On February 22, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech at the 46th session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. It was the first time a Chinese government official had addressed the U.N.’s top human rights body – and the speech contained important clues about Beijing’s attempt to remake the very concept of human rights to better suit the Chinese Communist Party.
The CCP has been accused of large-scale human rights abuses since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. From the targeting of businesspeople and intellectuals in the early days of the PRC to the crackdown in Tibet in 1959 to the bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution, political persecution has been a hallmark of the CCP regime – with the 1989 military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square as perhaps the most famous example. Today, the biggest blot on Beijing’s human rights record is the ongoing campaign against Turkic Muslim groups, notably the native Uyghurs, in China’s Xinjiang region. That particular outrage, which includes mass detentions, forced labor, and constant surveillance, caused the United States to accuse China of outright genocide.
Wang’s speech on February 22 devoted a solid chunk to defending China’s policies toward Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where a new national security law took effect last year. But more broadly, his remarks sought to shift the definition of “human rights” to one more suited to the CCP’s strength, by focusing first and foremost on economic development and security.
Wang’s proposition of “people-centered” human rights posits “people’s sense of gains, happiness and security” as “the fundamental pursuit of human rights.” In this formulation, economic prosperity tops the list, the nebulous concept of “happiness” replaces more concrete markers like racial and gender equality or freedom of religion, and security its elevated to a human rights priority. Wang’s full enumeration of human rights includes the concepts of “Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom.” The order here – with peace and (economic) development at the top, and democracy and freedom at the bottom – is particularly notable. In this context, Wang held up China’s claim to have eradicated extreme poverty in 2020 as “a milestone in our human rights achievement.”
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