Having spent years monitoring human rights issues at the UN, I was left aghast during President Biden’s recent CNN town hall. In responding to a question about China’s abhorrent treatment of the Uyghurs, Biden answered by saying:
I talked about this too [with Chinese Premier Xi Jingping]… Chinese leaders, if you know anything about Chinese history, it has always been the time China when has been victimized by the outer world is when they haven’t been unified at home.… So, the central — to vastly overstate it, the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China. And he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that. I point out to him, no American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uyghurs in western mountains of China, and Taiwan, trying to end the One-China policy by making it forceful… Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.
Biden’s answer mirrored Chinese Communist Party language I was used to hearing US officials criticize, not endorse.
In March 2018, as China was ramping up its horrific treatment and internment of millions of Uyghurs in concentration camps, it was also working to completely declaw an already timid and corrupted UN Human Rights Council. I was there in Switzerland at the time, observing a negotiation session over a China-authored draft resolution on “win-win” cooperation (later reworded to “mutually beneficial cooperation”) on human rights. The intent was obvious. Instead of human rights being about protecting the individual, China was seeking to make it about respecting the state. It did so by using language focusing on “genuine dialogue and cooperation” between states, the main human rights abusers, and promoting “mutual understanding.”
Western states unsurprisingly objected. New Zealand called the draft “quite state-centric.” Australia and Switzerland said it was inappropriately focused on “state to state” relations. The US flatly said “[m]utual beneficial cooperation seems to be just between states to states.” As Australia pointed out, using the language of the UN itself, “the human person is the central subject of human rights,” not states.
As usual at the UN, the West was outnumbered. The resolution was adopted. Only the US voted against it. The Europeans, lacking a backbone, merely “abstained,” even as, for example, the Swiss ambassador criticized the resolution as a callback to Soviet diversionary tactics on human rights. In a biting statement, the US representative said:
The ‘feel good’ language about ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated, as States, to respect… [T]he Chinese sponsors have turned the word ‘respect’ on its head and demanded that governments be respected.
Two years later, an even worse version of the resolution would be adopted. This time, the rest of the West voted “against,” but their votes were too few, too late.
What made the “state-centric” language of the resolution so dangerous was the inevitable logical consequence. Not only would governments alone get to define what human rights apply in their country, but none may speak up against them when rights are violated. Only cooperation with the rights-abusing government is allowed. One shudders to imagine “mutually beneficial cooperation” between the Chinese and Syrian regimes.
What China was really doing was replacing the concept of the universality of human rights by codifying moral relativism in its place. The resolutions emphasized ideas like “the significance of national and regional particularities” and that “each State has the inalienable right to choose freely…its own political, social, economic and cultural systems, without interference from any other State or non-State actor”
To hear Biden say “[c]ulturally, there are different norms at each country” when asked about the plight of China’s Uyghurs was alarming. Biden didn’t just signal that he has no intention of standing up for the Chinese regime’s many victims. He was also endorsing China’s “state-centric,” moral relativistic view of human rights.
This realization exposes Biden’s subsequent rhetorical trick. After a vague, passing reference to unarticulated “repercussions” — uttered only after being pressed by Cooper — Biden concluded his comments on China by stating “[we] are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the UN.” What that really suggested is he intends only to address human rights at a forum where “dialogue” and “mutually beneficial cooperation” between governments is considered both the means and the end.
Pity the Uyghur victims of Biden and Xi Jingping’s “mutually beneficial” cooperation.