Center for American Progress

Democracy, Law, and Human Rights: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Policy Framework on China

Democracy, Law, and Human Rights: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Policy Framework on China

The United States must lead in shaping global human rights norms while shedding light on China’s human rights abuses.

A box of ballots is seen being poured out onto a table.
The first box of ballots in the 2021 Legislative Council General Election is poured out on December 19, 2021, in Hong Kong, China. (Getty/Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket)

See other chapters in CAP's report: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Approach Toward China Policy

Democracy, Law, and Human Rights: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Policy Framework on China

CAP China Working Group on Democracy, Law, and Human Rights

The United States must lead in shaping global human rights norms while shedding light on China’s human rights abuses.

Key assessments and recommendations

  • As China’s human rights situation further deteriorates under President Xi Jinping, the United States should continue to shine a light on human rights abuses there while recognizing that our ability to directly influence how Beijing treats its own citizens may be limited.
  • We must push back firmly on China’s flagrant efforts at transnational repression, including by funding U.S. law enforcement efforts to disrupt official Chinese interference and intimidation, on American college campuses and elsewhere.
  • We must not cede the field at the U.N. Human Rights Council and other international institutions, where Beijing is working to undermine universal values recognized since the founding of the United Nations.

Within China: Closing civic space and rising repression

Xi Jinping’s increasingly autocratic rule has resulted in a marked deterioration in the human rights situation in China, severely constraining the environment within that country but also directly undermining U.S. values and interests.

Before Xi assumed power in 2012, China had experimented in expanding political rights and independent legal processes, particularly at the local level. Since then, Beijing has reversed even those very modest steps; dramatically restricting civic space; increasing censorship and surveillance; and making law a tool to punish dissidents, maintain Communist Party rule, and remove officials that Xi views as a threat.

Today, human rights activists and the lawyers who represent them are in jail; unsanctioned religious activities are severely curtailed or violently suppressed; domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations are tightly constrained; independent civil society organizations are under threat or closed; and the “Great Firewall” encircling the internet in China impedes access to and communication with outside sources.

Human rights conditions have worsened—particularly for Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Hong Kongers. Since 2017, authorities have put more than a million Uyghurs and other Xinjiang ethnic groups into reeducation camps or prisons and forced over 100,000 to labor in factories in Xinjiang and across China. In Tibet, authorities have worked to restrict religious practices, ban their languages, and erase non-Han culture. China’s 2020 implementation of its National Security Law in Hong Kong deeply undermined the autonomy promised when the United Kingdom returned it to Chinese sovereignty in 1997; undercut Hong Kong’s free press; and led to the arrest and prosecution of hundreds of journalists, lawyers, and activists. 

The United States should continue to publicize egregious human rights abuses and speak forthrightly about our concerns.  And Congress should prioritize asylum and resettlement—on humanitarian grounds—for Chinese fleeing torture, internment, religious repression, and cultural erasure. At the same time, we should work to prevent individuals or products directly implicated in human rights abuses from entering the United States. Congress should look to the Global Magnitsky Act; the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act; the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act; and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act as models for additional authorities for the executive branch to penalize Chinese officials carrying out repression and the companies profiting from it.

Outside of China: Beijing’s growing transnational reach

Beijing conducts “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.” This takes many forms, including (among others) surveillance and assaults on exiled activists; information manipulation and pressure on individuals to remain silent in exposing human rights violations in China; criticizing the People’s Republic of China’s government; or simply socializing with known critics. Those targeted—including U.S. citizens as well as Chinese students, businesspeople, and others legally in the United States—face digital surveillance, physical attacks, intimidation and harassment, reprisals against family in China, or threats of reprisals if they refuse to comply with demands from Chinese diplomats or security officials from their home provinces.

The U.S. Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies have increased efforts to investigate, indict, and arrest individuals responsible for attacks and harassment while also engaging targeted communities as well as local and state officials. For its part, Congress should give law enforcement the resources and legal tools to continue this work; to give voice to members of vulnerable communities at hearings; to represent and support constituents facing danger; and to explain these concerns to their constituencies across the country. At the same time, Congress must make clear—including, as necessary, to U.S. law enforcement—that our concern is with PRC government and Communist Party conduct and not with the Chinese people or people of Chinese descent.

Beijing’s involvement in international organizations: Shaping norms

Beijing leads deeply troubling efforts by illiberal states to reshape foundational values, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stresses the importance of a common understanding of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The PRC knows that international law is not static: Both law and norms develop over time and treaties can be written and amended. If the United States and like-minded countries fail to oppose these efforts, there is a real risk that international institutions will reflect the illiberal inclinations of Beijing, Moscow, and elsewhere. Congress has a responsibility to help resist this trend by funding—and insisting on—vigorous U.S. engagement at the United Nations and related international organizations.

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CAP China Working Group on Democracy, Law, and Human Rights


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