We have heard every excuse in the book from China for its dismal human rights record and for why other countries shouldn't criticize it. First among these is that criticism of China's human rights behavior is based on "Western" concepts and standards of human rights that are unfairly applied to China, which has a different culture and different traditions from the West. Another is that criticism of China's human rights behavior constitutes "interference in China's internal affairs." Still another is that China's critics, particularly the United States and other Western countries, have human rights problems of their own and therefore have no right to criticize China.
Finally, the excuse that "China is still a developing country" is often thrown in for good measure, even as China presumes "great power" status equal to the United States. Let's examine these one by one.
First, it isn't up to any country, "Western" or otherwise, to decide what our standards of human rights are or to whom they should be applied. We have international standards of human rights, enshrined in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, upon which most United Nations member states including China have agreed, and which apply to all. The UDHR is recognized as "the foundation of international human rights law."
China is not only a signatory to the UDHR, but also played an important role in writing it. Among the nine members of the UDHR's drafting committee in 1948 – which included Eleanor Roosevelt as U.S. representative and chairperson – was vice-chair Dr. Peng-Chun Chang (Zhang Pengchun), representing what was then the Republic of China. Chang is noted for his integration of Asian thought, including the teachings of Confucius, into the UDHR so that it would be truly universal. The People's Republic of China has since reiterated its endorsement of the UDHR on numerous occasions, including on the document's 60th anniversary in 2008, even as China has continued to grossly violate the fundamental human rights enshrined in the document.
Universal human rights enshrined in the UDHR include the right to freedom from slavery or involuntary servitude, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from torture or cruel treatment, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of assembly and association, the right to take part in government through free elections and universal suffrage, the right to privacy, the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, the right to form and to join trade unions, and the right to freedom of movement, including the right to freely leave and return to one's country. Many of these rights – including freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the right to vote and stand for office in free elections – are guaranteed also in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China.
These are universal and constitutional rights of which the Chinese government is in frequent and well-documented violation. As we know, freedom of expression is severely limited in China, despite being clearly enshrined in the UDHR and guaranteed in the Chinese constitution. Public expression is strictly censored by the Chinese government, and critics of the government are frequently imprisoned for the opinions they express.
Free elections and voting rights, likewise enshrined in the UDHR and guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, are non-existent in China. Religious freedom, also enshrined in both documents, is limited to state-sanctioned religious organizations. Just as the Chinese government ignores the UDHR, so it also ignores its own constitution.
The fact that the UDHR and other core international human rights instruments exist at all, and that most U.N. member states including China have endorsed them, means that these rights are not merely "Western" concepts but are universal. It also means that human rights are not an "internal affair" of any country, but are the world's business. When the government of any country violates the human rights of its citizens, it is the right and the duty of the international community to speak out against it. Criticism of China's human rights behavior, therefore, does not constitute "interference in China's internal affairs."
China's argument that its critics' own human rights violations invalidate any criticism of China stands on equally weak ground. While few if any countries in the world have a spotless human rights record, the United States and other frequent critics of China rate astronomically higher on any positive human rights scale than China. By any international measure, China is among the worst human rights violators in the world, particularly when compared to other major world powers. Even many developing countries have far better human rights records than China.
The excuse that "China is still a developing country" is therefore also not a valid excuse. "Developing country" status does not entitle the government of any country to abuse the fundamental human rights of its citizens. Moreover, China cannot claim "great power" status with one hand and "developing country" status with the other each time its human rights behavior is called into question. China cannot have it any which way it wants.
China has no excuses for its poor human rights behavior. If it wishes to be regarded as a responsible and respectable member of the international community, not to mention as a "great power," China needs to stop making excuses and start cleaning up its act.
Mark C. Eades is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association and an educator based in Shanghai. You can follow him on Twitter @mceades.