Beijing human rights forum shows Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream is ready to become the Asian dream
Peter T.C. Chang says China as the Asian economic superpower has the capacity to spread its grand vision of a common destiny across the region, and a jointly created set of human rights would help to allay socio-economic and civil-political concerns
The recently concluded “South-South Human Rights Forum” in Beijing can be seen as a coming of age for the postcolonial-era grouping of mainly Asian and African developing countries, a legacy of the 1955 Bandung Conference of non-aligned nations.
Many of these countries are still developing, to be sure, but China stands out as the economic superpower. And the Chinese are eager to induct the rest of the “third world” into Beijing’s latest grand vision, that is, the quest for a community of common destiny, framed in terms of human rights development.
At the end of this inaugural global human rights forum, the Beijing Declaration was issued, reasserting China’s stance on the perceived conflict between socio-economic and civil-political rights. This promulgation signals an economically dominant China’s readiness to take on the West on the ideological front.
To some extent, it echoes the 1993 Bangkok Declaration on human rights and the ensuing “Asian Values” debates.
Today, however, instead of the Southeast Asians, the Chinese are the main protagonist. And, this time around, China may well possess the political clout and economic muscle to deliver and bring about substantive social and economical uplift to the developing world.
This South-South initiative needs to be placed within the broader context of China’s other endeavours, and the Chinese dream is one.
Watch: Xi Jinping explains why he proposed the Belt and Road Initiative
In 2013, President Xi Jinping exhorted young Chinese “to dare to dream, work assiduously to fulfil the dreams and contribute to the revitalisation of the nation”.
This national aspiration has in recent months been set within two “centenary goals”. The first is to propel China towards a full xiaokang , or generally prosperous, society by 2021, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party. And the second is to mature into a “strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049, when the People’s Republic hits the century mark.
In many ways, the Chinese dream is metamorphosing into an Asian dream.
And there is no better illustration of this diffusion than Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative”. This vast master plan has the potential to positively reshape the dreams and livelihood of millions, including a major portion of South-South constituents.
However, belt and road navigation across the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca may yet encounter some cross-currents and choppy waters. Already there have been criticisms about inadequate internationalisation of the strategy.
Watch: China on how the Belt and Road Initiative is boosting the global economy
Due to excess capacity back home, Chinese transnational corporations have been chided for transplanting operations in a wholesale manner: relocating the Chinese workforce, materials and equipment into overseas ventures.
The corollary concern is job creation. Take Malaysia. In November, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma attended the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport Aeropolis DFTZ (Digital Free Trade Zone) Park, which will be Alibaba’s first regional hub outside China. The immediate boost to the Malaysian confidence and job market is palpable. (Alibaba is the owner of the Post.)
But the longer-term effect of companies like Alibaba and Huawei (another Chinese hi-tech giant with regional headquarters in Kuala Lumpur) is in fact the net loss of jobs. These corporations are proponents of the burgeoning robotics- and artificial intelligence-driven economy that will induce large-scale redundancies, sparing only selected specialised occupations.
This posits a twofold task for the Malaysian government: maintaining adequate employment, with the corresponding fostering of an employable skilled workforce.
China is likely to assume a prominent role in this next wave of “Industry 4.0” revolution, and should see to it that smaller states like Malaysia can stay in step with these tectonic transformations.
As such, beyond sustaining a viable labour market, China must stay invested in upgrading the local human resources. In short, strategic and systematic transfer of technology is imperative.
One key motif underpinning the Beijing Declaration is poverty eradication. In Malaysia, this challenge is compounded by a widening wealth gap. And some of China’s investment may aggravate the disparity.
An often-cited example is the multibillion dollar Forest City development at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, bordering Singapore. Critics warn that the exclusive, self-contained commercial and residential resort-like mega project could create a colony of super-affluent foreigners, socially and economically disconnected from the rest of Malaysia. If it proceeds as designed, such an enclave will exacerbate the prevailing perception of wealth inequality.
China’s growing footprints, when planted indiscriminately, could also harm Malaysia’s diverse yet delicate social landscape.
That said, the Chinese world does possess a trove of cultural resources, including rich Islamic heritage, that can be deployed to cultivate and strengthen the bonds between China and a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia.
Watch: China finances 688km East Coast Rail Link in Malaysia through soft loans
Another noteworthy Chinese soft power is the Xi administration’s unflinching campaign to eradicate graft. Corruption has become the bane of good governance in many countries across the globe. Beijing’s ongoing pursuit of a clean and ethical bureaucracy and officialdom is exemplary. Indeed, the case should be made for a supplementary human right, namely, the entitlement of every citizen to a corruption-free government.
Similarly, living in a pollution-free environment deserves to be enshrined as a basic human right.
There is no other entity more emblematic of humanity’s common destiny than Mother Earth. But our unique life-giving planet is under dire threat. Therefore, it is as much a moral obligation as it is a legal duty for us to conserve the natural world – for the sake of the present as well as future generations.
Human history moves in cyclical alternates between periods of peace and war, prosperity and poverty, progress and regress. Today, there is a heightened expectancy that we are, at least in parts of Asia, on the cusp of an upward swing towards a season of increased opportunities and growth.
Indeed, the Beijing Declaration and the attending quest for a community of common destiny is empowered by this newfound optimism, one that is not entirely unfounded. However, the pathway to actualisation is less than smooth.
For this reason, as the presumptive leader, China has to work in concert with the South-South countries, Malaysia included, to effectuate a comprehensive set of human rights, covering the gamut of socio-economic, civil-political, and environmental rights.
Tangible progress can then be made towards realising Xi’s latest grand vision, namely, the quest for a community of common destiny.
Peter T.C. Chang is a senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia