China opened a human rights forum attended by developing countries Thursday in its energetic drive to showcase what it considers the strengths of its authoritarian political system under President Xi Jinping. The “South-South Human Rights Forum” drawing some 300 participants from over 50 mostly developing countries, which follows a conference of political parties, took place last weekend in Beijing attended by hundreds of delegates, some of whom sung the praises of Communist Party rule.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the recently concluded Communist Party congress had “identified the goal of forging a new field in international relations and building a community of shared future for mankind.”
“This is China’s answer to the question of where human society is heading, and it has also presented opportunities for the development of the human rights cause,” Wang said.
The approach comes as the US turns inward under President Donald Trump, who has set aside traditional US advocacy of democracy and human rights in favor of an “America first” program. That has seen Washington withdraw from key forums from the Paris climate agreement to negotiations on a UN migration compact.
China’s growing confidence on the world stage on issues like human rights are related to the broader global trends, said William Nee, an Amnesty International researcher on China. “Obviously we’ve seen the Trump administration deprioritize human rights, we’ve seen issues like Brexit, and China is kind of stepping in the field and void,” he said.
Participants in the forum were mostly government officials, diplomats and academics from developing nations, along with representatives from the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, World Bank and World Health Organization.
China has long rejected traditional notions of human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration and Western constitutions, redefining the concept along the more prosaic lines of the right to development, health and housing.
The forum comes at a time when Chinese authorities are overseeing the most severe crackdown on activists and dissidents in decades that has drawn criticism from Western governments.
“China has tried to promote the idea that first you must have development, and only if your country develops, can you then meaningfully have human rights,” Nee said.
“Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, these are things that have come under severe constraints in China recent years,” he added.
The city of Beijing has also been criticized domestically over the evictions of tens of thousands of Chinese migrant workers over recent weeks. Officials have said they are addressing safety hazards after a fire killed 19 people, but the efforts have drawn attention to unfairness in a system that controls where people may live and denies rural Chinese migrants access to education, housing and medical subsidies that are granted to residents of the wealthier cities.
Recent years have seen the party advocate a wholesale rejection of “universal values” as merely a weapon to undermine China’s socialist system. Universities have been told to drive such concepts from the classrooms and writers and scholars who argue otherwise can find themselves shunned and unemployed.
The ideological push dovetails with China’s economic strategy of outward expansion, spearheaded by Xi’s signature “belt and road initiative” that seeks to bind China to the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa through a trillion-dollar program of ports, roads, railways, power stations and other massive projects. Rare is the occasion on which Chinese officials from Xi on down fail to mention the plan in front of an international audience.