Origins and use:
This phrase was notably used by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a speech at the opening ceremony of China’s first South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing in 2017, which drew representatives from more than 50 countries globally. Wang said China’s experience had shown that human rights could be protected in “more than one way”, and he exhorted countries to “find their own models of human rights protection” that took into account “their national conditions and people’s needs”, in what can only be described as a re-awakening of the spirit of the Bangkok Declaration.
“The key factor contributing to China’s remarkable achievements in its human rights endeavours is its firm commitment to a human rights development path with Chinese characteristics,” Wang said. He used the same speech to urge developing countries to protect human rights in their own way and learn from China’s experience to increase their voices in the global human rights governance system.
In this context, “human rights with Chinese characteristics” are presented as privileges that a state can provide or deny its citizens, not fundamental rights enjoyed by all on the basis of their humanity. Such a view leads to “rights” that serve the state first and foremost, not the individual. Despite the inherent dangers of this idea, the concept was embraced in the Beijing Declaration adopted at the end of the forum.
The phrase has since featured in two Chinese white papers: “Progress in Human Rights over the 40 Years of Reform and Opening Up of China” in 2018; and “Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China” in 2019.
Implications for human rights:
This notion runs counter to the universality and inalienable nature of human rights by suggesting rights will differ from country to country, when the point of international human rights is to provide a common standard for all.
At the same time that China was touting a “human rights development path with Chinese characteristics”, it was facing a barrage of international criticism over certain of its own actions, including its crackdown on human rights lawyers and prominent activists; its arbitrary detention of an estimated one million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim individuals in Xinjiang; and its vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning the systematic and gross violations of human rights in Myanmar, in particular against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.
Furthermore, China has increased its use of censorship and surveillance – and more worryingly still, it has persuaded tech companies and social media platforms to do its bidding. In 2020, teleconferencing company Zoom revealed it had suspended the accounts of human rights activists outside China at the request of the Chinese government and suggested it would block any further meetings that the government considered “illegal”.
All of this points to a “human rights development path with Chinese characteristics” that is littered with human rights abuses and violations.