China and the Rules-Based International System Contents

4China’s approach to global governance

Global trade and the WTO

55.We heard very clearly in Beijing that China acknowledges the international economic order as one which has brought it considerable benefits—and in particular that China’s membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has underpinned a spectacular era of growth. We also heard that China is keen to affirm the centrality of the WTO in global trade, and that China deplores the United States’ use of punitive tariffs in their bilateral trade dispute, as opposed to the WTO’s dispute mechanisms. However, our interlocutors in Beijing emphasised that China still seeks WTO reform, with an emphasis on increasing the voice of developing countries.

56.From our witnesses, we heard mixed evidence about China’s progress in implementing the commitments it made when it joined the WTO. Dr Kobayashi pointed out that China’s accession protocol was the “longest ever” in the WTO’s history, and “had transparency commitments going beyond what exactly WTO ensures”, reflecting the fact that China’s “start line” was “very far” from WTO standards.125 Dr Kobayashi argued that China has adopted “significant measures, if you look at basic regulatory standards. They did not have competition law; now they have an anti-monopoly law, which is a huge step … I think you have to see this as a kind of progression.”126 Dr Knoerich told us that in “many areas, China did implement what they committed to when they entered, but there are lingering areas where they have not”. China has, he told us, “selected aspects that work well, and waited and kept back on other aspects, even when China might have committed to them—for example, allowing market access in certain sectors, such as finance and telecommunications, which they had to some degree agreed to”.127 Kevin Rudd told us that objective analysis of China’s membership of the WTO would produce a “mixed picture”, highlighting two specific areas in need of change in China’s approach: intellectual property protections, and “the range of administrative mechanisms that China deploys as non-tariff barriers”.128 George Magnus made similar comments, noting that the United States “may be clumsy in the way that it is going about dealing with China at the moment [by applying punitive tariffs], but it is fundamentally not wrong” in drawing attention to the difficulty of getting market access in China, including for services.129

57.Dr Scott Kennedy, Senior Adviser of Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, argued in written evidence that China is “probably content with over 90% of the WTO’s current rules”, noting that China has been able to take advantage of the differential treatment afforded to developing countries, and that “the existing rules for all WTO members place relatively limited constraints on Chinese industrial policy”. Dr Kennedy said that China has had to “scale back explicit state-directed planning”, but that it had used other rules in defence of its interests, and even when it lost cases it had found ways not to fundamentally liberalise its domestic industry.130 Dr Kennedy suggested that China would in future seek to avoid new constraints on industrial subsidies or state-owned enterprises, and would not want the WTO or other bodies to “expand deeply into competition policy” or adopt rules that would constrain its ability to control the internet.131

58.The Minister told us of various concerns relating to China’s economic and trade practices, including “burdensome and uneven conditions” facing UK companies in China, such as the requirement to create joint ventures as a condition of market access in China, which is not reciprocated for Chinese companies entering the UK market.132 In a March 2019 speech in Washington DC, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that the Chinese state had “undue” influence in the economy: “economic diplomacy can be used as a threat or a reward, the intellectual property of our companies is stolen, and state subsidies, either direct or indirect, are common.”133

59.China has benefited greatly from its membership of the WTO, and the organisation’s continued health is a major point of overlap between British and Chinese interests. China clearly seeks a role in global governance in this area. A number of China’s economic practices do pose challenges for the principles on which the global trading regime is based, even taking into account China’s circumstances as a developing economy, and in this regard there is a valid basis to some of the complaints made by the United States. However, the US approach to this dispute, including the use of punitive tariffs, has put the stability of the global trade regime at risk. The UK can play an important role in this dispute, by encouraging both countries to focus on the protection of the integrity of the trade regime, including reciprocal market access, in their negotiations.

60.In its response to this report, the Government should set out how it will continue its efforts to increase market access for UK and foreign companies in China, and to encourage China to strengthen intellectual property protections. Through the Economic and Financial Dialogue, the Government should make the case to China that the continued health of the global trading regime, and the WTO in particular, depends on China making progress on these areas. The Government should be clear that UK support for China’s aspirations for WTO reform will be boosted by evidence that China is working towards these goals.

International human rights mechanisms

61.Because this inquiry was designed to examine China’s engagement with the international rules-based system, China’s domestic human rights record was not initially a primary focus. Nevertheless, we received extensive evidence that China’s domestic human rights record is indeed poor and worsening, including a tightening of censorship, a crackdown on human rights activists and lawyers, targeting of student Marxist protestors, and repression in Tibet.134 Most concerning of all is the developing situation in Xinjiang, which Professor Tsang told us was on a scale not seen since the end of Chairman Mao’s time in power.135 The UK Government’s own assessment is that “over a million Uighurs and other minorities” have suffered oppression in Xinjiang, through detention in “political re-education” camps, extensive cultural restrictions, and monitoring through “extensive use of sophisticated technologies … supported by a heavy police presence”.136 The experts we spoke to found the allegations of the scale and severity of China’s repression of the Uighur population to be credible.137 There have also been extensive reports that advanced surveillance technologies are being tested and used in Xinjiang to monitor the Uighur population, for application elsewhere in China and potential export to other countries.138 This was a clear preoccupation of informed international observers we spoke to in Beijing, and it is one that the UK Government shares. The Minister told us that the Government’s “particular worry is for the implications of the surveillance and monitoring; presumably, if they are focused on 1 million dissidents, as the Chinese authorities might see it, they could be pushed out to a far larger number of people”.139

62.Professor Pils noted that the Chinese government’s defence for its actions in Xinjiang is to present it as a “response to terrorism”.140 We asked witnesses whether this might in fact backfire, breeding resentment and potentially fuelling violent extremism. Professor Tsang agreed, telling us that China “will end up with a scale of Islamist terrorism that will make the one that we face dwarf into insignificance.”141

63.The Chinese constitution states that “The State respects and preserves human rights”; that citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration” and “enjoy freedom of religious belief”; and that “freedom of the person is inviolable”.142 When we expressed our concerns about human rights in Beijing, we were reminded again of China’s unique achievement in pulling 800 million people out of poverty, and asked to respect the fact that China has a different conception of human rights, deriving from its distinct history. We have sympathy with the argument that China’s extraordinary economic achievements represent a form of progress on human rights in itself. However, as multiple evidence submissions to this inquiry made clear, this line of argument from China appears to be used as a way of deflecting valid criticisms, and to promote alternative international human-rights norms which lead to less criticism of China for its repression of individual and political freedoms.

64.Professor Eva Pils told us China is

increasingly attempting to use the UN-based mechanisms in which it participates to manipulate how human rights norms are internationally understood. In my view, it does so with a clear purpose of undermining the principle of universality, which is central to the practical functioning of public international human rights law, of weakening the principle of freedom of speech and associated rights within the human rights system, and of undermining the legitimacy of human rights defenders, whom it tends to portray as subversive and whom it subjects to systematic and increasingly vicious persecution.143

65.Witnesses drew our attention to the December 2017 “South-South Human Rights Forum” hosted by Xi Jinping in Beijing, with what Chinese authorities said was the participation of more than 300 representatives of over 70 countries. The forum resulted in a statement labelled the “Beijing Declaration”, which stated that each country should “choose a human rights development path or guarantee model that suits its specific conditions”; emphasised that “all civilizations should be recognized as equal and should be respected”; and asserted that “all countries, big or small, have the right to determine their political systems, control and freely use their own resources, and independently pursue their own economic, social and cultural development”.144 This represents an alternative vision of human rights, more favourable to China and potentially at odds with the universality of human rights, including political and individual rights.145

66.At China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in November 2018, the UK noted that political and civil rights in China have deteriorated, and said it was “very concerned about the treatment of ethnic minorities–including Uyghurs and Tibetans”. The UK recommended that China ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention and its 2014 Protocol, implement the recommendations by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on Xinjiang, and allow the UN to monitor their implementation, and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.146 In its response to the UPR, China rejected the UK’s recommendations, along with several others made by participating countries.147 Our witnesses also noted that China has taken an increasingly activist role at the Human Rights Council to ensure that its interests are protected, and had achieved apparent success in enlisting other countries’ support for its positions and deflecting criticism.148

67.In the area of human rights, the evidence suggests that China does not intend to reform the rules-based international system but rather intends to subvert it, by promoting an alternative version of human rights which stresses economic development at the cost of the universality of individual civil and political freedoms. It also appears that China may have an increasingly favourable international audience for such efforts.

68.We welcome the Government’s efforts to hold China to account through UN mechanisms, public statements and private diplomacy for its human rights violations. We urge the FCO to redouble these efforts, and in particular to seek international support to uphold the principle of the universality of human rights, the coherence of the current international human rights legal framework, and the legitimacy of country-specific human rights scrutiny.

69.We are extremely concerned by the treatment of the Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang province, where there is credible evidence to believe that more than a million Uighur people and other minorities have been held in detention camps. This is a violation of universal human rights norms and laws, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. China is sowing the possibility of conflict into its future. The persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslim population and other minorities is not just wrong in itself—it is likely to breed resentment and extremism, storing up the potential for grave future security threats, which could have repercussions far beyond China. As such, it is a potential national security threat to the United Kingdom.

70.We welcome the efforts that the Government has made to date to publicise conditions in Xinjiang and to raise concerns about related serious and systematic human rights violations there; we encourage the Government to continue those efforts. The consequences of radicalisation may not be restricted to China. We urge the Government to support efforts at the United Nations to create targeted international mechanisms to investigate the situation in Xinjiang, and to insist on the use of existing mechanisms such as visits by relevant special rapporteurs, including on freedom of religion or belief, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Government should also raise the plight of the Uighur-Muslim population of Xinjiang with other countries, including in forthcoming senior-level bilateral talks with Muslim-majority countries, and should urge those countries to express concern both publicly and privately in their own discussions with Chinese officials.

Cooperation in multilateral fora

71.The FCO told us that “Bilaterally, and as permanent members of the UN Security Council, we engage extensively with China on a range of threats to international security”.149 A major divergence between China and the UK on the UN Security Council has been over Syria, where China has largely supported Russian positions opposing intervention, which the Syrian government was against, to resolve the conflict and hold those responsible for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law to account. This reflects China’s acute concerns about state sovereignty and what it sees as the right of governments to maintain order. The FCO noted that although China’s preference for consensus “means it has used its veto less often than any other P5 member, eight of its eleven vetoes [as of January 2018] have come since 2007, and the last six related to Syria”.150

72.China has also supported Russian positions on the related issue of chemical weapons use, both over Syria and following the Salisbury attack in the UK. We were struck, in our conversations in Beijing, by the strength of alignment in world views between China and Russia on such topics. For example, we were told that the UK-Russia dispute over Salisbury was, as one influential interlocutor put it, a question of “he said, she said”—despite the compelling evidence presented by the UK and corroborated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It was also reported in the media in December 2018 that China and Russia had boycotted talks on a UK draft resolution at the Security Council to address the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.151 Although there are significant political differences between China and Russia, our witnesses were confident that the two countries’ alignment in international fora was likely to continue, for reasons on China’s side including energy needs, support on governance issues such as cyber sovereignty, support for warding off human rights criticism, and military exercises that improve China’s performance in using its forces and modern equipment.152

73.The FCO presented in its written submission a number of success stories in UK-China cooperation in multilateral contexts. The most significant is climate change. As the FCO observed, “President Xi has been vocal in his support for the Paris Agreement, and China pressed in multilateral fora for early ratification. Following the US announcement to withdraw, China reaffirmed its commitment and willingness to work with all countries to promote low carbon sustainable growth, and China will play an important role in the negotiations to determine how the Paris Agreement will be implemented”.153 We got a clear sense in Beijing of the importance China attaches to this issue, including the link it sees between domestic and international environmental concerns.

74.On nuclear non-proliferation, the FCO rightly observed China’s important role as a signatory to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. On public health, there are significant joint UK-China projects to develop bilateral partnerships between public and private healthcare institutions in both countries,154 including a recently announced initiative to tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance.155 On the illegal wildlife trade, Mark Field told us that the conference the UK had hosted in October 2018 had seen a “recognition from China of the importance of dealing with illegal wildlife trading.”156 He presented this as an example of an area where “if you scratch beneath the surface, you can suddenly begin to develop a body of trust and good will where you can work together, where values and interests begin to coincide.”157

75.Across all these areas, we believe the key question for UK policy is not simply whether the UK and China can work together on things China agrees with, but instead whether the UK has any influence in shifting China’s positions on issues where the UK and China disagree. We asked the Minister to provide an example of a policy area where the UK had managed to change China’s mind. His initial response was that “off hand, I can’t directly”, but he then spoke of China’s recognition of the importance of action against climate change.158

76.There are a number of success stories from UK partnership with China in multilateral fora, including in the areas of climate change, counter-proliferation, global health and the illegal wildlife trade. The scale of the challenges in several areas of the UK-China relationship makes it important for the UK to emphasise and build on those areas that are functioning well. We also see a clear desire on China’s part to appear as a constructive partner in global governance, for example on trade and climate change, which provides a platform to build on. As China’s presence in international fora grows, the ability to exert effective influence on China will become an increasingly important aspect of UK diplomacy. However, in our session with the Minister, we did not get the impression that a systematic effort has been made to understand to what extent, and how, the UK has managed to shift Chinese policies.

77.The FCO should lead an internal “lessons-learned” exercise across Government examining successes and failures in shifting Chinese positions on specific policy issues. This exercise should seek to identify what sources of leverage, if any, the UK drew on; what Chinese interests were at stake; which institutions within the Chinese government were most amenable to UK positions; and which diplomatic tactics were most effective. This exercise should include an effort to determine whether quiet diplomacy with China works, or whether public pressure, criticism or encouragement is necessary, especially in areas where our interests diverge. We recommend that the FCO report back to us the headline outcomes of this exercise before the end of 2019.


129 See Q6 and Q21

130 Scott Kennedy (CIR0027)

131 Scott Kennedy (CIR0027)

133 Cecilia Malmström, The Next Transatlantic Project, speech at Georgetown University, 7 March 2019

134 See Scottish Centre for Himalayan Research (CIR0005), Human Rights Watch (CIR0006), Free Tibet (CIR0016), and Professor Eva Pils (CIR0029).

136 Human Rights: Xinjiang, HC Deb, 29 January 2019, c343WH

138 See, for example, China: Big Data Fuels Crackdown in Minority Region, Human Rights Watch, 26 February 2018; and Data leak reveals China is tracking almost 2.6m people in Xinjiang, Financial Times, 16 February 2019; Charles Parton, China’s bigger brother, The World Today, August/September 2018; and Sui-Lee Wee, China Uses DNA to Track Its People, With the Help of American Expertise, New York Times, 21 February 2019

140 Q114. See also Didi Tang, Muslim detention camps help the war on terror, claims China, The Times, 19 March 2019

143 Professor Eva Pils (CIR0029)

145 The FCO also referred in its written submission to China’s diplomatic efforts to promote an alternative view of human rights. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CIR0018)

146 Universal Periodic Review 31: China, UK Mission to the UN Geneva, 6 November 2018

147 Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, China, Addendum, Views on conclusions and/or recommendations, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review, 15 February 2019, A/HRC/40/6/Add. 1

148 See Q101; and Professor Eva Pils (CIR0029)

149 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CIR0018)

150 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CIR0018)

153 Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CIR0018)

155 Department of Health and Social Care, UK-China partnerships against antimicrobial resistance get funding, 24 January 2019




Published: 4 April 2019