Beijing's new outreach comes as the U.S. turns inward under President Donald Trump, who has set aside traditional U.S. advocacy of democracy and human rights in favor of an "America first" approach that has seen Washington withdraw from key forums from the Paris climate agreement to negotiations on a U.N. migration compact.
The "South-South Human Rights Forum," drawing some 300 participants from over 50 mostly developing countries, follows a conference of political parties last weekend in Beijing also attended by hundreds of delegates, some of whom sung the praises of Communist Party rule. The gathering also comes on the heels of a twice-a-decade Communist Party congress in October, at which Xi declared that China now stood "tall and firm in the east" and had entered a new era seeing China "moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind."
Addressing Thursday's opening session, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the party congress had "identified the goal of forging a new field in international relations and building a community of shared future for mankind."
"This is China's answer to the question of where human society is heading, and it has also presented opportunities for the development of the human rights cause," Wang said.
China's growing confidence on issues like human rights is related to broader global trends, said William Nee, an Amnesty International researcher on China. "Obviously we've seen the Trump administration deprioritize human rights, we've seen issues like Brexit, and China is kind of stepping in the field and void," he said.
"The Western liberal bastion is crumbling and China sees this an ideal moment to strengthen its own normative power," said Jonathan Holslag, a professor of international politics at the Free University of Brussels.
Participants at the Beijing forum were mostly government officials, diplomats and academics from developing nations, along with representatives from the United Nations, the Arab League, the African Union, the World Bank and the World Health Organization. Absent were representatives of NGOs working in the field of civil and political rights such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch or Reporters Without Borders.
China has long rejected traditional notions of human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration and Western constitutions, redefining the concept along the more prosaic lines of the right to development, health, nutrition and housing.
Speakers at the forum kept their comments strictly within those parameters.
Citing falling poverty rates and rising life expectancy, Tom Zwart of Amsterdam's Vrije Universiteit told participants China had "entered a new era of human rights."
"China has started to play a bigger role in building a just and harmonious international order that also includes the international human rights system," Zwart said.
Saad Alfaragi, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to development, noted that 800 million people globally still live in abject poverty.
"South-South cooperation has multiplied opportunities for development cooperation ... on different terms from traditional development cooperation," Alfaragi said in his address.
The forum's use of the "South-South" designation is a throwback to the Cold War-era concept of developing nations cooperating among themselves, independent of either the U.S.-led West or the Soviet bloc.
Yet, while it still calls itself the world's largest developing nation, China is increasingly casting itself in the role of rising superpower, retiring its past strategy of "hiding and biding" until it was ready.
Analysts and Western diplomats remain divided on whether China is actively seeking to upend the international order or merely making the best use of the circumstances to advance its own interests.
In his address to last weekend's political party forum, Xi offered China's experience as an alternative for others to study or emulate, while taking care to avoid the appearance of coercion. "We don't import models from other countries, neither do we export the Chinese model. We will never place demands on other countries to copy the way China does things," said Xi, who sent a congratulatory letter but did not address Thursday's opening ceremony.
The renewed international outreach comes at a time when Chinese authorities are overseeing the most severe crackdown on activists and dissidents in decades, drawing criticism from Western governments.
"Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, these are things that have come under severe constraints in China recent years," Nee said.
The city of Beijing has also been criticized domestically over the evictions of tens of thousands of Chinese migrant workers over recent weeks. Officials say they're addressing safety hazards after a fire killed 19 people, but the efforts have drawn attention to unfairness in a system that controls where people may live and denies rural Chinese migrants access to education, housing and medical subsidies granted to residents of the wealthier cities.
Recent years have also seen the party advocate a wholesale rejection of "universal values" as merely a weapon to undermine China's socialist system. Universities have been told to drive such concepts from the classrooms and writers and scholars who argue otherwise can find themselves shunned and unemployed.
The ideological push dovetails with China's economic strategy of outward expansion, spearheaded by Xi's signature Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to bind China to the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa through a trillion-dollar development of ports, roads, railways, power stations and other massive projects funded by Chinese loans.
Levels of development figure prominently in how countries prioritize human rights, said Brantly Womack, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Virginia. Although China is the world's second largest economy, living standards remain low for the majority and millions remain mired in poverty.
Along with many developing nations, China puts heavy stress on the unfairness of global inequality and the right of the majority to sustain and improve itself materially, Womack said.
"Regardless of China's active promotion of itself as a model, its success would attract the attention of countries facing similar problems. And China's willingness to provide funding for infrastructural transformation certainly provides an additional incentive," Womack said.
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