China economy

China's growing influence swallows global criticism on human rights

Chinese flag.
A Chinese flag blocks the sign of an Amnesty International activist during a visit from Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to the Hague. Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images

China’s government is cracking down on dissent at an alarming pace and detaining up to 1 million Muslims in “re-education camps,” but at a UN Human Rights Council review this week, many countries saw fit to applaud China’s human rights record, rather than criticize it.

Why it matters: China’s economic power and investments around the world aren’t just increasing its global influence — they’re making countries far more reticent to speak out about Beijing's abuses at home. Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, tells me, "We might be moving onto the next bad phase where we not only see how few countries are critical of China, but how many are willing to be cheerleaders.”

Expert Voices

Sierra Leone only the latest African country to rethink a Chinese loan

Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation on September 3, 2018 in Beijing, China.
Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio with Chinese President Xi Jinping on September 3, 2018, in Beijing. Photo: Andy Wong via Getty Images

Last month, Sierra Leone canceled a Chinese loan to build the $318 million Mamamah International Airport in Freetown, a legacy project of the country's previous government. The World Bank and IMF raised concerns about Sierra Leone's debt, and the new government concluded the project was "uneconomical."

Why it matters: U.S. politicians regularly accuse China of debt-trap diplomacy, portraying African countries as victims of bad Chinese deals. But this cancellation is the latest example of African governments' wielding agency in their relations with China: African countries do have a say, and they have room to avoid the pitfalls of unsound projects both before and after they’ve signed.

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