Human Rights Watch says in a new report Tuesday that China has tried to intimidate, blacklist and squelch the voices of rights advocates who operate within the U.N. system, calling on Beijing to stop such pressure and urging U.N. agencies to resist.
Announcing the report, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said that China's influence and crackdown on civil society at home "make it a model of bad faith that challenges the integrity of the U.N. rights system."
The New York-based group's report is based on interviews with 55 people including U.N. officials, diplomats and civil society representatives between May 2016 and March, and takes aim at a powerful, rising country with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the Chinese government is committed to promoting and protecting human rights, and accused Human Rights Watch of being prejudiced against China.
"We urge the relevant organization to remove its tinted lenses and view China's human rights development and its contribution to the international rights cause in an unbiased and objective way, and stop its groundless accusations against China," Geng told reporters at a regular briefing.
The report said some U.N. officials have pushed back at "improper Chinese pressure" at times, while they "have capitulated" at others. It pointed to detention, travel restrictions and reprisals faced by Chinese activists, as well as efforts to hinder supporters of the Dalai Lama when he travels even within the vicinity of U.N. venues.
In one instance, the group said, U.N. officials sent home some of the 3,000 staffers at the U.N. Geneva campus during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Switzerland in January, and barred NGOs from attending his speech there.
The report, in essence, pieces together individual incidents into a broader whole to suggest that China is systematically thwarting efforts to monitor and protect human rights - not just in China but abroad, too.
It cites examples of China failing to ratify language on protection of individuals, working to slash funding for human rights officers in U.N. peacekeeping missions and refusing to affirm civil society's role in a 2015 resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council on public health.
"Taken individually, many of China's actions against NGOs might be viewed as an annoyance or an irritant," the report says. "But taken together, they amount to what appears to be a systematic attempt to subvert the ability of the U.N. human rights system to confront abuses in China and beyond."
The group also warns about China serving as an example that other countries might follow.
"China's efforts to subvert the U.N. human rights system also need to be scrutinized because they have been adopted by other countries. China should not become a model for others that hope to hobble or obstruct U.N. human rights bodies," it said. "The dangers to human rights posed by an assertive China at the U.N. are likely to increase as the rights situation in China under President Xi (Jinping) worsens."
Keith Harper, who served as President Barack Obama's ambassador to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, said Beijing "absolutely" had the ability to intimidate other countries into keeping quiet about its human rights record.
"China's response could be crippling economically. And other countries know that," Harper said by phone. "China will be very clear that if you vote against them, they deeply care about China's interests, and they will take steps to punish countries. Given their power economically - in Africa, for example - that matters."
Harper said the United States all but stood alone in criticizing China's rights record, or at least leading group criticism about it, as in a council session in March 2016 when he spoke out.
"Other counties feel that they can do it as a group - whereas they can't be singled out," said Harper, who is now a partner with Kilpatrick, Townsend and Stockton law firm in the United States. "There has to be one country that has to take the leadership, and the U.S. is the only one who can do that."
He noted how Norway, a rich developed country, faced reaction from China that was "quite hostile for a long time" after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Oslo in 2010 to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Liu died in Chinese custody in July.