As the international community gears up itself for the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China’s human rights record scheduled for January 2024, there is a pressing need to scrutinise the integrity of this review process.[i] Over the years, China has strategically manipulated the UPR system, concealing and distorting the egregious human rights violations perpetrated by its government. The UPR, designed to assess the human rights practices of all United Nations (UN) member states, becomes a challenging ground when one of the key players engages in a systematic effort to downplay its own transgressions.
China’s manoeuvring within the UPR system is particularly evident in its approach to concealing atrocities in Xinjiang and beyond, where it has unleashed a repressive campaign against Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups.[ii] The Chinese government’s tactics involve projecting an image of combating religious extremism and terrorism while, in reality, executing widespread human rights abuses. This strategic narrative not only misrepresents the situation but also undermines the fundamental purpose of the UPR – to foster transparency, accountability, and improvement in human rights practices globally.
One of the flagrant issues that demand international attention is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), where economic projects often become a breeding ground for corruption, debt entrapment, and disregard for economic sensibility.[iii] The UPR should serve as a platform to scrutinise these projects, especially in the wake of governments like Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sierra Leone expressing reservations about the economic viability of their involvement in BRI. Transparency and accountability in BRI projects should be at the forefront of the UPR discussions, ensuring that they align with international standards and do not compromise the economic well-being of participating nations.
A critical aspect of China’s influence on the global stage is its engagement with international financial institutions, such as the China Development Bank, Export-Import Bank of China, and the China-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. While these institutions wield considerable global financial influence, their policies lack essential human rights safeguards. The UPR offers a crucial juncture to address this shortcoming, emphasising the need for these banks to adopt practices that identify and mitigate human rights risks. Member countries of these institutions, including those in the European Union, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, bear a shared responsibility to advocate for policies that align with universally recognized human rights principles.
The alarming encroachment on freedom of expression both within and beyond China’s borders is another pressing concern that demands a meticulous UPR examination. The Chinese government’s authoritarian censorship tactics extend beyond its national borders, influencing global platforms and suppressing discussions critical of its policies.[iv] Universities worldwide face challenges in upholding academic freedom due to increasing financial dependence on Chinese students, making them susceptible to Beijing’s influence. The UPR should urge governments and educational institutions to establish safeguards that protect the rights of students and scholars, ensuring an environment where diverse perspectives can flourish.
The most harrowing accounts of human rights abuses emerge from Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has escalated its persecution of Uyghur and Muslim ethnic groups to alarming levels. Reports suggest probable crimes against humanity, including torture, forced labour, and large-scale detentions. The shadow of genocide looms large over Xinjiang, manifested in coercive campaigns to forcibly reduce birth rates, the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, and forced assimilation through intermarriage. The UPR must confront these egregious violations, urging China to allow independent investigations and be transparent about its actions in Xinjiang.
China’s strategy of exporting its domestic governance model to surveil and oppress Uyghurs beyond its borders also demands scrutiny during the UPR. Reports of surveillance, restrictions on civil rights, and the export of genocidal oppression to Uyghur diaspora communities highlight the global ramifications of China’s human rights abuses. The UPR should emphasise the responsibility of all nations to protect individuals from transnational repression and ensure the safety and rights of Uyghurs and their families living outside China.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has played a crucial role in condemning China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, further underscoring the need for a robust UPR. CERD’s referral of the situation to the Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect signals a landmark moment in holding China accountable for its actions.[v] The UPR should build upon this momentum, demanding immediate investigations into allegations of torture, forced labour, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, and other patterns of abuse in Xinjiang. As the January 2024 UPR approaches, the international community must remain vigilant and proactive in ensuring that China’s human rights record undergoes genuine scrutiny. The UPR, if conducted with the integrity it demands, can be a powerful instrument for accountability, transparency, and the protection of human rights. The onus is on the international community to challenge China’s manipulations within the UPR system and advocate for a robust examination that reflects the gravity of the human rights abuses occurring within its borders and beyond.