International human rights law is often associated with the progressive expansion of justice and freedom. But that link cannot be taken for granted. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to transform human rights into an instrument of twenty-first century global authoritarianism. This Note seeks to fill a significant lacuna in the literature by focusing on China’s efforts at the regional, national, and subnational levels to socialize other actors into its preferred norms through visits and exchanges, academic conferences, multilateral fora, and other means.
To describe the PRC’s international human rights strategy, this Note coins the neologism “normfare,” which refers to the strategic promotion of favored interpretations of international norms. Applying Harold Hongju Koh’s transnational legal process model of interaction, interpretation, and internalization, this Note illustrates how China is promoting a distinctive, authoritarian vision of human rights. As a case study, this Note examines China’s attempts to socialize actors on the African continent. The PRC organizes interactions, such as academic conferences, which articulate interpretations of human rights norms consistent with its own. As a result, PRC-backed norms are being internalized by at least some African academics, politicians, and legal systems. Chinese normfare may contribute to the construction of an alternative, authoritarian international law and the furtherance of an illiberal, China-dominated global order. To avoid these outcomes, this Note argues that actors—above all, the United States—should push back to blunt the effects of the PRC’s normfare and build a more resilient liberal human rights regime, including by implementing counter-normfare.
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