Can the U.S. Help Advance Human Rights in China?

Doing so may be the key to future Sino-American relations, but the risks of exacerbating tensions remain. The latest in a series of conversations with ChinaFile.
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U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk as they tour the grounds at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California on June 8, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Nicholas Bequelin:

The best way to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship is first and foremost to recognize that the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself. Such progress is neither the product of a gradual enlightenment of the one-party state nor the result of high-minded foreign pressure--although both can play a role, too. But the reality is that day-in-day-out, Chinese citizens are fighting for their rights, and that issues such as the rule of law, government transparency and accountability and exposure of official malfeasance are very much at the forefront of people's preoccupation--as even the most casual survey of Chinese newspapers and magazines, not to mention microblogging, would reveal.

Demonstrators protesting prisoner abuse at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base kneel before the U.S. Supreme Court during a rally against torture in Washington D.C. in January 2008.

But such progress comes at a high price, especially for activists, and the question that U.S. policy makers face is whether the U.S. should stand by Chinese people who are pushing their government to pay more respect to fundamental rights and freedoms, or whether it should ignore them. It seems to me, irrespective of the issue of moral imperatives, that it is clearly in the U.S. national interest that China inches towards a more open and less repressive system of government than it has at present. The other approach, a form of engagement that mutes human rights, clearly has failed to yield any results in the past two and a half decades. While this approach styled itself as being "realist" (as opposed to the supposed "idealism" of human rights proponents) it is fairly clear today that the actual realists were those who predicted that such a low level of human rights engagement would yield nothing and even encourage the Chinese government in its repressive ways.

The keys to effective promotion of the human rights agenda in the U.S.-China relationship are relatively straightforward:

First, what is most important is for the United States to set the best possible example. The past few years have been problematic in this respect, with issues ranging from the legality of the Iraq war to Abu Ghraib to the C.I.A. renditions.

Second, the U.S. government needs to be consistent in the way it raises its concerns on human rights, and not be shy to use vocal diplomacy when private diplomacy yields no result. Too often, the U.S. is sending conflicting messages, one day stressing its attachment to universal human rights norms, and the next stating that the U.S. and China "agree to disagree" on a range of issues, including human rights. This undermines the universality of human rights.

Third, the U.S. must mainstream human rights perspectives across the full spectrum of its engagement with China. The compartmentalization of human rights as a minor rubric of diplomacy is bound to fail, because the Chinese side knows human rights have no bearings on other aspects of the bilateral relationship. The business environment for U.S. companies operating in China is directly linked to issues intimately connected to human rights, such as the elastic character of China's state secrecy laws or the introduction of provisions in the criminal law that allows for secret detention by the police.

Fourth, the U.S. must forge partnerships and coordinate more effectively with other rights-respecting countries in their effort to press China on specific issues and cases. There has been very little said by any head of state about the fact that China is the only country in the world that holds a Nobel Peace Laureate in prison (while his wife is imprisoned at her home outside of any legal procedure.)

Finally, the U.S. must be ready to take steps when the situation demands it. For instance, given China's absolute refusal to engage on any issue related to the situation in Tibetan areas, the U.S. must be ready to upgrade its contacts with the Dalai Lama, and encourage other countries to do so.

The Democracy ReportThe United States does more to raise human rights issues with China than any other country, but it often conveys the implicit message that it does so out of moral convictions, not out of well-understood national interest and concern for human rights globally, and that greatly diminishes the effectiveness of such statements.

Sharon Hom:

Nicholas as usual is clear, comprehensive, and on point. So just a few quick thoughts.

Old language, concepts, and either-or thinking cannot analyze and respond effectively to historic and new realities, especially when the domestic and international landscapes are reconfiguring at high speed on the Internet. Greater transparency, accountability, and respect for law, will advance the interests of all stakeholders--governments, the business community, and international and domestic Chinese civil society. We all are traveling in the same real-time virtual boat.

U.S. policymakers must pivot their attention to Chinese citizens and support them through clear international human rights messaging backed by effective action, including diplomatic and technical assistance programs and strategies. Policymakers must read the writing on the micro-blogging wall that runs behind and over China's increasingly porous Great Firewall. While it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to give up its monopoly on political power, it also is clear that its members may no longer have the choice if they want to claim any lasting legitimacy. The CPC will have to respond to the massive explosion of citizen actions across China on critical issues -- endemic corruption, forced demolitions and land grabs, deadly workplaces, mass transportation accidents, and tainted consumer products. U.S. and other international policymakers must recognize and support this rising citizen action fueled by demands and expectations from the grassroots of society.

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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