China and International 'Human Rights Diplomacy'

By Zhu, Yuchao | China: An International Journal, September 2011 | Go to article overview
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China and International 'Human Rights Diplomacy'


Zhu, Yuchao, China: An International Journal


After 1978, China abandoned Mao Zedong's revolutionary rhetoric and isolationist policies in favour of Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic foreign policy reform. As a result, especially since the 1990s with the end of the Cold War and intensified globalisation, China has embarked on a new route of economic cooperation and political opening-up, and has actively participated in global economic, security and normative institutions, albeit with different goals and priorities. Beijing's increasing international influence and growing ability to project its power within the international arena are clear signs of China's advancement in achieving a global power status. In a number of specific foreign policy goals, such as security of the state and regime, greater national wealth and elevating China's power position, China's accomplishments have been impressive. However, in one area, China's status seems unimproved, or at least has not improved as much as it has in other areas--its human rights record. In fact, China's human rights problem appears to be Beijing's Achilles' heel in its foreign policy. This is largely because entering this century, human rights has become a major issue in global politics and "human rights diplomacy" and become a main manifestation of international discourse. (1) As a rising global power which retains a communist regime, China's human rights situation has continued to receive international scrutiny and criticism. The international human rights community has intensified its efforts through established or new diplomatic means to press China on human rights improvements. In response, the Chinese government must integrate human rights into its main foreign policy framework.

This article analyses China's foreign policy in international human rights. The intent is to make sense of China's behaviour in human rights diplomacy and its engagement with the pertinent international institutions. The article is divided into three parts. The first puts human rights diplomacy in perspective, focussing on China's general human rights stance and the viable explanations of China's participation in the international human rights regime. The second specifically examines China's multi-tier strategy in its engagement in human rights diplomacy. The third assesses the meanings, results and implications of China's applicable policies in international human rights diplomacy.

China's Human Rights Diplomacy in Perspective

The international disputes surrounding China's human rights are mainly manifested through the clash between China and the Western-dominant international human rights regime. The fault line seems clear but is also evolving, though the division remains deep. For example, there have been strong criticisms about China's human rights record, especially of its infringement upon political and civil rights and the lack of freedom. (2) But there have also been China's counter-spin and bragging about its human rights achievements, particularly in the areas of economic and social rights. (3)

The two central pillars of China's human rights theory are the sovereignty principle and the right to development. But the real annoyance for China is that Beijing simply cannot evade this issue, especially within the current multilateral international human rights regime. (4) The fundamental fact is that China is determined to join the international society and in so doing, it must prepare itself to accept prevailing norms in the international society. (5) For one thing, respect for human rights is an essential normative discourse in today's world and has an international legitimacy which China cannot disregard. While the avenues through which China participates in international affairs vary, it prioritises its engagement in different institutions according to its perceived interest and needs. For example, the international economic regime is pivotal for China's economic development; thus, China has promoted its involvement in economic regimes enthusiastically, as exemplified by its successful effort to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and its increasingly active role in the G20, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

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