How to Stop the Export of Authoritarianism

China is slowly killing the global human rights regime. Defending it requires Washington’s full engagement.

By Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America.
Riot police march through Hong Kong during an anti-government demonstration on Sept. 6.
Riot police march through Hong Kong during an anti-government demonstration on Sept. 6. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Human rights are in trouble. Since 1945, the world’s nations have enshrined in major U.N. treaties a broad set of precepts that now serve as global norms. Though implemented unevenly and imperfectly, individual liberty, constraints on government power, democracy, and the rule of law are widely accepted principles that enjoy high levels of popular approval. Even where rights are flouted, governments have increasingly donned accoutrements such as elections, trials, and participation in human rights reviews, not wanting to be seen to defy the system entirely. Now, though, the global rights regime itself is in jeopardy—threatened by rising authoritarian powers.

No government threatens the international human rights system like China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite having signed onto certain international agreements, it has never been willing to guarantee rights to free expression, fair trials, religious liberty, or freedom from torture and forced labor. Beijing also rejects the role of human rights watchdogs, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent journalists.

U.S. policymakers once predicted that China’s economic integration with the West would force it to open up. Free enterprise, it was assumed, would also lead to a freer society. That’s not what happened in practice. In fact, China’s economic and military rise has only deepened the conviction of Beijing’s party leaders that authoritarianism is essential to economic prosperity and civic stability. A quick glance at Beijing’s abuses—whether it’s brutally snuffing out discrete ethnic identities such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang; overseeing mass censorship and intrusive social controls; stifling the activities of foreign organizations, foundations, and media; or effectively canceling democracy in Hong Kong—reflects just how little the government is now constrained by global human rights norms, external pressures, or popular sentiments.

Beijing’s imperviousness to human rights pressures within its borders is nothing new. But as China becomes more globally integrated, Beijing is working to preempt developments across the world that may erode its internal controls or impair its global aspirations. The CCP sees threats everywhere; the Arab Spring, for example, prompted Beijing to sharply tighten its grip over social media for fear that its own population might be inspired to take to the streets, too. Even when enjoyed far beyond China’s borders, personal freedoms ranging from speech to religion are considered potential perils because of the sentiments they might spark at home.

Beijing’s strategy to snuff out these nascent threats amounts to an ambitious, richly financed campaign to reshape political and civic life globally. The Chinese government is working its will through a widening network of governments, technologies, universities, and corporations that are willing to compromise on Western values to assure access to Chinese money and markets.

The imperatives of access to Chinese capital and film-going markets now dictate what stories can be told in Hollywood.

The imperatives of access to Chinese capital and film-going markets now dictate what stories can be told in Hollywood; producers and directors are reluctant to speak about the sacrifices they are making to artistic freedom. Similar pressures are bearing down on online gaming and book publishing; these made-in-Beijing strictures apply not just to products released in China, but also those made for Western and global audiences.

Meanwhile, China is also deepening its control over academic institutions in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere through tuition dollars, philanthropic contributions, and partnerships that seem irresistible to cash-hungry university leaders. Perhaps the most prominent example are the more than 480 Confucius Institutes devoted to teaching Chinese language and culture housed on university campuses around the world and financed by the CCP—which dictates what is taught and by whom. Of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who study abroad, many have professional or family ties to the Chinese government, raising complex questions about the potential for espionage and theft of intellectual property in the sciences and technology.

As Chinese technology platforms make global inroads, systems of surveillance, data capture, and censorship are taking hold globally. China’s national security laws mandate that private firms provide any and all data to the government on demand; many companies host CCP cells that operate on-site to ensure compliance with party demands. Chinese companies have also exported surveillance tools, including facial recognition, to more than 60 foreign governments, subsidizing the purchases to participants in its Belt and Road initiative, an ambitious global infrastructure development effort aimed to bolster Chinese ties around the world.

Beijing is also gaining support for an effort to rewrite the rules of the internet by replacing a rights-based emphasis on digital freedom with the idea of “cybersovereignty,” a principle that provides boundless leeway for governments to police the digital realm as they see fit, without regard to free speech, privacy, or other civil rights.

Through these efforts, China is ingraining its statist approach to undercut creative freedom, academic freedom, privacy, and other human rights norms well beyond its borders. Frighteningly, Beijing’s assault is happening with limited scrutiny, transparency, or debate as individual companies and institutions quietly bargain with Beijing—with every incentive to downplay the trade-offs involved, or the larger implications for free societies.

Beijing’s assault is happening with limited scrutiny, transparency, or debate.

In mounting resistance to the CCP’s worldwide encroachments, human rights advocacy offers a morally grounded frame demonstrating that the stakes go well beyond a power struggle between Washington and Beijing. The United States led the creation of the international human rights system which, in many key respects, mirrors the United States’ own constitutional order. Washington must now not only fortify its own values around the world, but also fend off a competing set of prescriptions that were made in Beijing but are increasingly being felt in Boston.

China is not just working to undercut human rights norms, but also to remake them. At the U.N. Security Council, Beijing has blocked the protection of civilians in Syria, Rohingyas in Myanmar, and victims of abuses in Venezuela. During U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure in office, Beijing has taken advantage of the United States’ withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council to expand its own influence. On the council, Beijing has sought to instill norms that uphold its own sovereignty at the expense of basic human rights norms. CCP catchphrases such as “shared future” and “mutual respect”—code words for silencing criticism—have managed to worm their way into the council’s texts. As China’s network of bilateral relationships expands, its ability to marshal votes behind its agenda grows.

China is now also a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Consultative Group, which selects candidates for key U.N. roles; its presence ensures that these appointments do not defy Beijing. While pressuring countries and companies to subscribe to its authoritarian alternative to the international human rights system, Chinese envoys are simultaneously working from within that system to hollow it out.

The breadth of Beijing’s assault on the international human rights system demands a response from the United States, Europe, and other rights-respecting countries. A passive, defensive posture—that is, a continuation of the status quo—will allow Beijing to proceed apace, renovating the international human rights system to a point where it may be unrecognizable.

This work will be hard, even if former Vice President Joe Biden takes charge in Washington next year. The first order of business will be undoing the ravages of the Trump years: rebuilding alliances and partnerships; recommitting to respect for immigrants’ rights, press freedom, racial equality, and other norms at home; reclaiming a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council; and reversing other policy and bureaucratic missteps and abdications. It will require restoring the weight of human rights considerations in policymaking through the appointment of empowered, expert officials and the elevation of human rights issues in speeches and policy directives.

But a revitalized human rights policy must involve more than simply turning back the clock. It demands a series of internal and external measures that reshape how human rights policy is developed and executed. To sustain credibility, it is essential that such an effort not play into jingoism or xenophobia, allow leeriness toward the Chinese government to translate into bias toward Chinese people, or resort to tactics that trample human rights in the name of trying to protect them.

A revitalized human rights policy must involve more than simply turning back the clock.

Traditionally, U.S. policy on human rights in China is pursued as a subplot on the bilateral diplomatic agenda, only targeting China’s domestic human rights record. Taking on the CCP’s efforts to propagate its ideology and methods globally will demand integrating human rights policy through a White House coordination cell that fuses intelligence, trade, cybersecurity, technology, commerce, and diplomatic relations into a comprehensive rejoinder spanning both domestic and foreign policy. Senate Democrats have taken a first step by introducing legislation aimed to address China’s operations, including by training journalists to track and expose Chinese influence efforts.

Within the coordination cell, officials would build dialogues with universities, academic associations, corporations, and tech executives to mount defenses alongside affected institutions.

When it comes to Beijing’s efforts to remake the U.N. human rights system from within, the best defense is a good offense. While it will not be enough to fend off the CCP’s inroads in the multilateral realm, a “norm offensive” that rallies the world to further elaborate existing precepts that address suffering, corruption, and injustice would be a good start; there is no shortage of issues that could galvanize both civil society and rights-respecting governments to reinforce the human rights system in the face of a Chinese government that seeks to dismantle it. New norms could protect scientists and doctors from political influence and reprisals as they carry out their work, for example, while fostering public health, sounding alarms about climate science, and promoting other essential public goods.

In cyberspace, concerns about data privacy and free speech on platforms such as TikTok and WeChat should be addressed not through tit-for-tat reprisals, but via new global protocols that shield users from digital intrusions. By taking on timely issues that affect individual lives, human rights proponents can put Chinese diplomats on the defensive, forcing it to expend political capital and choose its battles—making it harder for Beijing to water down and manipulate the human rights system.

Success will depend upon creating broad coalitions willing to stand up to Beijing’s intrusions. Rights-respecting leaders in democracies such as Germany, Canada, and Japan, among others, can augment these efforts, with broad cross-regional coalitions lending legitimacy that prevents Beijing from casting the battle as great-power rivalry. With the United States’ own human rights record now so tarnished, countries with strong credibility as human rights standard-bearers should lead the charge against new Chinese multilateral initiatives or resolutions. The United States, for its part, will need to forge intimate collaborations among its own human rights experts, diplomats, and regional bureaus and embassies. Beijing’s aims and tactics should lead policymakers to make multilateral human rights advocacy a central concern, rather than the afterthought it has traditionally been.

As China’s strength and influence intensify, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the future of human rights and democracy globally may hang in the balance. Only a broad-scale effort can ensure that Beijing’s rise does not bring with it an upsurge in global repression.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel