Geoffrey Roberts, May 1, 2020
Since Xi Jinping took control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, China has been steadily ramping up its propaganda efforts in a bid to reshape global norms and institutions. A key instrument of China’s propaganda apparatus is the China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS), a “Government-organised Non-governmental Organisation” (GONGO) with close ties to the CCP that works to undermine international human rights norms.
At first glance, CSHRS appears to function like a Western human rights NGO. It has a website (English, Chinese), publishes reports, and organises side events at the United Nations (UN), where it has official consultative status. A closer examination, however, tells a very different story.
Founded in 1993, CSHRS is a critical conduit of China’s foreign propaganda, and enjoys close links to the Chinese party-state. Its current Secretary General, Lu Guanjin, also serves as the Director of the Human Rights Bureau of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. Similarly, its Vice President, Li Junru, was previously the Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department’s Theoretical Studies Bureau, and the Deputy Director General of its Party History Research Office. Indeed, CSHRS has been described by Titus Chen, an Associate Professor at the National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, as the façade of Bureau No. 7 (Human Rights Bureau) of the State Council Information Office (SCIO), the CCP’s external propaganda division, and even shares the same office location and bureaucracy.
CSHRS operates in two main ways. First, it seeks to blunt scrutiny of China’s poor human rights record by highlighting the political shortcomings of Western democracies, above all the United States. The aim of this strategy is to demonstrate to other countries (and to the PRC citizenry via its Chinese language website) that China’s Western liberal critics often fail to live up to their own lofty human rights rhetoric and aligns with China’s broader goal of expanding its influence over global institutions.
In July 2019, for example, CSHRS published an article on its website lambasting the United States’ record on racial discrimination, and criticised the American government for failing to fulfil its human rights obligations in relation to non-discrimination and immigration. A few months later, CSHRS released another article, asserting that “money politics” had deprived American citizens of their basic rights, and exposed “the hypocrisy of US democracy.” The article was widely circulated by the CCP’s propaganda network, including Xinhua, the Beijing Review, and China Daily.
Another way that CSHRS attempts to deflect scrutiny from China’s rights abuses is by promoting Beijing’s purported compliance with international human rights standards. This tactic is especially evident in relation to China’s rights violations in Xinjiang, where over one million ethnic Uyghur Muslims have been detained in so-called political re-education camps.
At a series of side events during the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year, CSHRS heaped praise on China’s human rights record in Xinjiang. On 28 February, it organised an event titled “Progress of Human Rights in China”, where an array of Chinese academics cheered Beijing’s commitment to upholding ethnic education and language rights in Xinjiang.
A few days later, CSHRS partnered with the Chinese Mission to the UN to launch a grotesque photo exhibition called “Home: Glimpse of People from Various Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang”, which depicted the region as a place of stability, ethnic harmony, and economic prosperity. Speaking at the event, Chen Xu, China’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, proclaimed that the exhibition served “as a window on the reality in Xinjiang” where “the right of people from various ethnic groups to use their own spoken and written languages is protected.” Needless to say, the exhibition failed to include any images of Xinjiang’s vast network of Uyghur concentration camps.
On 4 March, CSHRS crowned its series of events with a seminar intended to reframe China’s policies in Xinjiang as part of the global struggle to defeat terrorism. There, a group of Chinese scholars and CCP functionaries urged the international community to cooperate to combat terrorism, and exhorted other countries to learn from “the Chinese experience” of defeating terrorism and radicalism in Xinjiang.
The second way that CSHRS operates is by promoting China’s normative vision of “human rights with Chinese characteristics.” This concept emphasises the right to economic development over individual civil and political rights, and calls for a relativistic approach to human rights based on different cultural, historical, and political contexts.
Since 2017, China has waged a major diplomatic campaign to incorporate this counter-norm into the official doctrine of the UN, thereby undermining the universal basis of the international human rights system. CSHRS has played a key role in this offensive by seeking to promote human rights with Chinese characteristics through side events and UN forums.
On 8 March 2017, for example, CSHRS co-sponsored a side event with the Chinese Mission to the UN titled “Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind: A New Approach to Global Human Rights Governance.” Attended by various Chinese scholars and CCP officials, the seminar was devoted to a discussion of the CCP’s interpretation of rights, and concluded with the relativist declaration that ideas of human rights cannot be divorced from their cultural contexts. Conspicuously absent from this debate were Chinese human rights activists and lawyers, who had not been invited to participate.
A few months later, CSHRS organised the “International Seminar on Human Rights and Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” a second side event with the Chinese Mission to the UN. Ma Zhaoxu, China’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, used the occasion to proclaim that “the international community should respect the diversity of civilisations” and allow different societies “to live side by side in harmony and learn from one another.” According to Ambassador Ma, achieving this vision called for the promotion of “economic development” since “development provided the basic conditions for realising various human rights.”
On 29 October 2019, CSHRS and the Chinese Mission to the UN held another side panel on the right to economic development, this time at UN headquarters in New York. With numerous Chinese and foreign diplomats attending, Zhang Jun, China’s envoy to the UN, asserted that the international community “should attach great importance to the right to development” which China regarded as the “primary human right.” According to Ambassador Zhang, the international community should respect other countries’ “different choices of development paths and human rights protections models.”
Under Xi Jinping, CSHRS has cemented its role as a key organ of China’s propaganda machine. No other GONGO has so ferociously attacked the CCP’s Western liberal critics, while lavishing praise on China’s human rights record, above all in Xinjiang. No other GONGO has been such a zealous proponent of China’s vision of human rights with Chinese characteristics. And no other GONGO has worked so tirelessly to undermine global human rights norms.
Geoffrey Roberts has an honours degree in Political Science from La Trobe University, Australia. He has written for Passblue, and the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
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