Why Hillary Clinton got it right on China
How the U.S. Secretary of State opened a new door for human rights. By William F. Schulz U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent comments about human rights in China have dismayed many human rights activists. Might they be overreacting? “Successive [U.S.] administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these ...
How the U.S. Secretary of State opened a new door for human rights.
By William F. Schulz
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent comments about human rights in China have dismayed many human rights activists. Might they be overreacting?
“Successive [U.S.] administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis” the secretary told reporters. On what grounds could a responsible observer — even one devoted to human rights, like myself — disagree with those observations?
It is certainly true, as I pointed out last week, that China will be a far more reliable partner to the United States on all three of those issues when it adopts democratic reforms and improves its human rights record. If Clinton believes there is no connection between human rights and economic recovery, combating climate change, and maintaining security, she is surely wrong. But that is not what she said. She said that the fact that China’s human rights record remains problematic ought not to preclude trying to make progress and find common ground on three other critical issues.
The fact is that if the world economy continues to deteriorate, millions of people around the world — especially the poorest — will suffer devastating infringements of their economic right to, in the words of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “a standard of living adequate for [their] health and well-being.” If we don’t solve the climate crisis, millions of people will sacrifice their right to life. And if superpowers such as China and the United States fail to find common ground on international security issues, such as their own bilateral military relations (to say nothing of North Korea and Iran), the world could witness suffering on an unimaginable scale.
Of course, the United States should continue to press China on human rights, as the secretary explicitly said and as her own record, including her call last year for former U.S. President George W. Bush to skip the Olympics, demonstrates. But if China fails to make the kind of human rights changes we in the international community seek, should we suspend efforts to reach agreement on other issues that themselves have powerful human rights implications?
“We pretty much know what [the Chinese] are going to say” on human rights, religious freedom, and Tibet, Clinton said, and that comment too caused consternation. However, not only is it factually correct, but it underscores how formulaic the traditional U.S.-China dialogue on human rights has become. The truth is that rhetoric untethered from consequences has done more harm than good. If the secretary meant that the United States should stop trying to influence Chinese human rights practices, her view is shortsighted. But if she was expressing frustration that the old tactics have largely failed to move the Chinese in positive directions, she was right on the money.
Bilateral dialogue is still important. But what is likely to be far more effective in the long run are such things as reversing the decline in U.S. funding of human rights programs in China (which dropped from $23 million in fiscal 2007 to $15 million in fiscal 2008); partnering with such entities as the European Union and the International Labor Organization to globalize pressure on China; monitoring information and communications technology companies to ensure that they resist China’s attempts to use them to restrict access to information; and updating the bans on imports of products made in Chinese prisons and on exports to China of questionable law enforcement equipment.
The United States would betray both its values and its interests if it neglected to pursue improvements in Chinese human rights practices. But that pursuit must be smart, strategic, and persistent, not just symbolic or ideological. Clinton’s comments appear to indicate that she shares that view and, if she does, the human rights community has nothing to fear from her leadership.
William F. Schulz, senior fellow in human rights policy at the Center for American Progress and author of “
Strategic Persistence: How the United States Can Help Improve Human Rights in China
,“ served as executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006.
Photo: Guang Niu/Pool/Getty Images
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