Notes of Experts Meeting on China and human rights

15 Dec 2017
Author: Robert Precht

Note: These are my notes of a recent meeting attended by dozens of China experts to discuss the deterioration of human rights in the country and what the West can do it about it. I have added some links and my own editorial comments.

Organized campaign 

There was widespread agreement that President Xi’s regime is not only curtailing the rights of own citizens at home, but is embarked on unprecedented campaign to challenge human rights in other countries. Pressuring academic publishers not to print research papers critical of Chinese policy, using LinkedIn and other social media to spy on and possibly recruit informants, seeking the loyalty from ethnic Chinese with foreign passports, smothering academic freedom on Western campuses by organizing Chinese student associations to cancel the appearances of certain speakers like the Dalai Lama and by denying visas to scholars who are critical of the regime. In Australia, there are signs that local politicians are receiving cash from Beijing -- Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced legislation to limit foreign interference in the country’s political life. As one of the experts in the meeting put it, “We are witnessing an organized assault on Western values.”

Co-option

While the idea of an assault is dramatic, I think it oversimplifies what’s happening. The erosion of human rights is not so much an assault as it is a steady process by which China has co-opted Western institutions to accept it’s authoritarian view of the world. The situation reminds me of a virus that silently but inexorably weakens the immune system. The weakened immune system in this case is the West’s unwillingness to defend its own values.

Complicity of Western business community

In my opinion, major Western human rights organizations -- Amnesty International, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch -- made a strategic error. They put all their eggs in one basket -- lobbying Western governments and the UN to insist that China adhere to human rights norms.  What they failed to anticipate was the incredible rush to China by American companies and universities. These businesses were and are more interested in doing deals with the Chinese Communist Party than upholding human rights. Reuters notes that corporate America is finding China to be a reliable source of profit growth this year. The business community does not want to end the party by bringing up human rights. The attacks on Western publishers and other efforts of censorship have gradually become the new normal for all of us: shocking the first time, but gradually something to which we will all grow accustomed.

Exhibit A: Apple and Facebook

Perhaps no better example of this co-opting process are the actions of Apple this year. Apple CEO Tim Cook used to be a vocal advocate for protecting the privacy of internet users. In a 2015 speech in the U.S. he said, “We believe that people have a fundamental right to privacy. The American people demand it, the constitution demands it, morality demands it.” Yet in July Apple aided Chinese censors by deleting VPNs from the China App Store that allows residents to access banned foreign websites privately.

The World Internet Conference was held in China last week and Tim Cook was asked to deliver a keynote address. In his speech Cook endorsed China’s vision of the internet:

“The theme of this conference -- developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits -- is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said. “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.” Chinese media welcomed Cook’s endorsement, with the Party-controlled Global Times declaring in a headline that “Consensus grows at the internet conference.” Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg has signaled to Beijing that he is ready to accept almost any compromise to get Facebook into the country. Not surprisingly, he is not defending human rights.

Solutions? 

There is no easy solution to the West’s abasement of its own ideals. Some experts at the meeting proposed useful ideas. One is concerted action. It may be too much to ask individual companies or universities to go out on a limb by criticizing China. Businesses should come together and create ethical guidelines for themselves. A start is for Western universities to develop a joint code of ethics. If visas are denied to a scholar of one school, then the association of all the schools would speak up. China can easily target one outspoken university; it’s much harder to target an association of universities.

Alas, the experts were pessimistic that businesses who see themselves as competitors will take concerted action. China’s undermining of Western values may be unstoppable. But one must recognize that the business community’s unwillingness to defend them is part of the problem.