Document of the Week: China’s See-No-Evil PR Blitz

Beijing has produced a booklet to counter allegations that it’s curtailing the freedoms of Hong Kong residents, abusing Uighurs, and failing to come clean on its role in the spread of the coronavirus.

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China-coronavirus-human-rights-mission-article
China-coronavirus-human-rights-mission-article

It is hard to tell these days if the pandemic has turned China into a diplomatic winner or loser. It seems undeniable that China’s heavy-handed lockdown of hundreds of millions of people has halted the spread of the coronavirus at home, making the Chinese Communist Party seem the more competent of the superpowers, as the United States leads the world with more than 170,000 deaths. (Analysis by the New York Times suggests that the number is even higher, at more than 200,000.) And Beijing’s provision of masks and other protective gear to countries and its pledge to make any future vaccine available to friendly countries, particularly participants in the Belt and Road Initiative, have earned it some favorable headlines.

But a lot of that gear has proved to be substandard and unusable, and few countries are likely to soon forget China’s sluggish, secretive initial response to a pandemic that got its start in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has since spread around the world, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths and a record-breaking economic collapse.

In recent weeks, China has triggered a diplomatic backlash, particularly from Western countries, following the passage in June of a harsh new national security law that severely curtails civil rights in Hong Kong and reports of increasingly harsh tactics, including forced sterilization, to exert greater control over China’s Muslim Uighur population. More than a million Uighurs have already been detained in labor and internment camps in Xinjiang.

It is hard to tell these days if the pandemic has turned China into a diplomatic winner or loser. It seems undeniable that China’s heavy-handed lockdown of hundreds of millions of people has halted the spread of the coronavirus at home, making the Chinese Communist Party seem the more competent of the superpowers, as the United States leads the world with more than 170,000 deaths. (Analysis by the New York Times suggests that the number is even higher, at more than 200,000.) And Beijing’s provision of masks and other protective gear to countries and its pledge to make any future vaccine available to friendly countries, particularly participants in the Belt and Road Initiative, have earned it some favorable headlines.

But a lot of that gear has proved to be substandard and unusable, and few countries are likely to soon forget China’s sluggish, secretive initial response to a pandemic that got its start in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has since spread around the world, accounting for hundreds of thousands of deaths and a record-breaking economic collapse.

In recent weeks, China has triggered a diplomatic backlash, particularly from Western countries, following the passage in June of a harsh new national security law that severely curtails civil rights in Hong Kong and reports of increasingly harsh tactics, including forced sterilization, to exert greater control over China’s Muslim Uighur population. More than a million Uighurs have already been detained in labor and internment camps in Xinjiang.

The pressure seems to be getting to Beijing. Last month, China’s U.N. mission distributed a 43-page booklet—titled “What’s False & What’s True on Human Rights in China”—that seeks to counter 37 common claims of abusive behavior by the Chinese government in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and against the coronavirus. The booklet—which we are featuring as part of our Document of the Week series—takes issue with accusations that China has crushed basic freedoms in Hong Kong, covered up evidence of the coronavirus in the early days of the outbreak, and detained over 1 million Uighurs in concentration camps. The Chinese strategy is to deny all abuses—no matter how well documented—and ask delegates to consider American crimes, from the slaughter of American Indians to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The booklet begins by declaring “false” the statement that the national security law in Hong Kong “will undermine the human rights and basic freedoms of Hong Kong residents.” In response, the booklet declares “true” that “rights and freedoms, including the freedoms of speech, of the press, of publication, of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration,” are protected under the new law. This claim comes after police raided the offices of the popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily; arrested its owner, Jimmy Lai; and detained a 23-year-old pro-democracy activist, Agnes Chow, both on charges of colluding with a foreign power, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The booklet also countered charges that China has detained more than a million Uighurs in concentration camps and engaged in forced sterilization of Uighur women. The camps, China claims, are “vocational education and training centers,” and China has for years granted the Uighurs “preferential population policy,” leading to a spike in the Uighur population from 5.55 million in 1978 to 11.68 million in 2018, according to the booklet. “To put things in perspective, let’s look at the situation in the United States,” the booklet adds. “For nearly a century after its founding, the US was uprooting and killing American Indians in its Westward Movement.”

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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