Betting on the Long Term, 1998–1999

Rosemary Foot

in Rights Beyond Borders

Published in print September 2000 | ISBN: 9780198297765
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191599279 | DOI:
Betting on the Long Term, 1998–1999

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All governments involved in the human rights struggle in China could claim certain policy successes by 1998: for the democracies, there was the release of a few Chinese dissidents, a visit to China by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, some reinforcement of the language of universality of rights and China's signature of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and the starting or restarting of dialogues. On Beijing's part, its efforts to publicize the new legal codes and punish those who failed to observe the legal changes demonstrated a willingness to tackle the problems associated with implementation, and it could reassure the more nationalist elements among its domestic public that UN condemnation would now cease, and that it would be engaged in mutual exchanges on human rights with its international counterparts. The Chinese leadership also appeared to have had some success in convincing various international actors of the need to correct the supposed imbalance in attention on civil and political rights, to one that focused more on the right to development and economic, social, and cultural rights. The fragility of this process was demonstrated far sooner than any had predicted, however, with a distinct chill in the Chinese political climate emerging by the end of 1998. Many Chinese, mostly academics, continued to publish and debate various aspects of the law and human rights and use international standards as a basis for their arguments, but more organized challenges were swiftly clamped down upon, especially 10 years after Tiananmen that encouraged reflection on the Party's record. These repressive acts exposed the shallowness of the roots of the new legal codes, the narrow limits of political tolerance, and the relative lack of importance that the state attached to human rights protection when Party control was at stake. They also uncovered the weaknesses in the bilateral dialogue route. Yet any concrete moves to respond directly to the political oppression via a condemnatory resolution at the UN Commission provoked a Chinese threat to break off the bilateral dialogues, and indeed China did break off its dialogue with the USA, partly as a result of Washington's decision to co‐sponsor (with Poland only) a resolution at the 1999 meeting of the UN Commission and more overtly as a consequence of the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The overall cooling in relations with the USA for a large part of 1999 occurred as a result of this UN resolution, the failure to resolve the WTO entry issue, and the bypassing of the UN Security Council as a result of China's known disapproval of international intervention in Kosovo. NATO bombing of the province at the time of President Jiang Zemin's tour of Europe, together with the Belgrade embassy incident in May, led to a resurgence of Chinese rhetoric against the hegemonic USA interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states on the specious grounds of a norm of humanitarian intervention.

Keywords: bilateral dialogue; bombing of the Chinese embassy; China; hegemonic USA; human rights; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Kosovo; relations with USA; repression; rights; UN Commission; universality of rights; WTO entry

Chapter.  13443 words. 

Subjects: International Relations

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