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Will China Fill the Rights Vacuum Left by the United States?

Some analysts warn that it’s time to start envisioning a world without a hegemonic champion of social justice.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, pictured here in 2016.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, pictured here in 2016.

Next month, China will welcome the international media to cover two major national legislative meetings in the country. The invitation is not unusual — the global media is allowed to cover these meetings every year.

But this year, state broadcaster CCTV featured the invite prominently on its homepage, in English for the outlet’s foreign audience. And this time, state media issued the notice amid a mounting standoff between President Donald Trump’s administration and the international press that last week saw the outlets including the New York Times and BBC barred from a conference with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. After decades of Washington’s haughty condescension on China’s press environment and other rights abuses, an American administration chosen by America’s Electoral College is now handpicking its press from among the more sympathetic quarters of the media. China’s triumphalism was implicit but glaring — arguably artful.

Since Trump’s election, many in the international community and press have echoed suggestions that China — the world’s second-largest economy — would respond to several voids in global leadership presented by a Trump presidency; others heralded China as a “global climate leader in wake of Trump’s triumph,” per one Guardian headline. At Davos this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping portrayed Beijing as a singular rational actor in a turbulent new world in what was received as a bid for what would be foreign direct investment bleeding out of a United States steeped in uncertainty.

The U.S.’ role as an arbiter of liberal values has come into question since Trump’s inauguration in January. Where the U.S. had once gone to great lengths to act as a safe haven for high-profile political dissidents — like China’s Chen Guangcheng, for instance — Trump had pledged to drastically restrict all immigration. Home to non-governmental organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists, the U.S. was once an advocate for the free press now denigrated by Trump as the “enemy of the American people.” And, despite the Obama administration’s push to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, the Trump administration plans to cut 10,000 jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency imminently.

Analysts and rights activists are adamant that Beijing will not fill the social justice vacuum augured by the more controversial of President Donald Trump’s policies.

Chinese policy has, in practice, often iterated itself in reaction to Washington’s shortcomings: China continues to do business with emerging powers without Washingtonian political caveats, and where Washington dealt in toxic foreign aid, Beijing dealt in business deals and infrastructure that aimed to develop economies. Since the decolonial movements of the 1950s and ’60s, China has positioned itself to Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America as a sharp rejoinder to Western colonialism and Ugly Americanism. It has often successfully capitalized on this legacy as the champion of the underdog.

Still, China analysts and rights activists are adamant that Beijing will not fill the social justice vacuum augured by the more controversial of Trump’s policies. And therefore, international rights activists must begin to conceive of a world without even nominal support from superpowers in the East or West, they say.

“It would be dangerous to misread China’s opportunistic responses to the moral vacuum being created by Trump’s alarming and often incoherent policy ramblings,” says Sharen Hom, director of international advocacy group Human Rights in China. “To suddenly expect China to become a rights champion is like in the Chinese expression, expecting the tiger to give you his skin.”

Other high-profile Chinese rights activists agreed that the absence of business as usualin the U.S. won’t mean a reversal of a China that’s traditionally been antagonistic toward liberal politics.

“I don’t think so,” says Joshua Wong Chi-fung, a leader of Hong Kong’s push for greater liberties who was at the fore of the Umbrella Movement launched in 2014, of the potential for change in Beijing. Wong spoke to Pacific Standard on the phone from Hong Kong. There will be no sudden changes, he says, “because under the rule of Xi Jinping, human rights have moved backward not forward.”

Rights advocates criticize Xi for the heightened suppression of civil liberties and an ongoing, sweeping anti-corruption campaign that many observe has targeted his political adversaries.

Even a U.S. experiencing problems at home can continue to be an arbiter of rights abroad, Wong argued. “Although the U.S. is facing challenges, people concerned about press freedom, social justice, I think that how — the U.S. policy to China and Hong Kong will be important to affect the situation.”

Wong says he appreciated Trump’s call to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and hoped that Hong Kong would also receive Trump’s backing. “I would say supporting Hong Kong democracy should be the cross-party consensus in U.S.,” he says.

Analysts agreed that China is not likely to radically change its stance on civil liberties.

“China may want to make an impact on a world-stage game like climate, but is not apt to alter its own internal practices,” says Dorothy Solinger, a political science professor at the University of California–Irvine specializing in China’s political economy.

Any potential change to China’s politics as usual would be marginal, explains Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based, U.S. Congress-launched East-West Center think tank. Roy focuses, among other topics, on issues of human rights.

“Good or bad U.S.-China relations could marginally affect China’s performance on human rights, protection of the environment, either positively or negatively. But these and especially the Chinese government’s treatment of Chinese media are basically internal issues dealt with according to the Party’s perception of its own interests,” Roy says.

“The famous performance by Xi in Davos last month was not a shift, just China imploring the rest of the world to continue buying Chinese exports,” he adds.

Some observed that, rather than China becoming more liberal, the U.S. is looking a lot more like China.

“President Xi Jinping and Trump’s leadership approach reflects key shared similarities: complete distrust and intolerance of any critical voices or views, a view of the media as a propaganda arm, and complete lack of transparency and accountability to the citizens,” HRIC’s Hom says.

“These leadership visions undermine a rule of law, democratic values, and human rights. If the international community does not remain vigilant and support Chinese civil society, the struggle for Chinese civil liberties and rights will present even more daunting challenges,” Hom adds.

The international progressive community is left to reconfigure: What will it mean to advocate for civil liberties in the absence of even the nominal support of a world superpower?