Beijing Is Pouring Resources into Its UN Human Rights Review—All to Prevent Any Real Review from Taking Place

On January 23, a large delegation of Chinese officials will appear at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) to try to defend the indefensible. For the first time since 2018, China will undergo a Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which UN member states evaluate one another’s human rights records.

When Xi Jinping took power just over a decade ago, China was already an authoritarian, one-party state, but since then he has tightened control so severely that persecution of dissidents and government monitoring of virtually all areas of life have become common. Xi’s assault on human rights inside and outside China, including arbitrarily detaining more than a million Uyghurs and issuing bounties for Hong Kong dissidents who have fled abroad, is now so pervasive that some veteran observers liken Xi’s rule to Mao Zedong’s extensive political control. Xi has also sought to decapitate the weiquan, or rights defense movement, using extensive jail sentences, forced disappearances, black jails, and ongoing persecution. In 2023, Chinese courts sentenced rights defenders Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi to 14-year and 12-year jail terms, respectively. Uyghur intellectuals Ilham Tohti and Rahile Dawut have also received life sentences.

Halting this downward spiral requires that all those with a stake in the strength of international human rights institutions pursue accountability.

But precisely because the UN’s review presents an opportunity for scrutiny, China’s government has worked to thwart it, limiting civil society input, submitting dishonest information, and encouraging allies to praise Beijing’s human rights violations. China rallies its allies, many of them with troubled human rights records themselves, to flood the proceedings with bland or adulatory statements on China. Since the time allotted for this procedure is only three and half hours, each of the more than 160 countries registered to comment will have only a moment to speak, essentially preventing countries with genuine concerns from meaningfully raising them. If this gambit succeeds, it won’t just have once again denied vast numbers of people in China a rare opportunity to bring international scrutiny to China’s human rights conditions, it will also mark Beijing’s progress in eroding the UN Human Rights Council’s capacity to hold China’s leaders accountable. Such an outcome could have repercussions beyond China’s borders.

Governments under review are supposed to consult widely inside their countries to develop a national report on human rights in preparation for a dialogue with other governments’ representatives at the HRC. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also compiles two documents: one summarizing all UN scrutiny of the government under review, including, for example, the findings of experts who review human rights treaty obligations, and another summarizing reports from independent civil society groups.

The process not only involves an exchange in which representatives of the government under review make a presentation and answer questions from representatives of other governments. It also yields a set of recommendations made by other governments, which the government under review can accept or reject. The efficacy of the review depends almost entirely on whether the governments engage in good faith.

Chinese authorities manipulate the process in several ways. First, the national report is a work of fiction straight from government officials and propaganda authorities. None of the grave human rights violations raised through other UN reviews or international civil society groups—from crimes against humanity to torture to rampant censorship—get a mention in Beijing’s report. It asserts it is “fostering historic achievements in the cause of human rights in China.” The only problems it admits: “obstacles . . . to promoting high-quality development” and “our ability to innovate in science and technology is not yet strong.”

A second tactic supports this deception: In clear violation of the UPR guidelines, Chinese authorities prohibit independent civil society in the country from participating in drafting the report. Since China’s 2018 UPR, Chinese officials have detained, disappeared, or driven into exile the environmentalists, feminists, lawyers, and other peaceful activists who could offer input. In 2013, Beijing authorities arbitrarily detained a human rights defender, Cao Shunli, who was trying to travel to Geneva to learn about UN human rights processes; she died in police custody in March 2014. The organizations listed as contributing to the 2024 UPR national report are all either organized by or uncritical of the government.

Third, Beijing works to ensure its allies offer up gushing praise in their remarks at the dialogue. It also encourages those governments to make recommendations that are so vague as to make it easy for Beijing to accept them and claim progress. At China’s 2018 UPR, Azerbaijan recommended that Beijing “consider including measures aimed at ensuring the increased efficiency and accountability of public services.” The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an independent human rights group, points out that some “recommendations” actually effectively endorse ongoing human rights abuses, such as Iran’s proposing that Beijing “safeguard its political system.”

Last but not least, the credibility of reviews can be affected by the relentless pressure Beijing applies to UN institutions. During its 2018 review, Chinese authorities succeeded in temporarily removing critical submissions from Hong Kong, Tibetan, and Uyghur groups.

Scandalously absent from the 2024 UN compilation of its own China assessments for China’s upcoming review: the most damning finding of the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights’ own August 2022 report examining the Chinese government’s mass human rights violations targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities. That report concluded with a critical allegation that resonated globally: that Beijing’s policies “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”

The report relied on interviews with Uyghur survivors, used other primary sources, and verified many of the reports made by civil society groups since 2017 when Uyghurs started disappearing en masse. While the UN’s compilation does reference this August 2022 report, it omits this allegation—the most serious ever leveled by a UN body at the Chinese government. Inclusion of this allegation would help avert China’s efforts to whitewash its abuses.

China’s upcoming UPR is an opportunity for governments concerned about Beijing’s grim human rights record and the integrity of the UN human rights system to advance strong positions. They should ask the Chinese delegation about genocide, crimes against humanity, and other efforts to eradicate distinct ethnic identities, including government policy toward the Uyghur community to, as one Chinese religious affairs official suggested in 2017, “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.”

They should demand explanations about the detention of specific human rights defenders, including Gao Zhisheng, Anya Sengdra, Joshua Wong, and Zhang Zhan, and ask why Beijing will not issue invitations to UN human rights experts who have asked for years to conduct visits to China. Volker Turk, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should also use the occasion of the review to recommit to investigations into Chinese government crimes against humanity.

The utility of the process on January 23 rests on rights-respecting diplomats making maximum use of an opportunity Beijing systematically denies to the people who need it most.