Parth Sharma | China Fellow
In February, 23 Government-organised non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) with links to the Chinese Communist Party submitted reports as civil society organisations (CSOs) for the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights review.
This is one of many instances where GONGOs with ties to the CCP have tried to bolster China’s soft power influence. In 2015, the UN’s database contained 47 NGOs based in mainland China, Macau, and Hong Kong. 34 of them were GONGOs. Although there is no clear figure about the number of GONGOs active in China, these discussions can be problematic as the majority of CSOs are believed by academics studying the field to be GONGOs or have government ties.
One of the more infamous incidents of the tensions between Chinese GONGOs and human rights advocacy came during the March 2014 Human Rights Council session to accept China’s Universal Periodic Review report. An affiliate of a GONGO called the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture took photos of Ti-Anna Wang, the daughter of detained human rights activist Wang Bingzhang along with her laptop screen and belongings. This was done in a bid to intimidate Wang from speaking out against the government’s narratives through the fear that she too would experience the same fate as her father.
Many of these actors are promoting a vision of human progress that prioritises economic development over individual civil liberties. This philosophy, known as "human rights with Chinese characteristics” seeks to enhance the perceived legitimacy of the CCP’s own normative vision of human rights which runs counter to the universalistic understanding of human rights adopted by the UN.
The agency of the citizenry and grassroots political mobilisation is embedded within the conceptions of democracy. Because of this, academic scholarship has long associated the role of civil society with democracy. This stems from the Tocquevillean theoretical perspective, which suggests that CSOs within authoritarian states are generally formed to promote and pursue democratic objectives.
Most scholars of democratisation and grassroots movements continued to understand society as a homogenous world of organisations that share democratic values, do not seek to take political power, and refrain from resorting to violent means to promote their values and interests. This association neglects the existence of substantial and influential civil society groups that oppose liberal ideals and/or use violence.
In China, a number of GONGOs have emerged that pedal the CCP’s party line and seek to validate the policies and actions of the central authority. During UN evaluations of China’s human rights performance, the CCP has been assisted by GONGOs with strong ties to the party in attempts to avoid criticism for their actions.
One such organisation is the China Society for Human Rights Studies (CSHRS), which has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. This grants it membership in the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations, and thus the power to promote the CCP’s human rights vision by speaking directly to officials of the UN Secretariat and other organs.
The current CSHRS Secretary General Lu Guangjin is the Director of the Human Rights Bureau of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. The Vice-President of the CSHRS Shen Yongxiang happens to be on the aforementioned United Nations Committee undertaking the economic, social, and cultural Rights review. Taiwan-based academic Titus Chen has referred to the CSHRS as a front for the Human Rights Bureau of the State Council Information Office, which is the Chinese government’s external propaganda division. Chen observes that the two even share the same office and location.
The CSHRS has promoted this normative agenda by hosting side events at international forums. In 2019, the CSHRS and the Chinese Mission to the UN held an event at the UN headquarters in New York. There, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun argued that the international community should respect the right of states to have “different choices of development paths and human rights protections models” rather than the universalistic approach that the Chinese regime has fallen foul of.
At the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, the CSHRS praised China’s human rights track record in Xinjiang while making no reference to allegations of genocide in Xinjiang. This can be seen as an attempt to shift the narrative regarding mass human rights violations against the Chinese Uyghur minority.
China's underhanded approach has arguably been quite successful. In October last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted down a motion to hold a debate over allegations of human rights abuses against minorities in China, including against Muslims and Uighurs. This came despite a report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights two months prior that found serious human rights violations occurred in Xinjiang that can be classified as crimes against humanity.
The state visit of former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to China in May 2022 was also mired in controversy. Her visit to Xinjiang was completely supervised by Chinese officials, while elsewhere, Bachelet was able to meet with civil society groups away from government supervision.
In her press conference at the end of her tour six-day tour, Bachelet was heavily criticised by rights groups and academics. Bachelet failed to condemn China's actions, making unrelated statements about issues in the US, and for using the CCP's preferred terminology of "vocational education and training centre" in referring to the facilities where Uighur minorities are reportedly being detained.
What’s more, the 2016 Charity Law which sets out regulations for domestic NGOs and requirements for registration has a problematic article. Article 3 sets out that social service organisations “must not endanger national unity, security or ethnic unity…. and must not go against social morality”. Civil society groups have expressed concern over the morality article for fears that they could be shut down for stepping out of line with the government, regardless of whether they broke any laws. The Charity Law and the Foreign NGO Law passed in 2017 that has been viewed as aiming to restrict NGOs from overseas have constrained CSOs and even led to closures across a range of areas such as Tibetan rights, LGBTQI+ advocacy, labour rights and think tanks.
At the very least, GONGOs that spread the CCP’s normative vision restrict the precious time that international organs have in gathering valuable details about human rights concerns, forcing them to spend more time and resources in vetting whom to trust. At their worst, GONGOs can influence key decision-makers through the legitimacy and direct access gained from their consultations with international bodies. Ultimately, this will mean that the human rights violations committed by the CCP remain covered in darkness.
Parth Sharma is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. He is studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne and is a Melbourne Graduate Scholarship award holder from the 2022 intake.
Throughout his studies, Parth has extensively examined China’s internal domestic context and foreign policy. He is currently interning at the Australia India Institute and will be heading to Jakarta at the end of the year to take part in the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program.