How to deal with China’s assertiveness in the field of Human Rights


This policy brief tries to clarify China’s recent approach towards HR issues and how Switzerland needs to deal with it. The most significant changes of China’s Policy include a more assertive blocking of HR critique and pro-active re-tailoring of its global norms. It is recommended for Switzerland to avoid a “Chinese frame” of HR, put the HR dialogues into perspective, refrain from unilateral sanctions but not criticism, and to find new ways of dealing with China.

By Felipe Fischer

Human Rights Issues

With its first China strategy (2021) Switzerland reacted to domestic pressure to deal with China in a more assertive way. The paper criticized recent trends in China, including “authoritarian tendencies” and “repression of minorities”. China reacted harshly by holding an unusual press conference with its ambassador to Switzerland Wang Shihting. He claimed that China is “open for a dialogue about human rights”, but “does not accept any intervention into internal affairs”. This reaction demonstrates very well three key aspects of China’s recent assertive development around Human Rights (HR).

First, in China’s view, the issues of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong are not a matter of HR but national security. The “territorial integrity” over these areas is considered a “core interest”, comparable to the Taiwan-Issue, and is thus “essentially nonnegotiable in nature”. China categorically refuses interference from other countries or international organs when it comes to issues that touch a core interest and uses an absolutist interpretation of sovereignty as a defensive shield against HR critique.

Second, China adopted an increasingly aggressive tone to defend its HR record. So called Wolf Warrior diplomats defend China’s position in a much more aggressive and confrontational way. Moreover, Human Rights Watch observed cases where “members of the Chinese permanent mission, state media, and government-sponsored ‘NGOs’ have intimidated, photographed, and even attempted to ban investigative reporters and critical [foreign] NGOs”. Hence, China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy materializes into a harsher defense when it comes to external HR critique. This may change somewhat, as China has recently faced a large amount of international backlash for its assertive behavior on the international stage. First signs like the degradation of overly aggressive Chinese officials indicate a softening of its tone, but a departure from its assertive foreign policy remains unlikely.

Third, China left its role as a “background player” on HR issues and tries to proactively ”re-tailor” the global norms of HR. It became more present and influential in multilateral frameworks and showed more openness towards the topic in bilateral discussions. Especially in the last few years China started to promote its own resolutions in the UN to push its agenda. Its focus lies on territorial sovereignty and “subsistence and development”, prioritizing “collective socio-economic” or “survival” rights over individual civil and political rights. Although the norm-shaping over HR is mainly done on multilateral levels, China will certainly also push for the inclusion of Chinese phrasing and concepts around HR in bilateral documents, as it has already been doing in some previous agreements with Switzerland (e.g. in the MoU of 2007).


Recommendations for Swiss policy makers

a) Refrain from unilateral sanctions but not criticism

Unilateral sanctions are a very ineffective tool. They won’t change China’s position on HR issues and their use would not outweigh the disruptions to the Swiss economy caused by the likely countersanctions. Unlike Lithuania, which faced harsh sanctions after intensifying its relationships with Taiwan, Switzerland cannot count on EU solidarity. Criticism on the other hand is a less risky tool. It is likely to deteriorate Sino-Swiss relations, but too little criticism would undermine Switzerland’s credibility and reliability towards the international and domestic political audience. Therefore, Switzerland should enhance its criticism and refrain from unilateral sanctions to prevent a too strong backlash.

b) Putting the HR dialogue into perspective and avoid a “Chinese frame”

A dialogue about HR with China can’t be regarded as a success anymore. China’s willingness to participate in a dialogue may not lead to concrete resolutions on HR. Either China will deflect any criticisms, or it will put forward their conceptualization of HR. Regarding the latter, special attention needs to be given in the wording of Sino-Swiss agreements to avoid a “Chinese frame” on HR issues.

c) Find new creative ways of dealing with China

A softer tone of Chinese officials should not be misunderstood as a success of Switzerland’s more assertive standpoint on HR, but rather a consequence of the international circumstances. China will stand firm on its position on HR and give Switzerland a hard time in case of enhanced criticism. Hence, Switzerland would be better off not only to rely on the strategy of criticism but to find new creative ways to represent its values and interests. Regardless of which actions are chosen it strongly recommends to team up with other countries in the field of HR. This will allow Switzerland to gain more political weight in negotiations with China.



Image credits: Kayla Kozlowski on Unsplash