xi Jinping has consistently envisioned an international system with the UN “at its core.”
Clearly, China cares about what the UN says, and yet it has been unable to control what UN experts and UN treaty bodies have said. Indeed, over the past year UN human rights mechanisms voiced serious concerns about China’s human rights record.
First, in June 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee reviewed Hong Kong’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee issued its concluding observations, which noted the “overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application” of the National Security Law, which has been used to arrest over 200 people. It found that certain provisions of the NSL “substantially undermine the independence of judiciary and restrict the rights to access to justice and to fair trial.” Most importantly, it recommended that the government take “concrete steps” to repeal the NSL and “in the meantime, refrain from applying it.”
Second, in August 2022, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights issued its assessment of the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Importantly, the report concluded that “crimes against humanity” may be happening in the region.
Third, in November 2022, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on China to immediately investigate all allegations of human rights violations in the XUAR, including those of torture, ill-treatment, sexual violence, forced labor, enforced disappearances and deaths in custody.”
These refutations of China’s narrative by UN bodies has led to China’s attempt to control the independence of the treaty bodies and retaliation against individuals and groups from China who participate in UN processes, as documented by a recent report from the International Service for Human Rights.
As the Chinese government seeks “center stage,” governments and civil society groups that genuinely care about human rights must put their energy and resources into ensuring that the UN human rights system is well funded and capable of withstanding pressure to water down any conclusions of noncompliance of obligations under international human rights law.
Without this, loud microphones blasting the Chinese government’s narratives will be the only sounds on offer.
William Nee is the research and advocacy coordinator for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. He has previously worked at Amnesty International and China Labour Bulletin. Follow him at @williamnee.