Written by Titus Chen.

July 2015 is destined to be an unforgettable time in Xi Jinping’s presidency. What befell Chinese human rights lawyers during that month will long be remembered as legacy of Xi’s authoritarian rule. From July 9 to 15, more than 250 public interest lawyers, human rights activists and their family members were detained and interrogated by Chinese internal security agencies. Apparently the crackdown has targeted the country’s most dedicated and tactful human rights professionals. While the crackdown was carried out simultaneously in at least 19 provinces and 4 municipalities, most arrests took place in Beijing, Guangdong, Hunan, Shandong, and Jiangsu. As of August 12, 32 lawyers or rights activists are still in police custody, some even held incommunicado.

Xi Jinping inherited the supreme leadership of CPC from Hu Jintao in November 2012. In December 2012 Xi urged the Party and the government to closely abide by the PRC Constitution, hence giving China observers a sense of hope that he would honor human rights and rule of law as stipulated in the Constitution. But soon the Chinese authorities took repressive actions against political activists and human rights defenders in 2013 and beyond, and restrictive measures were adopted one after another to further tie down press freedom, freedom of speech and publication, and freedom of assembly and association.
Beginning in July 2013, Chinese law enforcement rounded up leaders and financial supporters of the New Citizens Movement, a public interest campaign whose leadership has called for moderate, progressive in-system reform rather than revolution or political violence. The move indicated that the Xi government holds an approach to even moderate reformers, a step that Hu Jintao rarely took.
This repressive move unfolded in tandem with a reinvigorated campaign to strengthen ideological purity. The campaign may be exemplified by the now-infamous “Seven Speak-Nots,” a classified directive (Document No. 9) issued by the CPC Central Committee that prohibited party cadres and school teachers (especially universities, colleges and graduate schools) from speaking on seven subjects that challenged the one-party rule and ideological control. Given the fact that Xi Jinping launched ideological rectification campaigns during the first year of his tenure and without external provocations, he was ahead of Hu Jintao in terms of political-ideological control.
In January 2014, Ilham Tohti was arrested and detained for the charge of inciting separatism. Tohti was a moderate Uyghur professor who advocated for in-system structural reform. In September 2014, Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of his assets.
Gao Yu, a senior and internationally-acclaimed female journalist was arrested in April 2014 for the charge of leaking state secrets. She was given a jail term of seven years.  The verdict clearly indicated that the state secret in her case referred to the Document No. 9. Then came the mass arrest of public interest lawyers and rights activists in July 2015.

For China observers, the systematic assault on law professionals in July 2015 was the latest—and so far the most conspicuous—evidence of China’s deteriorating human rights situation, a worrisome development that began in 2005 but exacerbated after Xi Jinping took the reins in December 2012. In terms of operational complexity and coordination, the July clampdown was unprecedented. Unlike previous attacks on human rights advocates, this time the party-state’s propaganda machine joined the coercive effort by quickly rolling out extensive and well-prepared coverage on the crackdown, claiming that the nationwide operations were meant to advance the rule of law. China Central Television and Xinhua News Agency even broadcasted a video footage of the confession of an arrested lawyer whose Beijing Fengrui Law Firm was the prime target of this wave of state repression for its legal activism in defending lawful rights of dissidents.

Expectedly, the mass arrest has soon drawn voluminous criticisms from a variety of international actors. Individual Western governments, United Nations human rights bodies, human rights NGOs, legal academics, and bar associations of various localities have raised concerns, lodged protests, and urged the Chinese government to respect fundamental freedoms and rights of public interest lawyers and rights activists. In particular, rights-defending groups emphasized that Beijing has violated not only international human rights standards but also criminal justice procedures of her own. Notwithstanding international pressure, the Chinese authorities followed through on repressive actions anyway. That the Xi Jinping government pursued the sweeping repression in total disregard of international pressure tells much about his confidence in China’s soaring power vis-à-vis that of Western countries and international civil society.

This unfortunate development has inevitably raised doubts about the efficacy and future necessity of international engagement in China’s human rights development that has lasted for more than a quarter century. Have international normative forces changed human rights in China, following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989? International moral outrage in response to the Massacre and the following repression came about in conjunction with diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. However, these international campaigns of “naming, shaming, and shunning” failed to democratize Chinese politics. The government of the Communist Party of China resisted international human rights pressure by allocating significant resources to defend China’s international status and image. The 1990s hence witnessed frequent Sino-Western clashes over rights violations allegedly perpetrated by the Chinese government, making human rights an abiding issue of contention in China’s foreign relations.

Toward the late 1990s, however, Western governments found confrontational approaches to be increasingly ineffective in forcing Beijing to make concessions on human rights issues. Not only was open confrontation ineffective in reducing systematic abuses in China, the confrontational approach was also costly economically, because the CPC government used its purchasing power and the access to low-cost Chinese labor as economic leverage to dissuade individual Western powers from sponsoring or endorsing UN resolutions critical of alleged CPC abuses. The disappointing results eventually prompted Western governments to adopt communicative and cooperative approaches. In the meantime, international human rights pressure had indeed forced Beijing to respond. Party propagandists and in-system scholars hastily digested and critiqued the liberal idea of human rights, with an overarching goal of bending the liberal notion to serve the party-state’s illiberal agenda. Furthermore, during the early years of the 1990s the CPC propaganda system scrambled to set up scores of policy research bodies to thwart the persuasive power of the liberal human rights idea. It was these research bodies and in-house researchers that have later facilitated Sino-Western exchanges and cooperation on the studies of human rights. Since the late 1990s, confrontation and cooperation have co-existed in the course of Sino-Western contention over human rights.

So may we evaluate the quarter century of international engagement in China’s human rights as a total failure, given the worsening—instead of improving—situation of human rights in China? Not quite, if we evaluate international human rights engagement by different criteria. International engagement would be considered as a waste, if it is meant to stimulate regime change that eventually democratizes China. International engagement in China’s human rights has been an integral part of political relationship between China and foreign countries. It was during the confidential official human rights dialogues that the idea of technical cooperation in the fields of human rights and rule of law was proposed and accepted. As a result, bilateral cooperation has from the very beginning founded upon the mutual understanding and trust developed between the Chinese government and her Western counterparts. Since the presence and activities of bilateral human rights cooperation are subject to the approval—or at least acquiescence—of the Chinese government, human rights groups implementing cooperation projects have chosen not to challenge the existing Chinese political system. For international human rights specialists who worked inside China with local partners, their operations were possible only if they stayed away from open criticism.

Efforts of international engagement in China’s human rights development have concentrated on one or a few of the following three types of activities: (1) ideational transfusion of human rights through education and awareness campaigns; (2) technical assistance for rights-protecting legislations; (3) capacity building for rights protection in public administration and non-governmental sectors. Nevertheless, it was rather difficult to identify a particular bilateral cooperation project as the most decisive factor—amidst the whole gamut of other domestic and international factors at play—that caused the desired changes in public policy or legislation in China.

Assessing the impact of international engagement in terms of causality in the Chinese context has proved to be not only inappropriate but nearly untenable. Instead of causality, it is more sensible and practicable that project impact be assessed in terms of local participation and empowerment.

As the famous model of human rights transformation-the spiral model-shows, one effective way for international actors to have real impact on local human rights situation is through involving and empowering domestic civil society actors. Most of the activities by international actors aim at just that: enriching domestic civil society actors’ human rights knowledge, enhancing their rights-defending capabilities, and broadening their domestic and international networks. Despite all the political restrictions and difficulties, plenty of evidence has suggested that international actors have raised the level of public awareness on human rights, empowered domestic civil society actors, changed local practices in some areas, and forced the Chinese government to respond to human rights controversies in a more legalistic—rather than ideological—fashion. In that sense, what we witnessed in July 2015 is actually a concrete result—even a fateful consequence—of international human rights engagement in China: law students in colleges and graduate schools who studied liberal, Western-style curricula have become public interest lawyers and human rights activists pursuing social justice, even political change. They are familiar with international human rights norms and conventions, and have learned from their participation in international engagement projects to launch public awareness campaigns and mobilize innovative legal strategies. Looking from this perspective, state repression—such as the latest ones in July 2015—has ironically signified the reactive and passive posture of Chinese authoritarians. To be sure, the limited success achieved by international actors so far does not mean that rapid human rights changes will happen in the near future. Still, international engagement in different forms can achieve tangible results. It may be the case that sometimes a quiet approach could be more effective and other times a ‘naming and shaming’ strategy could be more effective. China’s social-political environment requires a mixed approach of international human rights engagement.

Titus C. Chen is Associate Professor at the Institute of China & Asia-Pacific Studies, National Sun Yat-sen University. Image Credit: CC by Eric Constantineau/Flickr