The Dangerous Cocktail of China: Emerging Economic Power and Blatant Violations of Human Rights

The Dangerous Cocktail of China: Emerging Economic Power and Blatant Violations of Human Rights

The world has witnessed impressive economic growth in China over the past few decades. The country has emerged as a global economic power and exerts a strong influence on the UN and other international platforms. The economic growth in China, which has emancipated hundreds of millions of people from poverty, is seen as a model for many countries. However, economic progress cannot conceal the blatant human rights violations going on in and outside the country. With the growing economic and political clout of China, it is essential to discuss these grave violations, which have been overshadowed by economic progress. Evidence suggests serious violations of human rights in China, including mass surveillance, violations of international labour standards, restrictions on the freedom of speech through a sophisticated internet censorship mechanism, and the disregard for human rights in major economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative of China. This article will shed light on the violations of human rights in China and how the country is emerging as a threat to global human rights norms in general and human rights abuses in the economic sector in particular.

The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a fundamental right and a significant aspect of modern democracies. International human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and numerous others protect the right to freedom of speech. As a member of the international community, the Republic of China has undertaken an international commitment to act in compliance with these international human rights instruments and is legally bound to respect the right to freedom of speech within its jurisdiction. However, the right to freedom of speech has been subject to severe restrictions and different measures have been adopted to curtail freedom of speech. These measures include the censorship of social, print, and electronic media and the crackdown on dissenting voices. The Chinese authorities are employing restricting measures to deprive people of the exercise of their fundamental rights in order to avoid criticism of government policies.

In the modern world, social media platforms have emerged as an essential means to exercise freedom of speech. Social media sites provide a platform for every individual human being, to share their thoughts, ideas, and emotions with their fellows. Similarly, different individuals use social media sites to criticize government authorities on their policies and convey their grievances towards them. However, in China, inhabitants are not entitled to freely access social media sites and express their opinions and concerns. In order to control social media sites, China has developed a sophisticated internet censorship program. It has, for example, banned sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

Inhabitants in China are not entitled to freely access social media sites and express their opinions and concerns.

China has designed alternate apps to maintain control of social media. Official authorities in China have access to conversations, chats, and other communications. They monitor the activities, and if any individual criticizes policies or is involved in any act contradictory with the policies and manifesto of the incumbent government, the government is entitled to censor the account. Reports have indicated that authorities have banned millions of social media accounts and censored content. These acts are a clear violation of freedom of speech and foreign companies, including the tech giants, are deprived of the right to operate their business in the country and their access to the Chinese population is restricted.

China is not only restricting freedom of speech within its territorial boundaries, but it is using its political and economic influence to shun criticism against the government on international platforms as well. The government has a strong surveillance system that imposes restrictions on local human rights activists, who expose violations of human rights in their country on any international platform. Similarly, Chinese individuals living in other parts of the world are silenced by threatening their families back home. A technology consultant based in Canada said “If I criticize the [Chinese Communist Party] publicly, my parents' retirement benefits, their health insurance benefits could all be taken away".

China not only enjoys absolute control over inhabitants, it also controls companies. To operate in China, Chinese companies have to act in compliance with the dictate of the government. Similarly, non-Chinese companies who want to access the Chinese market or operate in China, also have to follow the dictate. Therefore, no company dares to publicly criticize the Chinese government. When the Houston Rockets general manager tweeted his support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, all the National Basketball Association's 11 official Chinese business partners suspended their ties with the league. He later deleted the tweet and tried to defuse the increasing fallout. It reflects the power exerted by the Chinese government to restrict freedom of speech and criticism against their authority.

Another initiative designed to monitor the activities of companies and people is the social credit system. This system monitors every online and offline activity of Chinese citizens and gives a score based on their activities. The scores of an individual will determine the amenities an individual is entitled to, including priority health care, access to international travel, etc. The score not only affects the life of an individual but also decides the amenities available to their children. For example, the access to quality education of children depends upon the social credit of their parents. 

The social credit system is a tool to control the behaviour of people and it is an interference in their personal lives, which is contradictory to human rights norms. It is also a blatant violation of the right to privacy and makes personal information accessible to the public. It deprives an individual of the right to a fair trial by not providing an efficient mechanism to appeal against the score and to have a name removed from the blacklist. The fear of being blacklisted is used to ensure strict compliance with the dictate of the government. The social credit system is also important from a business perspective, as the score of an individual will determine their economic opportunities and future job prospects. 

China is growing its economic clout and taking substantial measures to claim world leadership. The most significant step in this direction is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a trillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program. It will provide access to the Chinese market for more than 70 countries. It is a historic initiative, bringing economic opportunities and business to many developing countries, along with promises of better employment opportunities, infrastructure, and a stable economy. In this initiative, both state-owned and private companies from China have been facilitated to invest in other markets. These companies can operate independently or in collaboration with companies of host countries.

BRI projects can make a significant contribution to the economic development of many countries. However, economic development is not the sole indicator of progress and development. Business and other projects initiated under the BRI have no specific provisions related to human rights violations. Evidence has indicated that the companies working under the BRI umbrella have been disregarding human rights and labour laws. In some countries, the labour involved in the BRI projects is subject to exploitation and abuse. China should ensure compliance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in all the BRI projects. The companies should be held accountable to ensure their compliance with labour standards and their corporate responsibility to respect human rights.

The BRI also contributes to the increase of human rights violations in beneficiary countries. Evidence has indicated that the restrictions on freedom of speech prevalent in China are also spreading to other countries. Pakistan is one of the most significant partners of China in the BRI. With the increasing closeness of Pakistan with China come the restrictions on freedom of speech and criticism of government authorities. One such example in Pakistan is the enactment of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act of 2016. This act of Parliament restricts freedom of speech on social media platforms and empowers the government to impose penalties on social media users. This act is a step towards government control on online platforms, inspired by the Chinese model of sophisticated internet censorship mechanisms.

China is using its economic power to change international human rights norms and to make human rights a voluntary concern of each country instead of a legal obligation.

China is using the BRI to improve its goodwill on an international platform with the help of cheerleaders. Under this initiative, China is giving loans worth billions of dollars to many developing countries and is growing its influence in these countries. The Chinese government is using this influence to counter criticism on an international platform. For example, the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation benefiting from the BRI, have silenced criticism over China for the persecution and forced indoctrination of Muslim minorities. These developing countries have to follow the dictate of China due to economic constraints. Similarly, the Chinese government is using its might to silence criticism against the human rights violations going on in these countries.

China is using its economic power to change international human rights norms. The Chinese authorities are restricting the access of international human rights organizations within its territory and justify their actions on the ground of state sovereignty. As a member of the United Nations Security Council and emerging global power, China exerts a strong influence. However, it is using its power to disregard human rights. To avoid criticism of human rights violations within its territory, it turns its back to the most persecuted people on earth. It is creating hurdles in the enforcement of human rights and wants to make human rights a voluntary concern of each country instead of a legal obligation. China is making efforts to prioritize economic progress and state sovereignty as the most important international norms instead of human rights. Due to the growing economy of China and the economic opportunities provided by the country, the majority of the member states of the United Nations are not willing to confront the power of the Chinese. They are willing to turn their back on human rights violations for lucrative economic benefits.

China is posing a serious threat to human rights norms. It is trying to overshadow the blatant human rights violations going on in its territory with the help of its economic power. The state-owned, private, and foreign companies operating in China and other parts of the world are violating international labour standards. They have failed to fulfil their corporate responsibility to respect human rights and are involved in human rights abuses and the exploitation of labour. China has failed to hold these companies accountable for their human rights abuses. It is using its economic and political clout to immune itself from criticism and to silence dissenting voices. Therefore, it is imperative to break the silence and take substantial measures against the human rights violations going on in China.

Thus, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies calls on the United Nations to mobilize its member states to build pressure on China and ensure compliance with international human rights norms. Economic growth is not the sole indicator of progress and members of the international community should demand accountability from China and take collective action against the economic giant. If China wants to claim world leadership, then it should give free access to international human rights organizations within its territory, ensure compliance with international labour standards, and respect freedom of speech and other human rights norms.

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