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Can China be a normative power?

Until now, the west has been attempting to tell China how to behave when it comes to human rights. But things are changing. Increasingly, China is engaging in international debate over rights. Does China aim to redefine the norms? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. 中国语文, Español, العربي.

What views do the Chinese government and elites have about international human rights issues? Is a rising China likely to promote a different style of global human rights engagement? To answer these questions, it might be useful to view China as an emerging normative power in the international order. While the concept of “Normative Power Europe (NPE)” , in which Europe sets the standards for international society, has been widely recognized by scholars and policy makers in the international community, there are few discussions of emerging powers as normative powers. In particular, the notion of a “normative power China” might appear provocative and controversial. China is a major target of international criticism for its human rights record, pragmatic foreign policy, and energy-driven activities in the developing world. None of these give outsiders the impression that the Chinese government genuinely cares about normative foreign policies. Instead, it is typically western powers who try to teach China how to behave. In what way can China act as a normative power?

In recent years, China has generally accepted the universality of human rights. It has joined 27 international human rights conventions, including conventions on racial discrimination, discrimination against women, apartheid, refugees and genocide. China is also no longer a passive recipient of international criticism on human rights and it has gradually used the same concepts to criticise western countries. For the past 13 years, for example, China has responded to US government reports on its human rights practices by issuing its own report on human rights issues in the United States surrounding gun violence, racial and religious discrimination, increasing income gap, and the abuse of power by security agencies. China has also raised human rights issues relating to Muslim minorities and immigrants in talks with Germany and other European countries. While Chinese criticism may seem hypocritical or even laughable to some, it may suggest that China is beginning to take the international human rights system more seriously. By using the same international standards to criticize the west, China has begun to accept the general concept of universal human rights.

China is also pushing its own international human rights agenda in other ways. For example, it promotes collective rights and sovereignty over individual rights and international intervention. And while China has shifted away from a strong “cultural relativist” argument, it still argues that human rights should be pursued in accordance with a state’s level of political and economic development. China, in other words, argues that human rights promotion should take into consideration a given country’s practical conditions, and that developing countries should have different human rights priorities. Most significantly, China prioritises economic, cultural and social rights over civil and political ones, and has demonstrated this by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and signing, but not ratifying, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


Chinese President Xi Jinping. Shutterstock/All rights reserved.

China’s recent diplomacy has reflected these views. In its criticisms of the US, China has often highlighted social and economic rights issues rather than political and legal ones. China has joined Russia in repeatedly vetoing the United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria, and while there are clear geopolitical calculations behind those votes, China also argues that humanitarian intervention should not overthrow political regimes, and that the world must respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This non-interventionist principle differs from the dominant western norms of international humanitarian intervention. That said, China does not stick to the non-intervention principle blindly; after all, China was a full participant in the debate regarding the development of “the UN’s Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which justifies intervention when a state fails to protect its own citizens. While Beijing has not obstructed the development of the R2P, it has pushed for strict criteria to justify breaching sovereignty.

China’s engagement with the international human rights system is related to wider debates about its role in the world order. As China has grown as an economic power, its self-confidence has increased. In the eyes of some Chinese political elites, the global financial crisis accelerated the trend of a shifting balance of power between China and the west. This shifting balance of material power is changing the landscape of diplomatic influence and normative order.

China’s new confidence has two opposite effects. On the one hand, a newly confident China is experimenting with a more assertive style of diplomacy on international human rights issues. China challenges conventional wisdom that the social norms and political values preferred by the west are the only possible way to achieve modernity. Chinese leaders often emphasize China’s model as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” China may not actively promote its own political model abroad but as Mark Leonard, co-Founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations , said, “Even if the People’s Republic had done nothing in the world, the power of the Chinese example would have presented a major challenge to promoters of democracy.”

At the same time, as it becomes more powerful, China is rethinking its commitment to non-interference and might play a greater part in global governance. China realizes that it may not always be in its own interest to defend the principle of non-interference. There are practical reasons, sometimes, to intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries in some humanitarian crises. For instance, in the case of Libya, China was not against the intervention led by some western countries partially because of some practical reasons, including prompt action to ensure the safety of more than 35,000 Chinese working in the country and economic interests in Libya that might be threatened by supporting the wrong side.. Without fundamentally changing the non-interference principle, China is also exploring alternative strategies for dealing with humanitarian crises and political instability in the developing world. Some Chinese elites are actively looking for a new framework. For instance, Peking University professor Wang Yizhou proposes the notion of “creative involvement,” which encourages China to develop a much more proactive kind of diplomacy that can contribute more and make a bigger impact on international affairs.

All these developments suggest China is likely to become ever more engaged in the international system while pushing its own agenda. As it has done for several decades, it will promote the principle of “seeking common ground while reserving differences”(Qiutong Cunyi) in its diplomacy. Thus, China might be viewed as an emerging normative power with limited aims. 


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