Beijing has rebutted growing international criticism over its crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong at the United Nations in the past week, turning the fragmenting global institution into a battleground for the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.
A group of 39 countries, mostly Western democracies, made a joint statement last Tuesday to the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee, condemning China over its alleged internment of more than a million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, in its far west.
The statement read out by Christoph Heusgen, the German ambassador to the UN, also expressed “deep concerns” over Beijing’s imposition of the draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong, which did “not conform to China’s international legal obligations”.
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China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun then accused the US, Germany and Britain on Tuesday of abusing the UN platform and showing a “hypocritical” attitude in politicising human rights issues.
He claimed that a total of nearly 70 countries had given their support to China’s stance by Tuesday. Cuba made a statement on behalf of 45 countries “supporting China’s counterterrorism and deradicalisation measures in Xinjiang”, while Pakistan, another ally of Beijing, presented a joint statement signed by 54 countries defending China’s position on Hong Kong.
It is not the first time Beijing has mounted a showdown at the UN with Washington and its allies over China’s controversial human rights record.
But the stakes appear particularly high for China this year, with its credibility and ambitions for global leadership on the line amid unprecedented distrust and an anti-China backlash over its initial mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pundits believed the rival statements underlined not only the intensifying wrangling between China and the US over duelling narratives on human rights, but also a deepening ideological and geopolitical divide between China and the West.
Criticism of China’s repressive domestic policies has surged among Western countries, and an excruciating diplomatic fight at the UN threatens to become a regular ritual for Beijing, according to observers.
Pang Zhongying, a specialist on international affairs at the Ocean University of China, said China faced an unprecedented crisis in its relations with the world, citing a survey by the Pew Research Centre last week that showed predominantly negative perceptions of China in the 14 advanced economies polled.
“The fact that a growing number of Western countries have joined the US in openly criticising China over human rights problems underlines China’s fractured relations with the world,” he said.
With the US pushing like-minded countries to counter China’s authoritarian system, the world is at risk of splitting into two camps along an emerging fault-line over values, according to academics.
George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre, said there was no doubt that a fragmenting of the global system into two rival camps, led by the US and China, was taking place.
“Companies are being drawn into this struggle against their better judgment, and many nations find themselves conflicted as they look to China and the US [on] a varying mix of economic and security issues,” he said. “I expect this fault-line to define the coming decade, with both major protagonists seeking to win the ‘war’ over values, standards and beliefs.”
As China aspires to reshape the global system in the long run and see the UN become a body “with Chinese characteristics”, Magnus said Beijing should expect to see more resistance from the US, especially if former vice-president Joe Biden were to win the US presidential election next month.
“Unfortunately, the UN, World Health Organization, World Trade Organization and other bodies have fallen victim to both China’s rising presence and President Donald Trump’s abandonment of them,” he said. “But this is a struggle that’s going to continue.”
Gennady Rudkevich, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia College in the US, also said that a stronger China risked paralysing some international institutions.
“International institutions do to a large extent reflect the interests and values of its largest members,” he said. “I absolutely expect those institutions to take on more ‘Chinese characteristics’, like a greater emphasis on domestic sovereignty and less emphasis on human rights.”
Beijing has yet to reveal which countries endorsed its positions on Xinjiang and Hong Kong. According to Pakistani newspaper Dawn, Russia, Syria, North Korea and Venezuela signed both statements, and a further 17 Muslim countries also signed the Hong Kong statement, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and United Arab Emirates.
Last year, China managed to secure 54 signatures for a statement on Xinjiang drafted by Belarus, including 23 Muslim-majority countries. State news agency Xinhua said another 30-plus countries including Pakistan and Russia made individual pro-Beijing statements on Xinjiang at the UN last year.
To Beijing’s disappointment, Turkey, which shares close religious and cultural links with Uygur Muslims, voiced rare concerns at Tuesday’s meeting about the “human rights situation” in Xinjiang and China’s treatment of Uygur Turks and other Muslim minorities. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised eyebrows last year when he praised China for its Xinjiang policies during a trip to Beijing, a move widely interpreted as a win for China’s chequebook diplomacy.
According to Zhang, Kuwait issued a statement on behalf of three unspecified Arab nations, supporting China and opposing politicisation of human rights issues.
China boasted more endorsements for its stances on Xinjiang and Hong Kong than the number supporting a statement against them, but pundits said Beijing’s self-proclaimed victory may be little to celebrate.
Supporters of China include many developing nations that are also autocratic and have little regard for human rights or basic freedoms, Magnus said.
“That it can count on support from countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Venezuela, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe is testament to China‘s success with emerging and developing countries on the one hand, but also of little consequence with regard to significance and weight of opinion in the global system,” he said.
However, considering China’s economic slowdown, a large number of developing countries could reconsider their conditional support for China, which meant they were likely to be lured into the US camp, according to Pang, of the Ocean University of China.
There are few signs that China plans to make major changes to its controversial policies despite growing international pressure. Pang said China’s resistance to changes would inevitably ratchet up tensions with the West and make international bodies even more paralysed.
“As China’s influence grows in the UN and other multilateral bodies, when global institutions have become a stage for tit-for-tat confrontation rather than intergovernmental cooperation, it may not be good news for China, which positions itself as a champion of multilateralism,” Pang said.
Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said countries chose to endorse Beijing on specific issues largely through being coerced or rewarded, which should not be mistaken for political support.
“Countries chose to side with China not because they like what China is doing in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but because it is convenient and expedient,” she said.
Sun pointed out that China had conveniently portrayed its supporters as a coalition against the US.That deliberately overlooked the differences between China and those countries.
“It does not win China any more support, because countries’ criticism of the US does not equate to support of China,” she said. “Both the US and China have significant lessons to learn from this, especially on the Chinese tendency to use multilateral organisations to advance China’s own national interests.
“That will only deplete China’s leadership and credibility down the road.”
On the other hand, Rudkevich said Beijing was clearly willing to dedicate more resources than any other country to fend off criticism over Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“This means China is more likely to get its way even if it’s objectively weaker than its opponents,” he said. “Right now, China has definitely put more time and resources into generating and maintaining some level of international support for its actions than countries have committed to human rights and Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
With the US distracted with its own elections, and given Trump’s indifference to human rights issues, the situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong have not garnered adequate attention internationally, especially in influential countries in the Muslim world, according to Rudkevich.
The global emphasis on the coronavirus may have also helped China, he said, because “human rights are not at the top of anyone’s agenda”.
More from South China Morning Post:
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- US-based researcher hits back at Chinese academic over Xinjiang
This article China claims support on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, but can dividing UN pay off? first appeared on South China Morning Post