Did Biden just endorse ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics’?

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President Joe Biden recently made the same cultural relativism argument that has been used by authoritarians and dictators to defend themselves against the concept of universal human rights since World War II. 

Speaking at a town hall meeting hosted by CNN in Milwaukee, Biden reflected on his recent phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He said that “the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China. And he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that. I point out to him, no American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States,” Biden said. “And so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uighurs in western mountains of China, and Taiwan, trying to end the ‘One China’ policy by making it forceful, I said — by the way, he said he gets it. Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.” 

The new American president seemed to be telling of how he confided to Xi that he raised human rights concerns only to satisfy U.S. voters’ expectations. What is more, and worse, is that with those words, Biden — who has vowed to make human rights a priority in his foreign policy — endorsed the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) concept of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” according to which the CCP gets to define what human rights are and who is entitled to them. The concept of universal human rights, however, means that human rights are not gifted by the state to its citizens, but are inherent and unalienable: no law can take them away.   

Biden’s comments appear to be undercutting the administration’s announced plans to uphold international norms, and also seem to be at odds with those of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has said China’s treatment of its Uighur minority amounts to genocide and that the United States will stand up for human rights and democratic values in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.  

While President Trump was frequently insensitive to human rights, he at least had no history of engagement in international politics. But Biden is one of the most experienced American presidents in history when it comes to international affairs. And he appeared to be signaling that he will not let human rights stand in the way of cooperation with China. We are seeing the same embarrassing dance around Xi that we have witnessed in the past from those who wish to engage with China and therefore seek to avoid offending Xi and the CCP. The losers are the Chinese people, and the principle of human rights as an objective moral standard, as opposed to an arbitrary legal standard. 

In this, Biden is showing himself to be no different from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, at the helm of the European Union, signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China on Dec. 30: apparently ready to ignore the human rights issue to satisfy the interests of the German and European business communities. Human rights activists had hoped that Biden would pull Germany and Europe toward human rights, rather than be pulled toward the moral expediency and mercantilism dominating EU foreign policy.

Biden’s comments also remind us of how Hillary Clinton, in her first approaches to China in 2009, endorsed China’s sham of claiming job growth and social programs signified human rights compliance. Then, Chinese media ostentatiously promoted her remarks as proof of America’s surrender of the country’s foundational human rights creed of liberty. Indeed, while many have argued that the Biden administration’s foreign policy must not be simply a retread of Obama’s, Biden seems to be ready to place human rights on a back burner, as President Obama did with regard to Iran and Cuba. Leaving Iranian protesters to hang out to dry in 2009, with no strong endorsement of their right to political freedom, Obama also undercut decades of American human rights diplomacy by legitimating the Cuban regime’s communist definition of human rights as social rights provided by the state — like China’s.

But there is a difference between Biden’s lapse on human rights and those of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. While they appeased the socialist interpretation of human rights, as opposed to one centered on freedoms, consistent with the U.S. Constitution, Biden’s words suggest that he denies the universality of human rights altogether. That message is music to the ears of authoritarians and dictators around the world, but deeply discouraging to those who hope America can defend inherent liberties. 

Judith Bergman is a writer, lawyer and political analyst located in Israel. Follow her on Twitter @judithbergman.

Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe, and author of “The Debasement of Human Rights.” Follow him on Twitter @Rhodesaaron.

Tags Antony Blinken Barack Obama China human rights abuses Chinese Communist Party Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden US-China relations Xi Jinping

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