Article – Lawfare Blog: How China Is Rewriting the Norms of Human Rights

Here’s their introduction to the piece


It is often taken for granted that human rights law embodies the pursuit of individual rights and freedom, but that link can no longer be taken for granted. As I discuss in my forthcoming Note in the Columbia Law Review, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to transform human rights into an instrument of 21st century global authoritarianism. Specifically, China is engaging in what I call “normfare” by strategically promoting an illiberal doctrine of human rights. By undertaking efforts around the world to socialize other actors into its preferred human rights norms, China is mounting a serious challenge to human rights as we know it.

Human Rights With Chinese Communist Party Characteristics

China’s government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—the two are deeply enmeshed and not always distinguishable—have long possessed a distinctive human rights doctrine quite different from what one would encounter in the classrooms of most law schools or the boardrooms of most international nongovernmental organizations. Underlying the PRC’s vision is a tenacious, absolutist view of state sovereignty and noninterference. Another tenet of China’s human rights catechism is that developing states should prioritize the right to economic development over all other rights, especially civil and political ones. Generally, the PRC accepts the universality of human rights—which typically means that people across all societies are entitled to the same rights—while in the same breath adding the oxymoronic qualifier that states are entitled to choose their human rights practices on the basis of their own political, economic and cultural conditions. Finally, rather than individual rights, the PRC stresses collective rights vested in the state and obligations that individuals owe to society.

According to this doctrine, “human rights” is more about states than humans and more akin to privileges than rights. What’s more, the CCP contends that foreigners should not interfere with a state’s sovereignty by speaking or acting on its internal human rights situation. What emerges is a concept of human rights that is conducive to autocratic rule and inimical to outside advocacy.

That the Chinese party-state holds such views on human rights is not new. What is new, especially since Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012, is China’s revisionist posture. In the past, China brought up its human rights doctrine largely to shield itself from outside criticism. Now, it is promoting its vision across the globe as an alternative human rights framework that is superior to the liberal status quo.

In making this shift, China has dual motivations. The first is external. As persuasively argued in Rush Doshi’s recent book, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” China is currently pursuing a strategy of global expansion meant to build Chinese power and blunt U.S. influence, displacing the United States as the global hegemon. Yet China’s noxious human rights record has stymied its quest for global legitimacy and soft power. By displacing a liberal human rights regime that impedes Chinese geopolitical influence with a more amenable illiberal alternative, China can help realize a new international order.

The second motivation is internal. Like most authoritarian regimes, China’s party-state harbors a deep fear of being toppled by the Chinese people. Many Chinese leaders see liberal values such as human rights and democracy as an existential threat to the survival of the regime. By spreading a version of human rights that’s more tolerant of oppressive, authoritarian governments, the CCP hopes to neutralize an existential threat.


If warfare is the use of arms to achieve political objectives, and lawfare is the use of legal instruments to achieve political objectives, then China’s international human rights strategy is a policy of “normfare”—the strategic promotion of favored interpretations of international norms for political ends. The international relations scholar Stephen Krasner defines norms as “standards of behavior defined in terms of rights and obligations,” as distinguished from rules, which are “specific prescriptions or proscriptions for action.” Norms can affect state behavior on their own or through codification in international human rights law by treaty, custom or nonbinding soft law.

International norms are not static. Rather, they develop largely at the instigation of actors known as “norm entrepreneurs.” To explain how norm entrepreneurs change international norms, Harold Hongju Koh, former dean and current professor at Yale Law School professor and former legal adviser at the U.S. Department of State, has proposed the transnational legal process model, which involves three stages. First, the norm entrepreneur provokes an interaction or series of interactions with other actors. Second, these interactions force a particular interpretation or enunciation of a relevant international norm. Third, other actors internalize the new interpretation of the norm into their own internal normative systems. Successfully internalized norms may ultimately shape state behavior.

China’s human rights normfare neatly maps onto Koh’s theory. China is acting as a norm entrepreneur, provoking interactions with other actors and forcing the interpretation of norms in the manner favored by the PRC, with the potential result of foreign actors internalizing a set of norms constituting a deeply illiberal doctrine of human rights. To get a better sense of how this strategy plays out in practice, it’s useful to consider a case study of China’s human rights engagement on the African continent.

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