Time for the Big Two to rethink their China strategy

29 Nov 2017
Author: Robert Precht

The worsening human rights scene in China that culminated this week with a Chinese court sentencing a human rights activist from Taiwan to five years in prison for state subversion makes it a good time to evaluate the work of the two largest international human rights organizations: Amnesty International (Amnesty) and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Are their current strategies working?


The organizations have similar mission statements --  using research to reduce human rights harms. Amnesty’s is to “undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of these rights” and HRW’s is to “scrupulously investigate abuses, expose the facts widely, and pressure those with power to respect rights and secure justice.”


Judged by their missions statements, the actual performance of the two organizations is mixed.  Both should receive high marks for documenting human rights abuses through rigorous and impartial research.  For example, Amnesty International’s report China 2016/2017 is a thorough and unemotional account of the current situation in China that gains rhetorical force by its adherence to objectivity. Human Rights Watch produces a variety of reports on human rights topics in China, most recently a compelling account of conversion therapy against LGBT people in China. As documentarians, the organizations perform vital roles. Producing believable publicity about human rights abuses is the first step in galvanizing public opinion and those in power to take note that something is wrong, that people are being persecuted, that rights are being violated. Without credible data groups would be flailing in the dark, unable to identify victims and persecutors.

Scant evidence of effectiveness

The organizations have been less effective using their research to end abuses in China. Civil rights lawyers have been arrested and tortured in record numbers, censorship has increased, and the educational system subjected to new ideological controls. Amnesty and HRW are not responsible for the deterioration. However, there is little evidence that they have had any impact reducing abuses.

The lack of evidence of effectiveness should prompt Amnesty and HRW to rethink their China strategy in a deep way. To date both organizations have relied chiefly on top down approaches to enforcing human rights -- pressuring governments to pressure China to end human rights abuses. This approach has become obsolete for two reasons. First, the world has lost its sense of outrage. As Western trade with China has increased, the attacks on civil rights workers has become the new normal: shocking at first but something to which the international community has grown accustomed. In short, human rights violations are seen as the “cost of doing business” with China and there is little incentive to rock the boat.

Second, even if foreign governments could pressure China on human rights, they won’t. The Trump Administration and the European Union want China’s help with North Korea and won’t risk alienating China by levying serious sanctions over human rights.

Making the case that human rights are everyone's business

In light of this new reality, Amnesty and HRW must devise strategies that don’t depend on government diplomacy. One approach is to enlist the support of businesses according to the UN’s Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. Of course corporations will complain that they have no power to change Chinese government policy and risk being thrown out of the country if they criticize China. But this very complaint points to the failure of human rights organizations to make the case that human rights are everyone’s business.

One concrete step Amnesty and HRW could take is to engage in the kind of research that they’re so good at. The organizations should produce yearly reports about the human rights compliance records of international companies doing business in China, using the Guiding Principles as a benchmark. Are corporations conducting human rights due diligence before they enter into or renew contracts with Chinese government entities? Such reports could help companies think about their human rights obligations in the China context and give stockholders the tools they need to encourage company leaders to do the right thing.

Amnesty and HRW have been beacons of human rights for decades. Unfortunately, the strategies they developed for dealing with China are decades old too, devised long before the country became a dominant world power. There is an urgent need for new ones.