The human rights situation in Asia has been in a steep decline over the last few years, from Myanmar’s attacks against students and the civilian population, China’s offensive against civilian and religious communities in Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong, to longer-term concerns in North Korea, Laos, and several other countries. Recently, China has received a lot of attention in the media and in policy discussions, with a focus on the re-education camps and the deculturation of the Muslim communities in Xinjiang, the crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and the plan to nominate its own Dalai Lama in an effort to delegitimize the exiled Tibetan government. This is, of course, something that the Chinese government has vigorously denied and referred to as China’s own domestic affairs.
China has also claimed there is "Western" hypocrisy regarding human rights and that the latter is a tool used by the "West" rather than a serious concern of people's rights. Beijing has been citing and projecting online campaigns of human rights violations in the West — such as Australian soldiers’ human rights violations in Afghanistan and the George Floyd protests in the US — as equal or even worse than the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet. There is no doubt that these incidents involving the US, Australia, or other Western countries have been severe. Still, China’s intent seems to aim to deflect attention away from Chinese human rights abuses rather than a genuine concern for human rights overall. Moreover, the US’ and Australia’s human rights failures have been scrutinized in a very transparent way by national and international media, political opposition, and foreign governments alike. All actors, including China, have the right to (and indeed should) hold other countries accountable over threats to human rights in any place globally and accept being investigated.
Another issue is whether the US and other countries have also utilized the human rights abuses in China as a policy tool. It would be naive to assume that the emerging campaigns would only be for the sake of human rights alone without a political edge. The US reaction to Chinese human rights abuses must be seen in light of Chinese attacks against the American and European political systems, exaggeration of the real shortcomings in handling the Covid-19 pandemic, and politicization of the pandemic and rising great power tension. That said, have human rights issues been sufficiently raised, and have some states refrained from criticizing China for economic and political reasons? Arguably, there is not enough criticism and long-term commitment from governments to deal with even the more modest concerns that the human rights organizations in Asia have pointed to.
Criticism of China's human rights abuses has been both highlighted and downplayed for political reasons, but especially for economic reasons. In times of acceptable — or even good — relations with China, there has been a reluctance to overly criticize China, even if strong wording, yet no concrete actions, have been used. The US has taken a more assertive position regarding the human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang than it has before, mixing universal human rights with foreign policy, and it has crafted and enforced a more concrete and impactful policy. The challenge is that the US seems to stand alone in its commitment and willingness to do more. Europe has criticized China but has been less willing to do something substantial, and human rights seem to weigh lightly against economic profit. President Biden (D), and his predecessor, President Trump (R), have had a hard time convincing US allies and friends in Asia to criticize and implement a policy against China for its human rights abuses. Both Tokyo and Seoul have had other concerns, most notably a dependence on Chinese imports and investments. Much like in Europe, the economic factor seems to hinder increased support for US actions and human rights in practice. China appears to be very successful in co-opting regional and international governments due to its growing trade influence and control over global supply chains, especially in critical sectors such as medicine and rare earth metals. Australia is a good point in case. Beijing harshly punished Australia economically for raising the question of an independent investigation into the Covid pandemic. Due to its economic dependency on China, Australia had to suffer severe economic damage, and eventually caved in, though it did not officially do so because of Chinese pressure.
The challenge is even more pronounced in other Asian countries. A combination of factors, including economic dependence, has made even the most prominent human rights defenders hesitant to take action, such as Japan and South Korea. More generally, there has been a disturbing turn back to authoritarianism in many parts of Asia, such as Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia, to mention a few. In particular, there are issues of human rights violations in several of the states that the US would like to see stand up to China, such as the Philippines, India, Nepal, and Vietnam. This has made these governments reluctant to stand up for human rights. In the backwater of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a disturbing trend of increasing lack of free speech, tighter control of human rights workers, as well as women's and minority rights, often in the name of national security.
With this being said, the biggest question is not about states, but about consumers. States act as states do; they maximize their interest and position. Still, consumers, if they were genuinely concerned about human rights abuses in China, could both influence politics and companies to act with their votes and consumption patterns, respectively. That said, consumers tend to defend human rights in words, but not over cheap make-up, phones, clothes, or electronics. Human rights, unfortunately, weigh light among consumers, and without clear direction from voters, states can only act accordingly.
Unfortunately, very similar to states’ actions, and maybe this is the disturbing reality, cheap products and potential economic profit weighs heavier than individual human rights. As such, the combination of the protection of human rights and foreign policy is acceptable — albeit not desirable — as the alternative seems to be a silent acceptance of current human rights abuses. The reality is that the Chinese have successfully maneuvered themselves in a situation where certain states, companies, and even consumers have accepted the ongoing human rights abuses because of their perceived or real dependency on China. Until the dependency on the Chinese economy and supply chains isn’t decreased, it is unlikely that governments and companies will speak out in fear of economic retaliation. It is therefore unlikely that an effective policy will be coordinated between the US and its allies and friends due to China’s increased economic power, unless there is a consumer/voter awareness that applies pressure on companies and governments.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.