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.