Dozens of Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar drowned when their boat hit a rock and capsized in heavy seas off the Bangladesh coast on September 28. Among the dead were children as young as three, who had somehow evaded murderous mobs and Myanmar military to flee. The visuals of dead babies and their grieving parents cradling, kissing them final goodbyes before lowering them in a mass grave fuelled outrage. The tragedy was the latest in the burgeoning humanitarian crisis that prompted the US to call out Myanmar authorities actions against the Rohingya.
At the UN Security Council [UNSC], it called them “a brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority”. In the face of an untenable situation, China swam against the tide to support Myanmar at the UNSC, where it enjoys veto powers. It was for the second time in over a week that China had defended Myanmar amid mounting global pressure on Naypyidaw to end the cleansing.
China’s Rohingya stand is the latest in its disregard for human rights as it expands its clout through its military might, infrastructure development and investments globally. It portends the perils of China’s rise and the consequent decline of the US-led post-World War II liberal world order built on the ruins of European empires with self-determination and human rights among its core values.
Beijing has not only used its influence to shield itself from accountability over its poor rights record at the UN, which has been one of the institutionalised hallmarks of liberal internationalism. It has leveraged its powerful position as UNSC permanent member to oppose resolutions to address rights abuses in countries like North Korea and Syria. China has done so along with what is known as “Like-Minded Group” of countries with dismal human rights records.
China’s ability to get its way was borne out by restrictions imposed ahead of President Xi Jinping’s speech in January at the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva. Parking lots and meeting rooms were closed before Xi’s arrival at the venue. Around 3,000 UN staff was sent home early before the speech from which NGOs were barred from attending. Activist Dolkun Isa, who has been fighting for political rights for Uyghur minority in China, was earlier in April ejected from the UN headquarters while he was attending an indigenous issues forum.
In a September 5 report on China’s interference in UN human rights mechanisms, Human Right Watch [HRW] cited these incidents. It highlighted Chinese officials “have harassed activists, primarily those from China, by photographing and filming them on UN premises in violation of rules and restricting their travel to Geneva.” HRW said that China has used its membership on the Economic and Social Council’s NGO Committee to block NGOs critical of China from getting UN accreditation.
China has sought to blacklist accredited activists and to cut funding for UN human rights officers, according to HRW. It is not always that the UN has succumbed to arm-twisting, which would only grow with China’s increasing clout and give free passes to rogue regimes like that of Myanmar, where it has invested heavily.
The US has often been found wanting in its advocacy of human rights when they clash with its interests, most notably in Saudi Arabia and Israel. But institutionalised freedoms in the country ensure the media and NGOs like HRW and even state panels like US Commission on International Religious Freedom make up for it. That kind of diversity doesn’t exist in China, where the run-up to Communist Party Congress offers a reminder of how the country works and why it would not care about human rights.
Like other high-level meetings, Reuters noted a security crackdown preceded the Congress. It quoted Beijing Daily and reported the city’s largest market for metal building materials had been shuttered. It was being relocated to Hebei province, over 300 km away, along with over 10,000 workers and stall owners.
Reuters reported the tougher measures targeted migrants “to ensure any petitioners from out of town are rounded up immediately should they attempt to make a scene.” New limits had been placed on discussions in private group chats while tech companies were fined for failing to censor online content and travel for tourists to Tibet was being restricted. Organisers of a discussion on the Middle East cancelled the event fearing possible pressure even as the word democracy was only used once in the adverts.
Reuters quoted a source with ties to the censors and reported that the authorities had “considered it risky to screen a film before the Congress, as it is partially set during China’s 1979 war with Vietnam – a touchy subject.” It was feared that the film could “spark debate about the morality and necessity of the conflict.”
Thus, the liberal order howsoever flawed needs to be safeguarded more so since Donald Trump’s election as the US president has put it under tremendous strain. Trump’s willingness to sacrifice it on the altar of his narrow “America First” agenda and to denigrate and weaken institutions like the UN has grievously imperilled the global human rights project.
Emmanuel Macron’s election as French president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s election victory hold out hope. Importantly, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi referred to China’s coercive instruments and its model of control by fear in his recent speech at the University of California, Berkeley. He underlined a vision for sustaining a democratic environment despite the temptations of following the Chinese model and the swift growth it has ensured at the cost of individual rights.