Xi's G20 vision reflects need for world to unite to solve problems

By Tom Zwart
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, September 12, 2016
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Chinese President Xi Jinping presides over the opening ceremony of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, Sept. 4, 2016. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

President Xi Jinping delivered two important speeches at the recent Hangzhou G20 summit laying out China's vision on global economic and social development.

Although in his speeches to the B20 (business summit) and then at the opening ceremony of the G20 he especially addressed economic issues, he also touched on some general principles reflecting China's outlook in other areas, such as human rights. Indeed, some of the economic ideas put forward also form source of inspiration for the development of human rights.

In his B20 speech, President Xi discussed the need for the international community to work together to address challenges the world is facing. He stressed that seeking harmony and coexistence had been in the genes of the Chinese nation throughout history. Therefore, he called on all countries to settle disagreements and disputes through dialogue and consultation, seeking consensus and removing tensions.

This strong preference for harmonious cooperation is the pillar of China's actions in international human rights in consistently seeking to promote dialogue and exchanges of good practices between different cultures instead of confrontation and exclusion.

According to former Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Huang Hua, it is normal that countries have different approaches to human rights based on different historical developments, social systems, cultural traditions and religious beliefs. Sincere and honest talks on the basis of equality promote mutual understanding and help to establish common ground.

As Tang Jiaxuan, foreign minister from 1998 to 2003, has rightly pointed out, the atmosphere of constructive harmony promoted by China stands in stark contrast to the confrontation espoused by other participants in the human rights discourse. Many international NGOs in particular engage in the "naming and shaming" of states they believe fail to live up to their human rights obligations. In so doing, however, they lose sight of the fact that many countries are willing to resolve differences in the human rights area, as long as they are treated with respect as part of a genuine effort to find common ground.

Choosing dialogue instead of confrontation does not only lead to a different tone and format; when actors engage in confrontation they try to portray their own position on human rights as the sole truth but when they engage in dialogue they seek to learn from each other and to combine good ideas to develop innovative solutions.

This need for mutual learning was also emphasized by President Xi in his B20 address, while the necessity for innovation was central to both addresses. According to President Xi, in the economic area today, sticking to convention will get us nowhere. Fear to advance will only result in losing opportunities.

In his G20 address, the President also stressed the need to seriously consider the views of developing countries, and this certainly applies in human rights. "Old school" solutions such as cumbersome reporting procedures maintained by international treaty bodies are rapidly losing their legitimacy. Underreporting, and even complete absence, are on the rise, because states no longer believe in the value of such exercises. The time has therefore come to inject new ideas and formats into the human rights system to secure broad support.

In China many interesting ideas and theories have been developed in regard to human rights, and the same is true for other countries in the Global South. To bring these ideas to northern audiences, the Cross-Cultural Human Rights Network was established in Beijing in 2014. A growing number of universities and academics from the Global South have become members. The Network expects to be able to establish a northern presence at the Free University of Amsterdam in 2017.

In his B20 speech President Xi also underscored the need to eradicate hunger and to advance inclusive and sustainable development. China has always considered the right to subsistence and the right to development as key human rights. Some Northern commentators have been critical of China's position, because they believe that, under human rights theory, all human rights are equal status, thus precluding a hierarchy of rights.

An important part of human rights theory is that human rights are an interconnected whole, and so indivisible. This means that one human right may not be used to justify abridging or neglecting another. However, this does not rule out a particular society deeming some rights as more important than others; the U.S., for example, gives preference to freedom of expression.

President Xi rightly reminded his audience that China has lifted over 700 million people out of poverty. This represented 70 percent of the global population living in poverty, so China has been making a significant global contribution. To achieve this, China has pursued its own path of development, in which small changes and hard work performed by millions of ordinary Chinese families have been converted into a powerful force which acts as the engine of China's progress.

On numerous occasions President Xi has demonstrated he has a very international outlook. This is exemplified by his "Belt and Road" initiative, which was also discussed in the B20 address. In that speech the President drew attention to the fact that China's interaction with the outside world has deepened, and that it will continue to open up profoundly and comprehensively.

China will further integrate itself into the world and open itself wider to it. A similar trend has been noticeable for quite some time in the area of human rights. For almost 10 years the China Society for Human Rights Studies has been organizing its Beijing Forum on Human Rights, a highlight in the annual calendar during which Chinese and foreign scholars discuss human rights issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect and friendship.

Human rights centers at Chinese universities have entered into cooperative agreements with many counterparts at foreign universities. And they have become active members of the Cross-Cultural Human Rights Network.

According to President Xi's B20 address, we need to enable people of different countries, cultures and historic backgrounds to deepen exchanges, enhance mutual understanding and jointly build a community of shared future for mankind. His speeches are an important contribution to that process.

Tom Zwart is professor of human rights and cross-cultural law at Utrecht University.

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