For the first time in history, a Chinese Foreign Minister addressed the UN Human Rights Council. His speech was a textbook example of Orwellian “newspeak.”
by Massimo Introvigne
In 2020, China was elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council for the term 2021–2023. It looked like a joke, the proverbial putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. However, many did not understand how China planned to use this position. Most comments pointed to the fact that China will be there to torpedo any investigation of human rights violation by the CCP and by the many non-democratic countries whose votes propelled Beijing to the paradoxical position. This is certainly not untrue. But there is more, as the world discovered this week at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
For the first time in history, a Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, addressed (via video, because of COVID-19) the Human Rights Council. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson celebrated the event on February 22, stating that the fact that China has been voted into the Council “testifies to the international community’s recognition of China’s human rights cause.” In fact, it testifies to a basic fact well-known to all scholars of the field, that the majority of the world’s countries do not respect human rights and do not want the UN to investigate them. They elected the world’s worst perpetrator of human rights violations hoping that, by protecting itself, China will protect them as well.
To this colorful coalition of brutal Communist regimes such as North Korea and Cuba, African kleptocrats, and Muslim countries that reject religious liberty for non-Muslims, the CCP offers more than mafia-like protection in the corridors of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. It offers an ideology, and this is something new.
It is, in its own way, Xi Jinping’s stroke of genius. It is true that scholars offer different definitions of human rights, but no matter which of the current ones is used, China can only emerge as the worst enemy of human rights in general. Not willing to change this situation, Xi Jinping took a lesson from Orwell’s novel 1984, which taught that everything can be justified by changing the meaning of the words. Xi’s mandate to those who now represent China in the Human Rights Council is promoting a new definition of “human rights,” and one that would exonerate China from the charge of violating them daily and systematically.
It is what Orwell called “newspeak,” and Xi Jinping learned it from its revered models Lenin and Stalin, which Orwell satirized in his famous novel. The official Chinese agency Xinhua’s comment that by “human rights” the United States and the West means “the human rights of the powerful and the wealthy” is vintage Marxist criticism of human rights. From a Communist perspective, there are no universal human rights. There are bourgeois human rights, i.e., the human rights as defined in the West, and proletarian human rights, which are defined by Communist Parties as they deem fit, and deny any right, including the right to life, to “counter-revolutionaries” and opponents of Communism.
Addressing the Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Wang Yi recited the usual litany of lies about Xinjiang and Hong Kong, in the futile attempt to persuade his audience that “there has never been so-called ‘genocide,’ ‘forced labor’ or ‘religious oppression’ in Xinjiang,” where those detained are all guilty of “violent terrorism and separatism,” and that China simply “plugged the long-existing legal loopholes in Hong Kong, and facilitated a major turnaround from turbulence to law and order.” Wang also courted ridicule by quoting polls by government agencies according to which a large majority of Xinjiang and Hong Kong residents are happy with the situation. This is reminiscent of the old Russian joke about polls in Soviet times where, asked how they felt about the government, most citizens answered, “I cannot complain,” meaning that complaining was forbidden.
This was the most predictable part of Wang’s remarks. Much more interesting was its newspeak redefinition of human rights. Wang said that, while human rights have a “universality” of language, around words such as “peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom,” how these words are interpreted cannot be universal. “Countries differ from each other in history, culture, social system and level of economic and social development, Wang said. Therefore, they must promote and protect human rights in light of their national realities.” China, for example, has decided that the struggle against poverty and national stability are more important than other rights. Other countries may see things differently. And—here comes the key statement—since each country has the right to interpret the words defining human rights as it deems fit, human rights can never be used “to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”
This is music to the ears of the world’s dictators, but it would be wrong to see it as just extreme cultural relativism. In fact, Wang offered the Chinese model of “human rights” as a “modern socialist” approach that may inspire others. “China has laid a solid foundation for advancing its human rights cause,” he said.
Behind this re-definition of “human rights” as a box with multi-colored labels such as “peace” and “ freedom” where each government may put the content it prefers—each content would do, only, the Chinese one has a more “solid foundation”—lays a decade-old deconstruction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by Chinese (and Russian) scholars, not without a little help from Western Marxist and post-modernist intellectuals.
Claiming that the UDHR reflects the values of 1948, when it was signed, which are different from those of the 21st century, or of a small group of “Western” nations that very active in drafting it, plays in the hands of the CCP and all the tyrants of this world, who insist that the UDHR is not applicable to the “special” situation of their countries.
In classrooms all over the world, students are told that the UDHR was a reaction to Nazi tyranny and the Holocaust; that it was mostly an American and Western European initiative; that it was drafted by former U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) and French jurist René Cassin (1887–1976); and that it was promoted throughout the world by the United States. These arguments are now used in China, Russia, and other countries to argue that the UDHR is not really “universal” but an attempt to impose Western values to the rest of the world.
However, in a seminal article published in 2002, American political scientist Susan Waltz argued that all four statements are factually false. The process leading to the UDHR started. and produced significant texts, at the beginning of the 20th century, well before Nazism and the Holocaust. More important than Eleanor Roosevelt or Cassin were, in drafting the Declaration, two delegates coming from Asia, Lebanese academic Charles Malik (1906–1987), an Orthodox Christian, and Chinese philosopher Chang Peng Chun (1892–1957), who identified himself as Confucian.
Although not as crucial as Malik and Chang, Indian activist for women’s rights Ms. Hansa Jivraj Mehta (1897–1995) and Chilean diplomat Hernán Santa Cruz (1906–1999) were also important. The Canadian secretary of the drafting commission, legal scholar John Peters Humphrey (1905–1995), was the editor, not the author, of the first draft, although his editorial role was important. In the United States, many resisted propagating a document that might be used to submit their country to censorship by international authorities, while the text was enthusiastically embraced in Europe and by some “Third World” countries.
The UDHR was much less “Western” than many believe, and reading it through the lenses of an alleged opposition of the West versus the rest makes for ideological, inaccurate interpretation. Those who want to counter the CCP’s Orwellian plan to redefine “human rights” would do well to stick to the UDHR and defend its universal scope. Forbidding all religions, media, and civil society organizations not controlled by the CCP, arresting and torturing religious and political dissidents, committing genocide against Uyghurs, Tibetans and others are not expressions of a “different interpretation of human rights.” They are a brutal violation of the principles embodied in the UDHR, a violation now supported by a perverse attempt to change the meaning of these two beautiful words, “human rights.” This attempt should be denounced and resisted.