A Call for Self-criticism in Defending Values: From Human Rights in China to the War in Ukraine

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From the beginning of the Russian invasion, Western countries have rallied behind Ukraine and the war narrative of defending democracy against authoritarianism. Nevertheless, this binary narrative has been of limited appeal to developing countries and authors have discussed how the revival of great power competition around this narrative risks reinforcing the democratic decline. Considering these limitations, how can the academic community work to counteract a return to the kind of binary thinking that has been reanimated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine? To answer this question, I draw a parallel between responses to the war in Ukraine and how Western countries are handling the issue of human rights in China, including the emergence of a binary narrative that pits Chinese against Western visions of these rights. I argue that Western countries’ lack of self-reflectivity in defending values has hindered a genuine engagement with their own weaknesses. These weaknesses have thus been exploited by authoritarian countries. As democracy - like human rights - has been invoked as much to question oppression as to legitimate the status quo and economic interests, there is a need for scholars to scientifically engage with the geopolitical motives for defending values. We should not shy away from such research because of fears of instrumentalisation by authoritarian countries, as self-criticism will help rebuild the legitimacy and credibility that democracies increasingly lack.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Chinese Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • human rights
  • politicisation
  • war in Ukraine
  • authoritarianism
  • democracy
  • Russia
  • China


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