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Can we have a grownup discussion about human rights?

Can we have a grownup discussion about human rights?

Michael Posner, the Obama administration’s top human rights official, has become the latest target of right-wing ire. At issue is Posner’s recent remark about Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, which he made during a press briefing Friday about the U.S. human rights dialogue with China:

QUESTION: Did the recently passed Arizona immigration law come up? And, if so, did they bring it up or did you bring it up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.

Posner, a heretofore obscure State Department official, is getting ripped by the likes of Rush Limbaugh (“How the hell do all these wackos end up in the administration?”), John Hinderaker (“What an idiot!”), and the New York Post (“Posner shames America”), and it’s not hard to see why. Setting aside the immigration issue, conservatives don’t like it whenever Americans criticize their own country’s human right record, let alone in a way that could be construed as granting “moral equivalence” to a repressive place like China.

Posner clearly wasn’t doing that, but I have to wonder what U.S. officials really think about this human rights dialogue. And how does the conversation actually go? U.S. official: “We think China should improve its human rights record.” Chinese official: “Thanks for your input. I’ll tell Hu Jintao right away! How come we didn’t think of this sooner?”

But let’s have a grownup discussion about this.

Sophie Richardson, the Asia advocacy director for Human Right Watch, complained in a recent FP article that “The Chinese government doesn’t send representatives with appropriate authority or experience to participate meaningfully in the dialogues, neither does it come with any concrete plans for reform. Chinese officials often spend their visit just trying to run out the clock.” She suggests high-level U.S. officials make regular efforts to speak out about human rights in China, so that the United States doesn’t send the message that it doesn’t see this issue as a priority (which, let’s be honest, is true to a certain extent).

Perhaps there are also ways to tinker around the margins. Posner suggested that the real action will take place at a working level, outside the glare of the political spotlight. “[T]he more we kind of filter these out into different expert agendas or areas where we’re having ongoing discussions about law reform, about labor, about whatever, I think we’re more likely to make real progress over time,” he said.

Is that naive? I don’t think Posner, who comes to his position from decades of work at Human Rights First, is some kind of rube. He knows what China’s all about. What we have here is a disagreement over tactics: What’s the best way to get things done with a budding authoritarian superpower? The hectoring and pressure that conservatives seem to favor may make us feel good about our moral superiority, but it probably won’t accomplish much. What are we going to do, sanction the world’s second-largest economy? The Chinese aren’t like citizens in the Soviet Union or the Eastern Bloc, who saw no future in communism and whose miserable governments they hated; their government is competent and their economy growing at a 10 percent annual clip.

China’s come a long way since the Mao era, when the Chinese state wanted to control every activity. There have been ups and downs over the years, but the general trajectory is toward greater freedom and rights for Chinese citizens. There are clearly limits to what the Communist Party will tolerate, and it’s hard to imagine a fundamental improvement in human rights without fundamental political changes. Over the long haul, the need to keep a dynamic capitalist economy running smoothly is going to create more political space in China. But a little dialogue can’t hurt in the meantime.