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Human Rights and China’s Soft Power Expansion

December 12, 2009

Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell

China’s rising economic clout and its careful, steady diplomacy around the world brought Beijing a surge of “soft power” in the first years of the new century. Soft power is the ability to exert influence— beyond what a country wields through its use of force or money—through the appeal of a country’s cultural values and the apparent success of its way of doing things.1

What is driving China’s enthusiasm for soft power and what are its dimensions? How is China flexing its soft power muscles globally? And what are the implications of the expansion of China’s soft power for human rights?

During the early post-Cold War period, the advantages of soft power accrued exclusively to the democratic West, especially to the triumphant American model of liberal capitalism. But in the early 2000s the U.S. faltered, facing trouble in Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere, and suffering a financial crisis that seemed to reflect the failings of its individualistic culture. China was also affected by the global economic downturn, but for the time being its way of doing things looked relatively good. China stood for “Asian values,” solidarity and cooperation within a country and egalitarian respect among countries regardless of size and wealth. Its political-economic model was labeled the “Beijing consensus,” denoting a more dynamic, fair, and efficient version of capitalism than the “Washington consensus,”2 which had apparently gotten the West and its partners into trouble.

Two symbols encapsulated China’s new prestige—the incomprehensibly huge number affixed to its foreign exchange reserves—$1.5 trillion in December 2007 before the start of the global economic crisis—and the eye- and ear-bursting opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a grand enactment of vigor, vastness, and vaunting ambition. In 2009, the Chinese government celebrated 60 years of Communist rule with an elaborate display of national power designed to impress the Chinese people and foreign governments. Overseas, Chinese culture was honored by some of the world’s most important commercial and cultural institutions, from the Frankfurt Book Fair to Carnegie Hall. China’s leaders—and its financial officials and cultural emissaries—were global superstars, welcome everywhere.

China’s Soft Power Campaign

Cultivating soft power is not a new strategy for the Chinese government. China’s diplomacy had always used soft power, although the term itself was new. The physical expansion of the Han people across the territory of what is now China over the course of three thousand years was facilitated by economic interaction and cultural assimilation. Imperial China gained special influence in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan by giving these societies its writing system, Confucian classics, poetry, music, clothing styles, metal-working techniques, and agricultural practices.

Even when China was most isolated, Mao Zedong insisted, “We have friends all over the world,” and welcomed a stream of so-called Maoist party leaders from other countries to visit the fountainhead in Beijing.

But whereas in the era of Mao Zedong, senior Chinese leaders rarely ventured beyond the borders of their own country, and in the era of Deng Xiaoping, top leaders made limited forays abroad today’s principal leaders are globe-trotting emissaries who regularly visit countries in every corner of the world. In 2006, for example, the Chinese president, premier, and foreign minister visited 16 countries in Africa. According to a South African analyst, this activity was “unprecedented.” He continued: “I can’t think of any other head of state, including [South African President] Thabo Mbeki, who has visited as many African countries as that.”3

Chinese diplomats are increasingly dispatched further afield including to small states in Africa and Latin America. Mechanisms for forging bilateral relationships include proclamations of “partnerships” with many powers. Since 1993, these countries have included major powers such as the European Union, Russia, the United States, as well as middle powers such as Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, and South Africa.4 China has also ramped up the scope and pace of its hosting of foreign leaders and conferences both qualitatively and quantitatively. In November 3-5, 2006 and November 8-9, 2009, China held China-Africa summits attended respectively by 48 and more than 50 African heads of state.5

Beijing has had thousands of years of practice in wooing and overawing foreign guests. Foreign dignitaries are invited to the Middle Kingdom where they are given royal treatment irrespective of the size or significance of the country from which they hail.

China possesses a vast array of “cultural capital”—the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and, since the 1970s, the tomb of Qin Shihuang. In addition, cultural artifacts such as ceramics, calligraphy and martial arts are widely exhibited and China’s varied and often exotic cuisine is ubiquitous. It is not hard to exercise its soft power upon those who visit, because China’s cultural icons require no embellishment, hype or financial investment. They already enjoy global renown, and foreign visitors arrive full of excitement and anticipation. China’s aura of soft power holds sway over all guests regardless of background.

Beijing has had thousands of years of practice in wooing and overawing foreign guests. Foreign dignitaries are invited to the Middle Kingdom where they are given royal treatment irrespective of the size or significance of the country from which they hail.

Even the PLA is now actively engaged in the business of exchanges with other militaries, as well as in hosting international seminars and symposia designed to promote the country’s influence. One important innovation has been the introduction of an annual course for foreign officers and defense officials at China’s National Defense University. Hosted gatherings include the latest iteration in a series of international conferences on Sun Zi’s Art of War held in November 2009 in the picturesque city of Hangzhou, and an international forum to examine the security environment of the Asia-Pacific held in October 2008 in Beijing. Both events were sponsored by the China Association for Military Science, which is affiliated with the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences. The goal of the former is to promote the study of Sun Zi both within China and globally, while the latter aimed to articulate China’s policies and official messages to representatives of foreign and defense policy think tanks from around the world.

Beijing promotes its development model of state-guided authoritarian capitalism through the use of direct foreign investment, trade, and aid. For example, in 2009 Beijing announced a five-year $10 billion loan program to Africa. Variously dubbed “market Leninism” or “authoritarian capitalism,” the Chinese model has come to be seen as “the main ideological competitor to Western liberal democracy.”6

But China has not been able to surmount one longstanding vulnerability in the battle of values and ideas, the self-inflicted wound of its pervasive violation of internationally recognized human rights. Even within China, authoritarianism is widely considered a temporary state of affairs rather than an endpoint of political development. “Building democracy and rule of law” is the stated goal not only of the Party’s critics but of the Party itself.7 Even though reform and opening brought widening personal freedoms and rising wealth, the government met any challenge to its authority with harassments, threats, beatings, and arrests. Such violations were the ugly twin of China’s successful development model—for both had their roots in authoritarian one-party rule. The government acted as if any challenge to its legitimacy might get out of hand and cause a national collapse.

Rights Versus Values

Chinese diplomatic strategists recognize that the issue of human rights is a systemic weakness of the Chinese system in global affairs. By contrast, discussing Chinese (or Asian) culture or values has the potential to be a conversation changer. As a symposium at the Central Communist Party School put it, “The theory of the unity of culture [wenhua yiyuanlun] always serves the centrality of the West. Therefore we must emphasize and strengthen the study of the differences between Eastern and Western Culture.”8

Unlike the human rights idea, under which countries judge one another under a set of international norms—judgments to which China is particularly vulnerable—the idea of regionally specific values offers China a chance to articulate what it has to offer the world in a positive sense. China began to promote this idea in the 1980s, concomitantly with its engagement in the international human rights regime, and found support from other authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments in Asia such as those of Singapore and Malaysia.

By October 2008, there were reportedly some 326 Confucius Institutes in 81 countries on five continents including more than two dozen in the United States.

The thrust of the Asian values argument is that Asia can provide a counter-model to the American way of life, which has been overrun by excessive individualism, creating a wave of violent crime, drugs, guns, vagrancy, and immoral behavior. The counter-model relies on the strong hand of a wise and benevolent leadership that promulgates traditional beliefs in obedience, thrift, industriousness, respect for elders, and authority. Promoters of Asian values claim that Asians prioritize economic and social rights over civil and political rights, the community over the individual, and social order and stability over democracy and individual freedom. In fact, the values being referred to are not so much Asian as Confucian, which leaves out Asian countries throughout South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia without a Confucian past.

Reviled in Mao’s China as backward and feudal, Confucius has been rehabilitated and used to personify Chinese ideal values of harmony, community, and deference. Starting in 2004, China established a network of Confucius Institutes abroad. The institute initiative, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, is designed to promote the study of Chinese language and culture abroad. The first institute was established in Seoul, the second at the University of Maryland, and the third at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. By October 2008, there were reportedly some 326 Confucius Institutes in 81 countries on five continents including more than two dozen in the United States.9

China and the International Human Rights Regime10

China’s challenge to what it labeled as “Western” values coincided with, and was intended to condition, its process of engagement with the international human rights regime.

The contemporary international human rights regime started with the adoption on December 10, 1948, by the United Nations General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR was not just an expression of Western values. A diplomat from the pre-communist Kuomintang (KMT) government was one of the lead drafters of the document, along with representatives from many other countries, and KMT China’s UN representative voted for adoption.11 In 1966 the General Assembly put the customary-law principles of the UDHR into the form of treaties that countries could sign and ratify.12 These two documents—the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)—entered into force in 1976, after ratification not only by Western states but by many socialist and Third World countries (not including, however, either China or the U.S.).13

The UDHR and the two covenants banned slavery, torture, and arbitrary arrest or execution; called for freedoms of thought, speech, assembly, and religion; and vindicated the rights to property, work, education, equal treatment under the law, and a decent standard of living. All of these same rights were recognized in China’s first Constitution in 1954. But Mao’s regime violated all of them, partly as functional requirement of its autarkic, totalitarian development model and partly because the Party’s internal political struggles morphed into violent mass movements like the Cultural Revolution that caused hundreds of millions of people to be persecuted, tortured, sent to labor camps, or killed.

In the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission, China took the lead in creating a non-Western caucus of states that made sure that Western-sponsored resolutions against China and other Third World states never came to a vote. The Commission went so far as to elect Libya—one of the more flagrant state violators of human rights—as its chair in 2003.

In the mid-1970s, just when international human rights norms, institutions, and advocacy groups began to enjoy a period of rising influence, Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “reform and opening up” led China to shift from Mao-era resistance to nascent engagement with the regime. As a consequence, the immediate aftermath of the government’s bloody crackdown on the Democratic Movement in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 marked a high point of China’s vulnerability to international pressure concerning human rights. And the incident contributed in some direct and indirect ways to further strengthening the international human rights system, as many states joined to sanction China and criticize it at the annual meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission.

But at the same time Tiananmen generated what became a complex and sophisticated Chinese challenge to the role of human rights as a set of international norms. As Beijing shifted its political and economic strategies to create “authoritarian resilience” at home and a “rising China” abroad, it found ways to blunt the impact of international human rights advocacy efforts on its internal politics and to shape the international human rights system to its own advantage. In this way the rise of China, which has been in many ways a positive development, has put at risk the promise of human rights as a vital part of the international normative and institutional order.

As part of its growing global role in the 1990s and after, China intensified its involvement with the international human rights regime while working to shape the regime to its own preferences. In 1998 China entered into a dialogue with the newly established Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and in 2000 it signed a memorandum of understanding for a long-term program of technical cooperation on issues like human rights education, which served government purposes and exempted it from public challenges to its human rights performance. China ratified the ICESCR and signed the ICCPR (although so far it has not ratified it). In 2004, the National People’s Congress amended the Chinese Constitution to state, “The State respects and preserves human rights.”

At the same time, however, China used its position in the international system to slow the expansion of the international human rights regime and weaken its ability to influence Chinese foreign relations and domestic affairs. In 1990, Beijing helped block implementation of an emergency mechanism that would have enabled the Human Rights Commission to come into session following a major event like Tiananmen. In the preparatory work for the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, China gained the backing of most Asian countries for the principles of noninterference in the internal affairs of states; non-selectivity (i.e., UN bodies should not single out specific countries for criticism); the priority of collective, economic, and social rights over civil and political rights; national sovereignty; and cultural particularism (the non-universality of human rights values across regions). These arguments had some influence over parts of the final Vienna declaration.

In the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission, China took the lead in creating a non-Western caucus of states that made sure that Western-sponsored resolutions against China and other Third World states never came to a vote. The Commission went so far as to elect Libya—one of the more flagrant state violators of human rights—as its chair in 2003. In response, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pushed for the reorganization of the commission in 2006 into a 47-seat Human Rights Council that he hoped would be more effective, but this body continued to be dominated by repressive regimes, who worked harder than the democratic regimes to control the Council’s operations. These states, including China, shaped the ground rules for the new Council around a system of “universal periodic review.” Under this system each state was invited to submit a human rights action plan and hence each state had the initiative to define its own human rights aspirations; each state was regularly reviewed and hence no particular state was targeted; and each state received recommendations from the Council based on the report it submitted and was free to adopt or reject any recommendation. As one of the first countries reviewed, China submitted a human rights action plan in 2009, emphasizing its achievements to date and aspirations consistent with its existing political system,14 and rejected all the concrete recommendations made by other states in the course of the review.15

In relations with Western countries, China diverted the human rights issue into the channel of what was called quiet diplomacy.

In its relations with the UN Special Procedures, China has so far accepted only four visits (two by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and one each by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education and the Special Rapporteur on Torture), set limits on the activities of each, and dragged out negotiations or left requests pending from nine other such bodies.16 China worked with other members of the “like-minded group” of countries in the Human Rights Council to end, shorten, or restrict the mandates of various special procedures.17

In relations with Western countries, China diverted the human rights issue into the channel of what was called quiet diplomacy. High-level U.S., European, and Australian visitors in the early 1990s customarily brought prisoner lists to meetings with Chinese officials and made statements on issues like censorship, Tibet, and religious freedom. China deterred such representations by treating them as affronts. An example was the rearrest of Wei Jingsheng in 1993 after a U.S. State Department official, John Shattuck, met with him in Beijing.

Beijing rewarded quiet diplomacy with selective prisoner releases, which had the added benefit of weakening the democracy movement by sending its leaders into exile. In 1998, as a price for restoring summit-level meetings with China, Bill Clinton won the right to give an uncensored lecture at Peking University that was broadcast on Chinese TV, and used it to say that China was swimming against “the tide of history.” By contrast, Clinton’s successor George W. Bush said it was best to speak with Chinese leaders about human rights issues in private. European leaders followed suit.

One of the West’s demands in the 1990s had been that China enter into official dialogues about human rights. China yielded to this demand and at different times in the mid-1990s established dialogues with the U.S., Canada, the EU, the UK, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, and Australia. But China shaped the ground rules to its own advantage, insisting that the agendas be negotiated in advance and concern technical issues rather than current violations, and that the proceedings be confidential.18 Keeping the dialogues bilateral and separating them, in time prevented the other powers from coordinating their approaches to China. China characterized as unfriendly occasional attempts to convene meetings of relevant officials from other governments to exchange ideas about their dialogue experiences (the so-called Berne Process).19 Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could not participate in Western delegations, but were shunted off to occasional forums which occurred before the government dialogues. China vetoed participation of certain groups in these forums by walking out or threatening to cancel if they were invited. From time to time China cancelled dialogues to express protest over other issues, then framed their resumption as a concession.

Reinforcing the effectiveness of these efforts was the rise of influential Western voices emphasizing the importance of maintaining smooth ties with China.20 The U.S.-China Business Council, founded in 1973, had long represented the views of large U.S. companies doing business with China. As business ties burgeoned, many private consulting firms and think tanks—such as Kissinger Associates, Stonebridge International, the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center—articulated the importance of not letting human rights promotion get in the way of business and strategic interests. The threat of American trade sanctions for human rights violations disappeared. In 1994, Bill Clinton asked Congress to approve the extension of China’s “most favored nation” tariff rates even though China had not complied with any of the human rights-related conditions that he had put forward a year earlier. This “de-linkage” of trade and human rights was formally made irreversible when Congress approved “permanent normal trading relations” with China in 2001 as part of the agreement for China to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO). To take the place of the annual trade privileges debate as a venue for airing worries about China, Congress set up two specialized commissions—the China Economic and Security Review Commission and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. But these bodies only issued reports and policy recommendations and had no potential to seriously threaten Chinese interests.

Human Rights in the Balance

China’s goal in all this appears not to be to get rid of the international human rights regime (which would be difficult and unnecessary), but to cap its growth and expansion, freeze its effectiveness at the current level, shape its institutions so that they are deferential to states, and shade the norms to fit Chinese priorities. Accordingly, China’s rise, and its widening cooperation with a host of other regimes unfriendly to human rights, has brought a slowing, and even in some ways a retrogression, in the health of the international human rights regime.

A recent study by Freedom House21 traces how China and its allies have tried to shape the procedures of the Human Rights Council, lobby the treaty bodies, cut back the mandates of the Special Procedures, undercut the International Criminal Court (ICC), and oppose the accreditation of key NGOs at the UN. These efforts have achieved results. China sends top officials with pockets stuffed full of aid programs to lobby governments who hold seats in the Human Rights Council. It sends teams of well educated and well briefed diplomats and lawyers to every meeting of an international human rights body. Its global propaganda is increasingly effective. Its grip on the Western business communities is strong. Its influence in world media is rising. China’s soft power is extensive, and one of its targets is the vitality of human rights as a part of international law and institutions

China’s rise, and its widening cooperation with a host of other regimes unfriendly to human rights, has brought a slowing, and even in some ways a retrogression, in the health of the international human rights regime.

We have lived through a period of a few decades in which the human rights system grew at a rapid pace and seemed slated only to grow stronger and stronger. But this trend cannot inevitably continue. China and its partners have mounted a formidable challenge, which advocates of international human rights must confront creatively if the human rights system is to not go into decline.


1. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Public Affairs, 2004), p 5. See also Joseph S. Nye, Jr., “Soft Power,” Foreign Policy 80 (1990), 153-171. Also Joshua Kurlantzick, China’s Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World (Yale University Press, 2007). Kurlantzick is fuzzy about the term—virtually anything China does constitutes the flexing of soft power muscles, including economic. Also cf. Jehangir Pocha, “The Rising ‘Soft Power’ of India and China,” New Perspectives Quarterly 20 (2003); David M. Lampton, The Three Faces, 2008; the latter uses the term “ideational power.” ^

2. The term was coined by Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Beijing Consensus (London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2004), ^

3. Robyn Dixon, “Africa Holds Attractions for China Leaders; Beijing’s Hunger for Raw Materials and Political Recognition Has Its Top Officials Crisscrossing the Continent Like No One Else to Cement ties,” Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2007, ^

4. On China’s “partnerships,” see Bates Gill, Rising Star: China’s New Security Diplomacy (Brookings Institution Press, 2007), 58–63. ^

5. “Beijing Summit Adopts Declaration, Highlighting China-Africa Strategic Partnership,” Xinhua News Agency, November 6, 2006,; Jonathan Clayton and Jane Macartney, “China-Africa Summit Shows Importance of Friendship with Beijing,” The Times (London), November 6, 2009, ^

6. Timothy Garton Ash, quoted in Steven Erlanger, “The Legacy of 1989 Is Still Up For Debate,” The New York Times, November 9, 2009, ^

7. Andrew J. Nathan, “China’s Political Trajectory: What Are the Chinese Saying?” and Yu Keping, “Ideological Change and Incremental Democracy in Reform-Era China,” in Cheng Li, ed., China’s Changing Political Landscape: Prospects for Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 25–43 and 44–58. ^

8. Jeremy Paltiel, The Empire’s New Clothes: Universality and Cultural Particularism in China’s Quest for Global Status (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 144, no. 17. ^

9. James F. Paradise, “China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power,” Asian Survey 49, no. 4 (2009), 648, ^

10. In this context, the word “regime” refers to an international system of norms and institutions by which states regulate their relations in a particular domain of activity. ^

11. Louis Henkin, The Rights of Man Today (Boulder: Westview, 1978), Ch. 3. Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New (New York: Random House: 2002). ^

12. Since the UDHR is a declaration rather than a treaty, states do not have the option of signing it. It forms part of international customary law rather than treaty law. ^

13. Subsequently, China signed but has not ratified the ICCPR; the U.S. ratified it in 1992. The U.S. signed but has not ratified the ICESCR; China ratified it in 2001. ^

14. Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China , “National Human Rights Action Plan of China (2009-2010),” April 13, 2009, ^

15. “Human Rights Watch Statement on UPR Outcome Report of China,” June 11, 2009,; Human Rights in China, “China Rejects UN Recommendations for Substantive Reform to Advance Human Rights; HRIC Summary,” February 11, 2009,; Human Rights in China, “China’s UN Human Rights Review: New Process, Old Politics, Weak Implementation Prospects,” February 9, 2009,; Human Rights in China, “Implementation and Protection of Human Rights in the People’s Republic of China,” February 7, 2009,   ^

16. The Special Procedures are independent experts or working groups appointed by the Human Rights Commission (formerly) or Council (currently) to monitor human rights issues in certain countries or problem areas. The China country visits are listed in “Country Visits by Special Procedures Mandate Holders since 1998,” ^

17. See various diplomatically worded press releases, reports, and position papers issued by the FIDH, at ^

18. See the HRIC/FIDH assessment reports of the EU-China human rights dialogues at Human Rights in China, “Talking with China about Human Rights: Assessing the Future of Bilateral Human Rights Dialogues” February 2004,; and Human Rights in China, Preliminary Assessment of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue (2004), ^

19. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “The Many Faces of China’s Repression: Human Rights, Religious Freedom, and U.S. Diplomacy in China,” January 31, 2007, ^

20. Cf. James Mann, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression (New York: Viking, 2007). ^

21. Freedom House, The UN Human Rights Council Report Card: 2007–2009. (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2009), ^

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