Intense pressure is currently mounting on the United Nations leadership to establish without delay an international mechanism for monitoring rights abuses in China.
A global rights group, Human Rights Watch is pushing governments to build on the growing outrage and exert diplomatic pressure on the UN to act.
The group wants the US and other governments to make decisions about Chinese tech companies based on human rights considerations, including the companies’ impact on the rights of people around the world—not just their own citizens.
The Chinese companies Tencent, owner of WeChat, and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, play a significant role in facilitating and entrenching the Chinese government’s censorship, surveillance, and propaganda regime inside China.
There is emerging evidence that they also have a debilitating influence on rights outside the country.
ByteDance’s products catering to Chinese users—including news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, search engine Toutiao Search, and Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok—all censor what the Chinese government considers “politically sensitive” content.
The company also censored content it considered critical of the PRC government on its news aggregator app in Indonesia from 2018 to mid-2020.
Through Douyin, ByteDance worked closely with the PRC police to disseminate state propaganda whitewashing Beijing’s abuses in Xinjiang. ByteDance also signed an agreement with the Ministry of Public Security to promote “the influence and credibility” of police departments nationwide.
Similarly, WeChat censors and surveils users on the PRC government’s behalf and hands over user data to authorities when “sensitive” information is discovered. There have been numerous reports about people getting harassed, detained, or imprisoned for their private messages on WeChat.
A man in Shandong province was sentenced to 10 months in prison for sending a single video clip referencing an anti-government campaign to a US-based friend. Uighurs and Tibetans
A study by Citizen Lab in Canada showed that WeChat also surveils its users outside the PRC to build up the database it uses to censor PRC-registered accounts.
ByteDance and Tencent may have enriched many people’s lives by facilitating expression, but their very success became possible at least in part because they actively assist the PRC government’s suppression of speech.
Last year, the U.S. government sanctioned dozens of Chinese tech companies for their role in human rights violations in China. All governments grappling with Beijing’s increasingly global tech-enabled censorship and surveillance need to develop legitimate, necessary, and transparent responses that take into account how the human rights of all users—not just their own citizens—are impacted.
Ensuring that Chinese tech companies are held accountable for facilitating human rights violations while not creating a race to the bottom and not endangering the future of an open, interoperable global Internet is a delicate matter.
But there are solutions with fewer potential negative effects: The US and other governments should provide alternate channels of communication and invest in open-source technologies that enable people in the PRC to more easily circumvent censorship so that they do not get trapped in the black hole of Chinese companies’ censorship and surveillance.
Domestically, those governments need to strengthen their own data protection laws so the privacy of users can be protected from the abusive practices of all companies, Chinese or others.
A cross-regional group of 39 United Nations member countries issued a stinging public rebuke today of the Chinese government’s widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet, proof that a growing number of governments are voicing their alarm, despite Beijing’s threats of retaliation.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong,” German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen said in a statement on behalf of the group to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee. “We call on China to respect human rights.”
Supporters of the German-led statement includes Britain, Canada, the US, many European Union member states, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, Honduras, Palau, and the Marshall Islands.
The joint statement endorses an unprecedented appeal from 50 UN human rights experts for the creation of a UN mechanism for monitoring human rights in China. A recent global civil society appeal from over 400 organizations echoed the experts’ call.
The countries also urged China to allow UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet unfettered access to Xinjiang, where China is repressing its Muslim minority.
Beijing says it is ready to welcome her, but diplomats say Beijing has not promised her the free access necessary to properly assess the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Bachelet should disregard Beijing’s delays and obfuscations and exercise her independent mandate to publicly report on Beijing’s rights abuses, with or without access.
Several diplomats said China had been warning delegations that supporting today’s statement could result in economic and political consequences.
The statement, which builds on a similar joint condemnation led by the United Kingdom government at the Human Rights Council in June, shows that an increasing number of governments are willing to brave China’s threats and intimidation.
As usual, China rounded up several dozen countries to praise it in two separate statements, one on Xinjiang read out by Cuba, and another on Hong Kong delivered by Pakistan. China’s support list reads like a virtual Who’s Who of leading rights abusers, including Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.