Human Rights Watch cautioned in a report on Tuesday that China is using its growing economic muscle to silence critics at home and increasingly abroad through foreign investment, international organizations and treaties.
The New York based-organization’s 335-page annual review of human rights worldwide grabbed headlines after its executive director, Kenneth Roth, was denied entry to Hong Kong where he planned to release it. He said on Twitter that “authorities just turned me away at the Hong Kong airport so I wouldn’t hold a Human Rights Watch press conference about Beijing’s assault on human rights.”
Instead, he went to United Nations headquarters in New York to talk to journalists about the report on more than 90 nations and territories. Roth said on HRW’s website the ruling Chinese Communist Party, “worried that permitting political freedom would jeopardize its grasp on power, has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism.”
Roth said China “uses its growing economic clout to silence critics and to carry out the most intense attack on the global system for enforcing human rights since that system began to emerge in the mid-20th century.” Referencing the detention of 1 million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, he said no other government does that while “attacking anyone who dares to challenge its repression.”
“And while other governments commit serious human rights violations,” he said in an introductory essay, “no other government flexes its political muscles with such vigor and determination to undermine the international human rights standards and institutions that could hold it to account.”
Asked about the world body’s stance towards Roth’s exclusion from Hong Kong, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at a daily press briefing in U.N. headquarters that “as a matter of principle, we support the right and the work of human rights defenders throughout the world.”
China’s U.N. mission in New York strongly denounced HRW’s report.
“The report, politicizing the human rights issue, disregarding the truth and facts and using huge amount of unverified and fake information, makes groundless accusation [sic] on human rights situation of various countries, including China,” the mission said in a statement. “The report is full of prejudice and double standards. China totally opposes and rejects it.”
The Chinese government has “provided enough food and clothing to nearly 1.4 billion people and lifted 850 million people out of poverty,” the mission said. “China has made real progress in human rights and made the right choice in committing to a path and direction on human rights development in light of its national conditions.”
It added that the decision to deny Roth entry to Hong Kong was “within China’s sovereignty to allow entry or not. Ample facts and evidence show that NGOs like HRW support through various means anti-China forces that create troubles in Hong Kong.”
The Chinese government has long suppressed human rights at home. Now it is trying to suppress global efforts to defend human rights. The rights of everyone, and our future, are at stake. That's the theme of this years's @HRW World Report. https://t.co/9ahp2wVt2h pic.twitter.com/KPybJyg0mY
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) January 14, 2020
‘Twisting arms’ in international forums
Roth said China under President Xi Jinping “has made technology central to its repression” while also “methodically building a network of cheerleader [nations] that depend on its aid or business.”
“The Chinese government adopts international human rights treaties but then tries to reinterpret them or to undermine their enforcement,” he said of HRW’s findings, and it “does not think twice about twisting arms to protect its image in international forums” against foreign pressure to do something about its human rights problems.
Traditional defenders of human rights, such as the United States and European Union, have fallen short, Roth said. U.S. President Donald Trump “has been more interested in embracing friendly autocrats than defending the human rights standards that they flout,” he said, while the European Union, “diverted by Brexit, obstructed by nationalist member states, and divided over migration, has found it difficult to adopt a strong common voice on human rights.”
In July, the U.N. Human Rights Council issued a rare rebuke of China when 22 nations from the Asian Pacific region, Europe and North America delivered the first international condemnation of Beijing’s crackdown on the more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. Roth criticized the Trump administration for withdrawing from the council and allowing China to hold more sway.
The condemnation from the Geneva-based council of 47 nations was delivered as a collective letter to the president of the council from Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan and New Zealand, along with 17 European nations, mostly from the E.U. In the letter, the nations urged China to cease detention of Muslim Uighurs in detention centers.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded at a daily news briefing in Beijing that the crackdown was required for national security, and that nations criticizing China were interfering with its sovereignty.
Roth expressed disappointment that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, representing 57 mostly Muslim-majority nations, did not issue a similar condemnation. OIC members Turkey and Albania have supported the call for an independent U.N. assessment in Xinjiang.
“OIC members and other states disinclined to challenge Beijing also participated in the propaganda tours of Xinjiang that the Chinese government organized to address criticism of its detention of Muslims,” said Roth. “The point of these show tours was not to be convincing; it was to give governments an excuse not to criticize Beijing. They were a fig leaf to hide behind, an alibi for indifference.”