Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have become stark illustrations of the dangers of autocratic rule. By surrounding themselves with sycophants, suppressing dissent, and either invading or threatening neighboring countries, these dictatorial leaders have become case studies in the perils of unchecked power. Less appreciated is that Putin and Xi, each in his own way, also pose serious threats to the global human rights system. Each sees undermining that system’s ability to condemn their crackdowns at home as essential to maintaining their legitimacy.
Each autocrat also responds to public dissatisfaction—with Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine or with Xi’s endless zero-COVID lockdowns—by intensifying repression. Putin is jailing participants in protests that have broken out in dozens of cities across the country. Xi has silenced public critics throughout the country, while detaining more than a million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang—a region in northwest China—to force them to abandon their religion, language, and culture.
Facing growing international condemnation, both Putin and Xi have mounted defenses. Their approaches differ, but each threatens the global human rights system through a combination of alternative visions and fundamental attacks.
Of the two, Xi’s strategy to fend off criticism of his repression has proved harder to defeat so far, but it is showing signs of vulnerability. His approach consists of two parts: one directed at the definition of human rights, the other at the means of enforcement.
Xi would reduce a government’s human rights obligations to its ability to improve living standards; expand the economy; and promote vague, easily manipulated concepts such as “happiness.” This view, where the internationally endorsed concept of individual rights has no place at all, is a radical proposition. It transcends traditional debates among proponents of civil and political rights on the one hand and advocates of economic, social, and cultural rights on the other.
It is hardly surprising that Xi doesn’t want questions asked about political and civil rights. Unfettered debate, let alone free and fair elections, would jeopardize the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship. Nor does he want discussion of the increasingly intrusive surveillance state that he is constructing.
Beijing suggests that Chinese citizens have accepted the party’s dictatorship as the price of stability and economic growth, but that choice was never presented to the people—it was simply dictated. Hong Kong was the one part of China under Beijing’s control where freedom of expression existed, and its citizens made clear through massive street protests that they had no interest in that dictatorship. Xi then ordered those freedoms crushed and dissenters imprisoned.
Xi also rejects scrutiny of his economic and social rights policies. Although China has acceded to the treaty upholding those rights—the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—the last thing Beijing wants asked is whether it is allocating available resources to meet the basic needs of all…