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China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN

Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017


xi jinping UN Geneva

Xi Jinping in Geneva, January 2017. Photo: UN Geneva


In January 2017, after his success at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi Jinping traveled to Geneva to deliver a rare, invitation-only speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations. Most of the top UN officials were present, and Secretary- General António Guterres gave opening remarks that failed to include even a mention of human rights. Human Rights Watch described Xi’s reception in Geneva by UN officials as an “obsequious red carpet treatment,” and said the measures to protect Xi and ensure the event unfolded without disruptions were “highly unusual.” These measures included emptying the complex of many of the approximately 3,000 staff who work there, closing parking lots and meeting rooms, and prohibiting accredited nongovernmental organizations from attending. Only one of the gates to the sprawling Palais de Nations complex remained open, and there were reports of long lines for security checks. Moreover, junior staff at the UN were reportedly drafted to escort the 200 members of the Chinese delegation accompanying Xi. Police thwarted the efforts of a few Tibetan activists who tried to unfurl a Tibetan flag.

Xi’s high-profile speech in Geneva, titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” echoed some of the themes of his well-received Davos speech –– positioning China, and Xi himself, as the vacuum-filling leader of a globalized, interdependent and interconnected world. In his wide-ranging speech, Xi rejected trade protectionism and isolationism, and called for countries to cooperate on trade, climate change, nuclear disarmament, terrorism, global health issues, and other cross-border issues, while respecting the sovereign equality of all nations.

The notion of  “building a community of shared future for all humankind” (goujian renlei mingyun gongtongti) has appeared repeatedly in Xi’s speeches in international fora during the past five years, since, according to Xinhua, the concept was first advanced at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. It appears to be an official catchphrase for China’s growing leadership role in global governance. In terms of human rights, the contours of a “community of shared future” are fairly clear. Beneath the lofty and vague rhetoric, China’s position on human rights is consistent with its longstanding approach and policies, but Xi’s speech in Geneva and other official Chinese statements seek to frame the Chinese view as a new approach to global human rights governance, with China at the helm.

The bedrock principle for China is sovereign equality and non-interference. In his speech, Xi stated:

Sovereign equality is the most important norm governing state-to-state relations over the past centuries and the cardinal principle observed by the United Nations and all other international organizations. The essence of sovereign equality is that the sovereignty and dignity of all countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected, their internal affairs allow no interference and they have the right to independently choose their social system and development path.  

Other points in Xi’s speech relating to human rights, which Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu, the head of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, has echoed in his statements and activities at the Human Rights Council throughout 2017, include the following:

  • Use dialogue, consultation and cooperation to deal with differences
  • Reject double standards in the application of international law
  • Promote “openness and inclusiveness” and “reject dominance by just one or several countries”
  • Major powers should “build a new model of relations featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”
  • China puts “people’s rights and interests above everything else” and its accomplishment in lifting “over 700 million people out of poverty” is a “significant contribution to the global cause of human rights”
  • China “is ready to work with all the other UN members states as well as international organizations and agencies to advance the great cause of building a community of shared future for mankind.”

The Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva has vigorously promoted China’s views on human rights in the Human Rights Council this year through resolutions, statements and side events under the rubric of “a community of shared future” –– an indication that China is taking more concrete and assertive steps to position itself as a leader in the Human Rights Council.

Despite the fact that the UN human rights framework is grounded on the principle of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, China nonetheless is pushing its version of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” which prioritizes the right to development and economic rights over individual civil and political rights, and insists on a relativistic approach to human rights based on each country’s unique history, culture, values, and political system.

China’s slogan, “building a community of shared future,” made its way into two resolutions that were adopted during the Human Rights Council’s 34th session (HCR34) in March 2017:  a resolution on the “Question of the realization in all countries of economic social and cultural rights” (A/HRC/34/L.4/Rev.1) and a resolution on “The right to food” (A/HRC/34/L.21).  Human Rights Council resolutions are not legally binding, rather they are the political expression of the views of the HRC members (or a majority) and generally “are a means of gauging the international community’s level of political commitment and degree of willingness to discuss a specific question regarding human rights or related fields.” States may table HRC resolutions as a step in the process of establishing a new thematic issue in the HRC.

In an official statement on the website of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, the Chinese government overstates the significance of the inclusion of its “community of shared future” slogan in the resolutions adopted during HRC34. In both the resolutions, the phrase appears in one of many preambular (i.e., introductory, not operative) clauses, tucked among other aspirational language.  The official Chinese statement proclaims, however: “This is the first time that the concept of ‘community of shared future for human beings’ is incorporated into the Human Rights Council resolutions, officially making it an important part of the international human rights discourse.” The PRC statement goes on to claim that the adoption of this concept “demonstrates China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”

On March 1 during HRC34, Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu delivered a joint statement on behalf of a group of 140 countries titled “Promote and Protect Human Rights and Build a Community of Shared Future for Human Beings.” The statement summarized several key points from Xi’s January speech, including: sovereign equality must be respected; human rights should be promoted and protected through dialogue and cooperation and not politicized; and countries should aim for win-win cooperation and outcomes.

On March 8, the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva and the Chinese “government-organized NGO” (GONGO) China Society for Human Rights Studies cosponsored a side event titled “Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind: A New Approach to Global Human Rights Governance,” during which, according to a Xinhua report, Chinese human rights experts from universities and research centers “elaborated the idea of a community of shared future for mankind in the context of human rights governance, saying interpretation of human rights ideas cannot be taken out of their cultural contexts.”  Needless to say no Chinese human rights lawyers or activists participated in the side event.

During the June session of the Human Rights Council (HRC35), China again organized a side event on “building a community of shared future,” and again delivered a joint statement on behalf of more than 140 countries, titled “Joining Hands to Reduce Poverty, Promote and Protect Human Rights.” At the side event titled “International Seminar on Human Rights and Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” Ma Zhaoxu stated that peace and development were the prerequisites for human rights, and “development provides the basic conditions for realizing various human rights.”  Such statements from China­­ ­­––that development is a prerequisite for human rights ––undermines the consensus language in numerous UN resolutions and declarations China has agreed to, for example, text in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) (1993) that provides:

Paragraph 5. All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.


Paragraph 8 (in relevant part). Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. In the context of the above, the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels should be universal and conducted without conditions attached.


Paragraph 10 (in relevant part). The World Conference on Human Rights reaffirms the right to development, as established in the Declaration on the Right to Development, as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights.

As stated in the Declaration on the Right to Development, the human person is the central subject of development.

While development facilitates the enjoyment of all human rights, the lack of development may not be invoked to justify the abridgement of internationally recognized human rights.


China’s activities in Geneva and the Human Rights Council during the first half of the year set the stage for its major initiative in the HRC in 2017. In June, at HRC35, China sponsored a resolution titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights.” At first glance, the resolution seems unproblematic, but upon closer scrutiny, and in light of the explanation given by the United States for why it voted against the resolution, it appears that by tweaking certain language, China effectively privileged the right to development over other rights and attempted to dilute certain human rights norms. The U.S. described China’s resolution as “attempting to reframe the relationship between development and human rights in a way that deviates from consensus texts adopted by UN Member States.” The United States called for a vote on the resolution (most resolutions are adopted without a vote), and China’s resolution was adopted by a vote of 30 to 13, with 3 abstentions.[1] With the resolution’s adoption, the Council requested the Advisory Committee of the HRC to operationalize paragraph 6 and “conduct a study on the ways in which development contributes to the enjoyment of all human rights by all, in particular on best experiences and practices, and to submit the report to the Human Rights Council before its forty-first session.” China will undoubtedly figure prominently in this study, which may serve to advance its “development first” agenda at the Council.

In an article published by China Society for Human Rights Studies after the resolution was adopted, a professor at Peking University wrote: “At present, China has put forward the idea of creating a community of shared future for all mankind, which means that China will participate in global human rights governance more actively and will play a more important role in it.” In June 2017, the People’s Daily, reporting on a conference convened in Tianjin on the theory of building a shared future and global human rights governance, wrote that the concept “had become an important topic in the global human rights discourse.”

The People’s Daily extolled the adoption of the resolution in Geneva, describing the resolution expansively in an editorial as a recognition of the concept “development promotes human rights”:

“The introduction of the concept of ‘development promoting human rights’ into the international human rights system for the first time marked a major shift in the global human rights discourse and is a huge victory for developing countries… The adoption of the resolution also symbolizes the elevation of developing countries’ right to speak on human rights… and will promote greater justice and rationality in the international human rights system.

The editorial also stated that “for a long time Western governments have monopolized the international human rights agenda and discourse, and that some people in the West often use human rights as a pretense to export their values, even to the extent of using them as an excuse to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.”

An article in Study Times (学习时报) praised the resolution, also stating that it was the first time the concept “development promotes human rights” entered into the international human rights system, which followed China’s major concept “building a community of shared future for humanity” being written into a UN Security Council resolution–– both instances of China contributing its proposals to global human rights governance.

The People’s Daily editorial and other Chinese media reports proclaimed that the Western “monopoly” on human rights governance is over, and that China will now firmly take the lead on behalf of the developing world.

What this means, in short, is that China will continue to promote, and attempt to expand, the importance of the right to development and economic rights, while at the same time endeavoring to curtail and weaken the enforcement of civil and political rights. The UN and its member states, including China, have in various UN instruments, however, recognized that both sets of rights – civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, are universal, interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and must be treated on the same footing and with the same emphasis.

The significance of China’s resolution, which is more rhetoric than substance, can best be understood by examining the explanation the U.S. gave for why it voted against the resolution. The U.S. stated in its explanation that it rejects “any suggestion that development goals could permit countries to deviate from their human rights obligations and commitments.” It further provides specific examples of how China selectively took text from various UN instruments, including the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), to misrepresent the relationship between human rights and development. The statement also suggests a contentious negotiation process with China over the language of the resolution. The U.S. stated:

[W]e regret that the resolution draws from these instruments in a selective and imbalanced way that often omits key language that fully explains the relationship between human rights and development, or changes consensus language to materially alter its meaning.  We and others have negotiated in good faith to restore this carefully negotiated balance in this resolution.  The sponsors made only minimal changes to address these concerns and the changes fall far short of achieving balance. As one example of many, preambular paragraph 5 draws from VDPA paragraph 8, but omits the crucial term “democracy,” and unhelpfully changes “respect for human rights,” to “realization of human rights.”…. These and other distortions of consensus language reinforce the incorrect message that development is a prerequisite for states fulfilling their human rights obligations – a message that is clearly inconsistent with states’ commitments reflected in the VDPA.

Germany, which also voted against China’s resolution, delivered a statement on behalf of the EU, stating that human rights and development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, but China’s resolution positioned development above human rights. The German representative said that the EU believed that the path of development must accord with all human rights, and that development has two main pillars: one is human rights, democracy, rule of law and good governance, and the other is sustainable development. Moreover, paragraph 10 of the VDPA emphasizes that sustainable development cannot be realized in a situation in which human rights are not respected and protected. The German diplomat also noted that China had selectively used text from various international human rights instruments and distorted the relationship between human rights and development, creating a hierarchy in which development was placed above human rights. Accordingly, the German diplomat stated, the EU could not support the proposed resolution.

After China’s resolution was adopted, the Geneva-based NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) urged the international community and Chinese civil society to pay close attention to the lobbying of the Chinese government on the international human rights platform, and to be on guard against the Chinese government’s efforts to replace UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”

As readers of China Change are well aware, Xi Jinping’s “community of shared future for all human beings” excludes many of China’s own citizens. Those human beings left out of Xi’s “shared future” include Chinese human rights defenders and lawyers, democracy and civil society activists, Tibetans, Uyghurs, petitioners, Falun Gong believers, Christians, Buddhists, petitioners –– the list goes on.  Xi’s highly choreographed, invite-only, no-civil society-allowed speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations in January was a stark example both of the lack of inclusiveness in his “shared future,” and the tolerance for China’s human rights record at the UN.

Governments and civil society actors will have an important opportunity to address China’s efforts to replace settled UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics”’ standards, along with a multitude of other human rights issues, when China undergoes its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the fall of 2018. China will likely use its next UPR as a platform to bolster its leadership role in the HRC. Many of China’s supporters or those beholden to it will undoubtedly praise China’s June 2017 resolution on development and extol the wisdom of “building a community of shared future for humankind.” The deadline for civil society reports is March 2018, and China’s national report is due by the end of July 2018. Governments are also supposed to consult with domestic civil society groups and other stakeholders in the drafting of their national report. Cao Shunli died because of her efforts to participate in the formulation of China’s national report for its second UPR in October 2013. To honor her memory and struggle, the US and other like-minded national governments and international NGOs should actively support Chinese civil society efforts to participate in the UPR process.


[1] The 13 countries that voted against the resolution, in addition to the U.S. were Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, U.K., Germany, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, Albania, Belgium, and Croatia. The 3 abstentions were Korea, Georgia, and Panama.



Andrea Worden croppedAndrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others. 




The Cost of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, September, 2017.

China accuses U.N. rights envoy of ‘meddling’ in its judiciary, Reuters, June 8, 2017.

U.N. rights envoy says Chinese authorities interfered with his work, Reuters, August 23, 2016





Mr. Secretary General, No Need to Act So Shocked

By Chang Ping, published: October 18, 2015

Everyone’s already used to it, and that’s precisely the problem.”


Now the United Nations has its own, China-style “big tiger.” The former head of the UN General Assembly, John Ashe, is being charged with taking bribes from numerous Chinese business interests, and was arrested near New York City recently. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his shock, requesting the UN’s internal supervisory agency to begin its own procedures. Corruption in any form at the UN, or in the name of the UN, would not be tolerated, he said.

How close this script is to the anti-corruption campaign going on in China. When Xi Jinping expresses surprise at the severity of the corruption at high levels of the regime, Chinese people all know that it’s part of the act—Xi understands officialdom like the back of his hand. I’m sure that Ban Ki-moon is not in quite the same position, but I must still say: Mr. Ban Ki-moon, if you really understood China’s ubiquitous culture of corruption; if you understood how China’s influence on every aspect of the world is increasing; and if you understood the attitude that the UN you lead has toward China, you really wouldn’t be so surprised.

John Ashe received bribes from the Chinese real estate developer Wu Lisheng (吴立胜) to the order of $1.3 million. This money allowed him to push forward a UN project to build a conference center in Macau—with Wu Lisheng’s company as the contractor. Let’s take note of the details surrounding the case exposed by U.S. attorney Preet Bharara: “As alleged in the indictment, for Rolexes, bespoke suits, and a private basketball court, John Ashe, the 68th President of the U.N. General Assembly, sold himself and the global institution he led.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was corruption. Just like officialdom in China, it accumulated bit by bit, with gold watches, fine suits, and nights of entertainment.

A Habitat for ‘Tigers’

A few years ago a reporter with The Washington Post told me that in America, one can’t accept a meal from a source being interviewed. I said: What about China? He said that if you tried to stick to this principle in China, you’d lose a lot of sources. I have some foreign journalist friends in China, but I’m too embarrassed to broach this kind of subject with them. It would be as laughable as living in a garbage dump and talking to people about not littering.

A German friend told me that when Chinese and German companies do business together, the Chinese side always demands that the Germans travel to the airport to pick them up, especially when a company leader is coming. The demand is the same even if the airport is several cities and many hours drive away. The Germans are always perplexed. Moreover, the Chinese are only willing to get down to business over a meal. Consulting companies explain it away as Chinese culture—if you want to do business, then fit in.

But picking up company heads from the airport isn’t merely a matter of etiquette; it reinforces the Communist Party’s official culture of hierarchy. In China, restaurants and bars aren’t just places for eating and drinking. In a recent article in ChinaFile, the Beijing-based American writer James Palmer gave a detailed description of the sexual and monetary favors and bribes exchanged in the course of doing business in China. Palmer called the system “The Bro Code,” and it started at the dining table.

A senior journalist at the Hamburg Evening News told me that they’ve received letters from the Chinese consulate on a number of occasions, attempting to interfere in the paper’s reporting. He said that the editorial department usually just ignores them—dictatorships like to interfere in freedom of the press; so the press gets used to it. I responded: If a department of the German government sent you one of these letters, would you also just brush it aside? He admitted that this would indeed be a major scandal, and that the media would lodge a serious protest. Everyone knows that one of the reasons the former German president, Christian Wilhelm Walter Wulff, resigned was because he had made a menacing phone call to the chief editor of Bild-Zeitung, thus interfering in the freedom of the press. Evidently the media in Western countries hold a double standard: on the one hand, they demand that their own democratic governments be upright in all respects, and on the other allow dictatorships to act as they please. Everyone’s already used to it, and that’s precisely the problem.

The Chinese government has been successful in convincing many Chinese people that entertainment and politics can be separated. At a hearing in the U.S. Congress on October 7, Rep. Brad Sherman remarked that China’s control of freedom of expression has already exceeded its national borders, and that Hollywood is now catering to Chinese censors’ tastes.

I speak of these anecdotes, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, because I’m sure you already know that when Xi Jinping goes visiting, even countries like France, the cradle of our modern conceptions of human rights, can be made to shut their mouths and not say a word about human rights and other contentious issues. I just want to let you know, prior to the recent shocking news, the sort of relationship China has had with countries around the world.

Appeasement and Corruption Go Together

Let’s now look at the case of the United Nations. In May this year, I was at an international human rights forum in São Paulo, Brazil. I heard the presentation of an international human rights group supported by the UN that had conducted an investigation of the American military’s abuse of prisoners in custody in Afghanistan. I asked them: why don’t you also go and investigate the even worse abuses in the Masanjia Women’s Labor Camp in China? The response: “China’s hard to deal with.”

I believe that this is also the attitude of the UN. The UN is right to publicly condemn the abuses of the American military; but Mr. Ban Ki-moon, do you really not know about the “black jails” all over China that regularly deal out more inhuman brutality? Why don’t they warrant a mention from you?

Mr. Ban Ki-moon, a couple of weeks ago Xi Jinping was in New York with you speaking at the UN Women conference. But you must surely know that the Chinese police, on the eve of International Women’s Day in March, arrested the “Feminist Five” who had planned to protest against sexual harassment on public transportation. They’re still not free. You must also know that Gao Yu, a journalist and the recipient of UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, human rights activist Liu Ping, rights lawyer Wang Yu, and many other women have been locked up by the Chinese government. You must also know the case of rights activist Ms. Cao Shunli, who was arrested in September 2013 en route to attend a meeting of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council. By March of 2014 she died of abuse in custody.  

When UN Women says not a word of protest about these incidents, how different is it from the All-China Women’s Federation controlled by the Communist Party? Mr. Ban Ki-moon, when Xi Jinping held a grand military parade on September 3, you accepted the invitation and appeared on the rostrum above Tiananmen Square to observe it. Did you really not see how it resembled nothing other than the military parades held by Nazi Germany 70 years ago? Even Hitler didn’t shut down factory production and seal off the ovens of peasants to engineer “military parade blue” skies.

Mr. Ban Ki-moon, you probably think that these political choices all differ from the question of accepting bribes. But let me tell you, all this is itself a type of corruption, and doesn’t conform to the core values of the United Nations. The Chinese government, just like the real estate developers it works so closely with, believe that everything can be solved with money. Go and ask Mr. Ashe, and he’ll likely say that this is how the corruption started: “I was respecting the customs of the Chinese people.” Playing a round of tennis, accepting a watch…

Even though Xi Jinping can’t live up to it himself, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, I’d like to give you these words to remember: fighting corruption means “going after flies and tigers at the same time.” With all the misconduct around you, you oughtn’t be surprised by the revelation of “big tigers.”


长平_DWChang Ping (长平) was the  former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》).  He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.


原文《长平观察:潘基文先生,您不必如此震惊》, translated by China Change. 


Is China’s Political Power Enough to Make it a Superpower?

Yesterday we looked at how China’s growing GDP was putting it a step closer to being a superpower, but also that GDP alone is not enough. Today we will be continuing our look at China’s growing role in the world, and what that means for the rest of us.

Political Power

China’s political power is growing even faster than it’s GDP. Through generous aid programs to much of the developing world, China has secured itself as the figurehead of this rather large group of nations. As I mentioned yesterday, being able to project these kinds of powers are a crucial part of the definition of a superpower.

It surprised many during the climate change debates that China (and others) had effectively organized themselves to avoid carbon emission limits in their countries. Even though most of these countries will be the first to experience the effects of climate change (I’m looking at you South Pacific island nations), they have elected the world’s biggest polluter as their spokesperson.

So how is it that China has managed to create such a coalition?

For starters, many of the countries that rally behind China are not democracies. China’s version of international affairs holds firmly to the idea of minding one’s own business. China will ignore your genocide, if you are willing to say that Taiwan is a part of China, Tibet should never separate, and stay out of our human rights issues (not that China admits it has any). These policies have helped China to make enough allies to help push their issues through at the UN and in dozens of other forums and meetings.

Unfortunately for the West, democracies and dictatorships count as equals in international summits.  In fact being the antagonist of the West seems to be a position that China has grown quite fond of lately. The stances that make China so popular with many dictatorships, are the same stances that many of the people in those countries and others despise.

Other countries have been enticed through generous loans and aid and, perhaps most importantly, access to China’s massive domestic market. The stability offered by China’s gov’t makes it one of the few developing countries safe enough to invest in (that is in comparison to places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cameroon).

Perhaps most importantly, China has taken the role of the opposition party. In most international issues China is simply against what the West wants, but offers no solution of it’s own.

This has been most apparent in the recent Libyan civil war. China allowed the UN to pass the resolution that permitted foreign involvement in the country (China says this was only out of respect for the African Union), but has bashed NATO for it’s actions since the first day. China has only offered the suggestions 1) give peace a chance, and 2) we should stay out of Libya’s internal affairs. Neither of these show any kind of leadership.

China clearly possesses the political power it needs to be consider a superpower, but still lacks the ability/will to use that power to be a global leader.

China’s GDP doesn’t mean what you think it does

Today’s post is a crash course in economics (for people who don’t like economics). The truth is that we get a lot of numbers thrown around in the media about China, but I don’t think they are as meaningful as CNN or Fox news want you to think.

Let’s get one thing clear straight out of the gate, China is obsessed with GDP. You can’t go more than a few days without seeing it as some headline on People’s Daily, and I was on the look out for parades or fireworks the day China passed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.

Virtually any govt. promotion relies on improving GDP and little else.

So what exactly is GDP?

I know it’s a figure we see all the time in the media, but I think GDP might be misunderstood.

First of all, lot’s of stuff goes into GDP figures like: wages, investments, construction, sales, government spending…pretty much any time money changes hands it counts for GDP.

For example if Toyota built a car in China, the profits that ultimately head back to Japan, would be counted in China’s GDP, even though those profits don’t improve Chinese people’s standard of living.

Or if landslides and flooding destroy hundreds of homes, rebuilding them every month would still count as GDP.

Even if you just paid people to sit quietly, it could be counted as GDP.

So ultimately GDP isn’t a very useful number if you want to determine the quality of life in a country.

There are actually a lot of things that limit GDP that could be considered good things too, like not working on a weekend, having subsidized health care, taking long vacations, or not cutting down a forest. (If you are really committed to reading economics stuff, Mismeasuring Our Lives: Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up (Kindle) has some really interesting points, but is not an exciting read)

Does China’s GDP mean that it’s now a developed country?

Like I said earlier, GDP even counts money that is leaving the country, GNI (Gross National income) however does not.  When we look at China’s GNI spread out over it’s 1.3 billion people, China ranks 109th (just behind Tunisia).

A better measure of development, that looks at more than just money, is the HDI (Human Development Index). This measure balances life expectancy, years of education, and average income. According to the United Nations, China ranks 89th by HDI, again just behind Tunisia.

China is improving at an impressive rate on this scale, but by this measure is a full 30 years behind the US.

I hope this makes it clear as to why China still claims to be a developing country, because by most measures, it is.

Tomorrow I’ll be trying to answer the big question – Does China’s GDP mean that Communism works?