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As Criticism of China Falters, Time for a NATO for Human Rights?

May 15, 2020
Jianli Yang
6 min read
"The truth has not set the people of China free, nor the international community in its dealings with China"
"The truth has not set the people of China free, nor the international community in its dealings with China"

Jianli Yang, a mathematician and human rights activist, survived China's Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, after which he left China for the United States. He returned in 2002 and was jailed between 2002 and 2007 for supporting the country's labor movement. He was intermittently held in solitary confinement for a total of 15 months – as detailed in a previous IranWire interview – and returned to the US after his release.

In a weekly series for IranWire, Jianli Yang analyses Chinese disinformation around the origin of coronavirus and its handling to date.


Never has an oft-repeated quote from the King James Bible, “...and the truth shall set you free”, been so horribly misplaced as in the case of China’s Covid-19 disinformation campaign and the world’s reaction to it.

The truth about China’s cover-up of the controllable coronavirus outbreak, which has led to global catastrophe, and the origin of the virus – China is the only country that has experienced a cluster infection of doctors, a key indicator its original provenance – was straightforward until March 2020. And yet, the truth has not set the people of China free, nor the international community in its dealings with China.

Thanks to an aggressive and co-ordinated disinformation campaign and “wolf warrior diplomacy”, a new uncompromising approach to the outside world, the once self-evident truth has since March become a blur. Simultaneously, under pressure and facing threats from China, the eyes of some in the international community have begun to look the other way.


EU Wavers in Holding China to Account

On April 24, the European Union’s External Action Service issued a new special report on global disinformation about the pandemic. The objective of this report, according to the EU, was “to provide a snapshot overview of the current trends and insights into disinformation activities related to COVID-19/Coronavirus”. This was a good effort except, bowing to intense pressure from Beijing, the EU first delayed and then rewrote the report in a manner that watered down its criticism of China.

A few sections of the initial report were removed, including references to Beijing’s effort to curtail mentions of the virus having originated in China, its having blamed the US for bringing the disease to China, its criticism of France for allegedly mishandling the outbreak and its accusing French politicians of having used racist slurs against the head of the World Health Organization – as well as a sentence about China’s "global disinformation." The language adopted throughout was toned down.

Two weeks later the EU’s Ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, and the ambassadors of the 27 EU member states to Beijing, co-authored a letter published on the EU mission to China’s website and by the China Daily newspaper to mark the 45th anniversary of China-E.U. diplomatic relations.

This group, again, submitted to pressure from Beijing by removing a key paragraph from the joint letter.  The passage stated: “But the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months, has meant that our pre-existing plans have been temporarily side-tracked.”

More seriously, the individual ambassadors who signed the letter were not consulted about the final version before it was published.

These feeble moves on the part of the EU come as Beijing is on an aggressive campaign to alter the historical record on its response to coronavirus. In April, the German interior ministry revealed  that Chinese officials had approached German politicians to ask them to make positive comments regarding China’s handling of the outbreak. Chinese officials have also rebuked efforts  by other governments, including Australia, to investigate the virus’s origins and spread, and to criticize China’s initial obfuscation and censorship of its potential threat.

In response to these attempts China has banned Australian beef imports and is imposing higher tariffs on barley imports. This type of pugnacious response has precedent: China flexed its economic muscles in retaliation against Norway for granting the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, and against France, the UK and Mongolia for the Dalai Lama's visits, to name a few past incidents.

China has obtained its economic power primarily by taking advantage of the markets of the world's democracies, through unfair trade relations with them. It has made inroads in these countries’ business, politics, media and press, academia, entertainment, technology and even national security sectors, undermining their democratic way of life.  The pandemic has exposed how reliance on China for basic needs also puts these countries at China's mercy.

This bind has haunted the EU and other world democracies for years. Now it is time to face up to it and find a long-term solution. The world's democracies should understand the nature of the Chinese Communist Party and the threat it poses to everyone. It runs against the very values that these democracies hold dear.


How Can We Deal With This?

Conventional wisdom tells us that divided, we fall. But the Chinese government is very good at the “divide and conquer” strategy. The EU, meanwhile, was formed for member countries to cope with their difficulties collectively. As the world’s fourth largest economy, with a strong rule of law and mature democracy, the EU should be confident in its dealings with China. 

One concrete action the EU, and other democracies for that matter, could take would be to form a human rights treaty-bound organization of democracies, a Human Rights NATO if you will, that engages in both collective confrontation and collective defense on issues pertaining to human rights.

Collective confrontation has three levels:

  1. Each signatory country implements a Human Rights Act, linking human rights to all fields of its diplomatic ties with dictatorships, including regular assessments and executive reports to its parliament or congress.
  2. Member states collectively confronts human rights violators.
  3. Member states agree unified means of dealing with individual instances of human rights violations ,via economic sanctions, boycotting international cultural events (exchanges, Games, etc.), and so on.

Collective Defense would help break the dilemma of collective action that all democracies have been so far trapped in. Such an accord is important for everyone, especially smaller countries, because in the past, states such as China have retaliated or threatened to retaliate those that have confronted it for its human rights abuses. The treaty must be such that, if one member state of the treaty organization is retaliated against economically by an undemocratic country for standing up for democratic principles, all other democracies in the treaty agree to come to its defense, helping to ease its economic pain.

At the moment, there is a lot of talk of democracy being “on recess”. If this is true, one of the major reasons is because democratic values routinely give way to economic interests. The coronavirus crisis is providing a rare opportunity for global democracies to seriously consider this idea. A “NATO” for human rights would help turn this trend around; it preserves democratic values while protecting economic interests.

Moreover, without such a commitment on the part of the world’s democracies, no truth will set us free from the bondage of China’s influence.


Also in this series: 

China's Campaign to Protect President Xi against Coronavirus Criticism

Chinese Embassies Work Overtime to Diffuse International Fury Over Coronavirus

China Blocks Investigations Amid Refusal to Shut Down Wet Markets

Missing Data, Mud-Slinging and “Miracle Cures”: Why Disinformation Is Bad For Your Health

Iranian Online Network Still Peddling Coronavirus Disinformation


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