An unchallenged China will herald in “a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression,” Human Rights Watch warned in its annual report on the country published Wednesday.
The 2020 China report from the non-governmental organization (NGO) accused both states friendly to China and corporations that do business with it of “enabling” China’s increased use of violence and systematic state repression to silence political dissidents, religious groups, and ethnic minorities. Human Rights Watch published the report shortly after Beijing banned its executive director, Kenneth Roth, from traveling to Hong Kong for an event to release it.
Roth presented the report at an event in New York at the United Nations headquarters instead, despite the report being heavily critical of the U.N. as an institution. The report also attempted to criticize President Donald Trump for referring in friendly terms to Chinese dictator Xi Jinping, but ultimately conceded that “the Trump administration is one government that has been willing to stand up to China, best evidenced by its October 2019 imposition of sanctions on the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau and eight Chinese technology companies for their complicity in human rights violations.”
Human Rights Watch extended its usual focus on how China violates the human rights of its citizens to how “willing accomplices” leading foreign nations and businesses empower China to do so.
“China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide,” Roth wrote. “If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression.”
Far from being spurned as a global pariah, the Chinese government is courted the world over, its unelected president receiving red-carpet treatment wherever he goes, and the country hosting prestigious events, such as the 2022 Winter Olympics. The aim is to portray China as open, welcoming, and powerful, even as it descends into ever more ruthless autocratic rule.
Although China is the driving force behind this global assault on human rights, it has willing accomplices. They include a collection of dictators, autocrats, and monarchs who themselves have an abiding interesting in undermining the human rights system that might hold them to account. They also include governments, as well as companies and even academic institutions, that are ostensibly committed to human rights but prioritize access to China’s wealth.
Among the examples noted in the report are Muslim states friendly to China who have ignored the establishment of concentration camps for Turkic Muslims – mostly Uyghurs, but Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic people as well – in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province. The Pentagon estimated last year that China has imprisoned as many as 3 million Muslims in concentration camps, where they endure rape, torture, slavery, and communist indoctrination. Survivors have told human rights groups that they witnessed commonplace rape of young men and women, suffered electroshock torture, and were forced into painful abortions and sterilizations.
“No other government is simultaneously detaining a million members of an ethnic minority for forced indoctrination and attacking anyone who dares to challenge its repression,” Human Rights Watch noted. “And while other governments commit serious human rights violations, no other government flexes its political muscles with such vigor and determination to undermine the international human rights standards and institutions that could hold it to account.”
The Human Rights Watch report condemned the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – with the notable exceptions of Turkey and Albania – for applauding China’s use of concentration camps against fellow Muslims.
“One would have hoped that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—the group of 57 mostly Muslim-majority nations—would come to the defense of the persecuted Muslims of Xinjiang, as they did for the Rohingya Muslims ethnically cleansed by the Myanmar military,” the report asserted. “Instead, the OIC issued a fawning panegyric, commending China for ‘providing care to its Muslim citizens.’ Pakistan—despite its role as OIC coordinator and its corresponding responsibility to speak out against abuses faced by Muslims—has championed such efforts.”
The report also condemns leaders in the West, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, for keeping silent about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Outside of China’s “cheerleader states,” Human Rights Watch expressed alarm at China’s increasingly common bullying of international corporations when its members criticize Beijing outside of China’s borders. The NGO highlighted the incident last year in which the Houston Rockets NBA team apologized profusely for its general manager, Daryl Morey, posting a statement of support to pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on his Twitter page.
According to the report:
The result [of China’s bullying] is that any non-Chinese government or company seeking to do business with China, if it publicly opposes Beijing’s repression, faces not a series of individual Chinese companies’ decisions about how to respond but a single central command, with access to the entire Chinese market—16 percent of the world economy—at stake. For example, after the Houston Rockets general manager irked the Chinese government by tweeting his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, all of the National Basketball Association’s 11 official Chinese business partners—including a travel website, a milk producer, and a fast-food chain—suspended ties with the league.
“Beijing has taken full advantage of the corporate quest for profit to extend its censorship to critics abroad,” the report concluded.
The human rights NGO urged “governments, companies, universities, international institutions, and others [to] stand with those in and from China who are struggling to secure their rights.” It also requested that nations sanction China for its human rights atrocities, saying, “Their foreign bank accounts should be frozen. They should fear prosecution for their crimes. And the Chinese companies that build and help run the detention camps in Xinjiang, and any company that exploits the labor of prisoners or provides the surveillance infrastructure and big data processing, should be exposed and pressured to stop.”