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

I believe that human rights engagement only can be really worthwhile if it is critical engagment that understands that progress blooms from argument and debate. The United States cannot avoid addressing the most serious human rights violations in China out of fear that, by appearing too confrontational, it risks damaging other aspects of the relationship. For its part, Beijing must stop responding with angry rhetoric every time it hears something it doesn't like. In this same vein, the United States also should expect to listen more to Chinese critiques of American human rights problems.

Getting both sides to approach human rights engagement on these terms is no simple matter, and Beijing may have further to travel than Washington in this respect. There will be disagreements, but engagement must be about more than simply acknowledging differences and "agreeing to disagree." It should involve recognizing the value of substantive, critical discussion in which all parties are held accountable equally for their commitments to human rights under international law.

While there's much work that the United States can and should do to undo the damage done to its human rights reputation in recent years, it is counterproductive for any particular nation to take responsibility for being a model of moral behavior and rectitude in the area of human rights. At many times in its history the United States has not been willing enough to see itself as an equal and active participant in a global process of protecting and promoting universal human rights standards. This is not to deny that the United States still has an important leadership role to play, but this leadership must be understood in the context of multilateral processes aimed at realizing the full set of internationally recognized human rights in all countries, including China and the United States. The human rights project should be the responsibility of all of us, in every country, not a source of political finger-pointing between global competitors.

Andrew Nathan:

We should remind our politicians that promoting China's adherence to universal human rights norms is not just a matter of moral idealism, but also a matter of sound strategy. First, everyone will feel safer as businesspeople, scholars, and tourists when China has rule of law, and this includes not only Americans but other foreigners and Chinese as well. Second, China's strategic intentions will be more transparent if they are shaped in an open political process, and this will reduce suspicion of China by all of China's neighbors and the U.S., which also will be good for China itself. Third, China will be more stable politically once the regime is grounded in the consent of the people, and a stable and prosperous China is in the interests of the rest of the world. Finally, a world with a robust set of international norms and institutions that regulate fields such as trade, investment, the environment, arms control, and human rights will be a more predictable and peaceful world, where conflicts of interest can be sorted out and common interests advanced in reliable ways. Such a world cannot be built without the full participation of a rising great power like China.

Aryeh Neier:

I think it is important to recognize the urgency of attempting to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship. First and foremost, it is urgent because such a vast number of persons in China itself are deeply affected. Second, it is urgent because it is impossible to promote human rights globally if there is no advance in human rights in China.

One of the reasons that the United States and some of its Western allies succeeded a quarter of a century ago in promoting human rights in Soviet bloc countries is that they persuaded many in those countries that human rights and economic success went hand in hand. In recent years, however, China's economic success during a period of economic trouble in the West has conveyed an opposite message. The difficulty of promoting human rights globally in these circumstances is exacerbated by the way that China uses its economic clout in its relations with other countries. Western pressures to promote rights often are defeated by China's assertiveness in making clear that its trade and aid are not subject to human rights conditions. This has become an important factor in countering pressures for human rights in Africa, in Central Asia and in other parts of the world.

For the most part, I agree with Nicholas Becquelin about how to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship. The only point of difference I have with him is that Nicholas writes that "irrespective of the issue of moral imperatives ... it is clearly in the U.S. national interest that China" should gradually become a more open society. My difference here is that I would not draw a line between "moral imperatives" on the one hand and "the U.S. national interest" on the other hand. That is because the U.S. considers itself to be a global power with global responsibilities. If it is not to encounter strenuous resistance to its efforts to play a leadership role on a host of global issues, its policies have to have a moral character. It must respect human rights in its domestic policies and it should promote human rights in its international policies. Of course, the two are closely related. Among other things, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and C.I.A. renditions have done a lot of damage to U.S. standing internationally and have undermined significantly the U.S.' capacity to promote human rights in China and elsewhere. Efforts to undo the harm that the U.S. has done to itself domestically must go hand in hand with efforts to improve its role internationally.

Finally, I particularly agree with Nicholas "That the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself." Also, I agree with his list of the issues that are driving this struggle for rights, but would add what seems to me another factor. I think that there are important sectors of Chinese society -- among them journalists, scientists, academics and lawyers--whose struggle for rights is based partly on recognition that being good professionals in their chosen fields requires them to exercise their rights. It is not only that citizens of China are disaffected by government abuses. It is also that many Chinese want to manifest their readiness to maintain certain standards, to adhere to ethical principles and to enjoy the respect of their peers.

A version of this post appears at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.

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

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