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Bringing the World Together: Advocating for a ‘Thoughtful’ Approach


Sep 7, 2023

For over thirty years, China has faced criticism and condemnation for its human rights record. Whether it be the Tiananmen Square massacre or the mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs, the Chinese government has consistently dealt with the diplomatic fallout caused by its repression. To combat this criticism, Chinese diplomats and propagandists have put forward various claims. They have sought to rally developing countries around the idea that the “right to subsistence” is more important than other human rights concerns. Additionally, the government has justified its dictatorship by claiming it is rooted in traditional Chinese “Confucian values” that prioritize duty and social harmony over individual rights. However, China has now adopted a coherent ideological strategy to respond to the criticism – seeking to dismantle the universality of human rights, a foundational idea of the post-Cold War international order.

This new strategy, known as the “Global Civilisation Initiative,” is a prominent weapon in China’s foreign propaganda. It was announced by President Xi Jinping and complements the previously announced Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative. The initiative aims to expand China’s influence over international institutions and norms, aligning with Xi’s plan for the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.” Although Xi presented the initiative as promoting “common values of humanity” such as justice, democracy, and freedom, it actually serves as a tribute system in which China holds power over like-minded states from the Global South. In exchange for their allegiance, China offers developing countries trade and investment opportunities and the chance to emulate its authoritarian political model.

China’s new initiative has implications for human rights. It rejects the universal standard of human rights upheld by the liberal international order and advocates for a cultural relativist approach based on each country’s “national conditions and unique features.” In essence, there is no universal standard at all, and countries are free to develop their own human rights protections based on their culture and traditions. This selective approach allows governments to apply international human rights standards as they see fit, which can veil China’s own human rights violations.

Furthermore, the Global Civilisation Initiative promotes collaboration between illiberal and authoritarian regimes, posing another threat to human rights. In distinguishing China from Western democracies, Xi emphasized China’s commitment to international fairness, justice, world peace, and stability. Chinese officials have used language such as “dialogue,” “cooperation,” and “common prosperity” to promote this strategy. The aim is to create a broad coalition of countries seeking an alternative to the Western-led international order, where interference in internal affairs is strictly prohibited. This network of like-minded regimes can shield China from scrutiny and criticism regarding human rights abuses while providing space for illiberal governments to pursue their goals and suppress political opponents without fear of condemnation.

The success of the Global Civilisation Initiative relies on buy-in from developing states. In a world where democracy and human rights are declining, and authoritarianism is on the rise, this support may readily be given, making China’s strategy a self-serving instrument for the projection of its power and influence.

By Editor

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