Human Rights Last

China's diplomats have the ear of the world's bad guys. So what are they telling them?


On Feb. 21, 2010, the Chinese Embassy in Harare threw a birthday party for Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's heavy-handed and increasingly erratic octogenarian despot, complete with cake, almost 100 guests, and a "Happy 86th birthday" sign. Xin Shunkang, China's dapper ambassador, led the embassy staff in singing the Zimbabwean national anthem in the Shona language. The embassy invited local students to sing Chinese folk songs. "The Chinese people sing the Zimbabwean national anthem in Shona; Zimbabwean people sing Chinese songs in Chinese," recalled Xin when we met in Harare some months later. "It's harmonious." It was the first time Mugabe had visited a foreign embassy since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. "It's not easy to get a president to come to your embassy," said Xin with a bit of pride. "Not every ambassador can do this, but I could do it."

On Feb. 21, 2010, the Chinese Embassy in Harare threw a birthday party for Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s heavy-handed and increasingly erratic octogenarian despot, complete with cake, almost 100 guests, and a "Happy 86th birthday" sign. Xin Shunkang, China’s dapper ambassador, led the embassy staff in singing the Zimbabwean national anthem in the Shona language. The embassy invited local students to sing Chinese folk songs. "The Chinese people sing the Zimbabwean national anthem in Shona; Zimbabwean people sing Chinese songs in Chinese," recalled Xin when we met in Harare some months later. "It’s harmonious." It was the first time Mugabe had visited a foreign embassy since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. "It’s not easy to get a president to come to your embassy," said Xin with a bit of pride. "Not every ambassador can do this, but I could do it."

In Zimbabwe and many other countries far from Beijing, China’s hand is increasingly conspicuous these days, and its choice of friends, like the thuggish Mugabe, is increasingly under scrutiny. It used to be that the Western world lectured China most extensively about its poor human rights record at home, for detaining dissenters and silencing free speech. But as China’s power and influence grow, the Chinese government now finds itself weathering criticism for its support of cruel regimes around the world — from accusations, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and others have put it, that "Beijing is financing, diplomatically protecting and supplying the arms for the first genocide of the 21st century" in Darfur, to the recent warning by Win Tin, co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, that if Chinese leaders "praise the [Burmese] regime" without helping the public, then "China will fail to win the hearts of the people." Chinese officials are newly sensitive to such reproaches, if not exactly responsive. As one Foreign Ministry official told me with surprise in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "For the first time, China’s foreign position on human rights outweighs the world’s concern for China’s domestic human rights."

Certainly, as Chinese trade and commerce have exploded over the last decade, they have been an economic boon to many developing countries, correspondingly boosting China’s clout in countries as remote from Beijing as Angola, Ethiopia, and Uzbekistan. But in many of those places, China has purchased its clout at the cost of maintaining warm ties with murderous governments, from Burma to North Korea to, perhaps most prominently, Sudan — where two U.S. presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have accused Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s regime of genocide.

Yet it is much less obvious how the Chinese government thinks about these awkward relationships. How does a generation of Chinese who opened up their own country to the world square China’s ongoing transformations with such ties to some of the most closed societies on Earth? How does a country haunted by awful memories of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution overlook suffering in other countries? Is the Chinese government defending its long-standing principle that national sovereignty should reign supreme, seeking natural resources to fuel its red-hot economic growth, or offering a new model of international development and diplomacy? Is there any way the United States can more effectively engage with China on these issues? Above all, what do China’s complex attitudes toward its rogue friends say about the kind of great power China will become?

IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to report on what China’s top rulers think and say behind secure doors in the Zhongnanhai leadership complex. But over the course of multiple trips to Beijing in the last several years, I was able to interview about a dozen Chinese Foreign Ministry officials from various departments, some repeatedly, about China’s dealings with outlaw governments. They seemed well briefed that I write about human rights — ordinarily a topic much avoided in Beijing. Having documented what the historic rise of liberal great powers like Britain and America meant for human rights, I wanted to know how Chinese officials see their own impact.

When asked about human rights, Chinese officials invariably start with a principled defense of national sovereignty. Dating back to the 1949 revolution, this tenet recalls China’s own searing experience of colonial oppression by the West and Japan. But defending sovereignty may be Chinese diplomats’ only guiding ideology today. Since Deng Xiaoping, China has given up on sponsoring Maoist revolutions, as it did in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. Chinese officialdom remains deeply wary of most of the tools that Western governments have used to promote human rights, not least because the Chinese state has been on the receiving end of many of them.

Chinese authorities recoil at the prospect of humanitarian military intervention, as the West undertook in Kosovo in 1999. Criticizing the use of force in general, a Chinese official drew a stark contrast toward the end of 2008: "This year we had two big events. China had the Olympic Games; Russia attacked Georgia." Another Foreign Ministry official told me, "Sometimes we think what’s caused by intervention could be even more thorny than the reality before, like what [the Americans] have in Afghanistan and Iraq. Out of some emotion, [the Americans] initiated those two wars. But it becomes very difficult to get out." When I raised Rwanda as an example of a terrifyingly fast genocide that the outside world failed to stop, one Chinese official rather lamely suggested that the African Union should have been allowed to mediate. Another, asked about Rwanda, uneasily hinted at personal dissatisfaction with the official line, but wouldn’t say anything more.

Chinese officials are equally appalled by economic sanctions, which were imposed on their own country after the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "In Myanmar, you give more sanctions, but the leaders have a very happy life," argued a Foreign Ministry official. "Why do you just make people suffer, but you cannot change the regime?" Even the tactic of naming and shaming human rights violators is too much for the Chinese state — itself frequently singled out for its own human rights abuses. "It is maddening to be rebuked by foreign countries in a high-profile way," a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told me. Instead, this official boasted, "We usually convince the other parties in a most subtle manner."

Whatever their private misgivings, Chinese officials can be determinedly unwilling to publicly criticize even their most outrageous partners. When, in an unsubtle manner, I pointed out that North Korea had starved a million of its own people to death, as well as sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan and shelled South Korean civilians on Yeonpyeong Island in recent days, a Chinese diplomat would go no further than saying, "We encourage them to have better living standards for their people." According to this official, when Kim Jong Il visited China recently, his hosts were impressed with his desire to develop the North Korean economy. This official, while questioning whether North Korea had really sunk the Cheonan, said, "Generally speaking, North Korea is a normal state. It’s a nation that has its own right to choose how to govern."

Reluctant to publicly condemn even the baddest of bad actors, Chinese officials champion a diplomacy based on trade and engagement, rather than on military, political, or economic leverage. As one Chinese diplomat told me in Beijing in October 2008, the North Koreans "want to talk to the U.S. The U.S. won’t talk to them. Then they develop nuclear weapons; then the U.S. talks to them." The official added jokingly, "But still the U.S. is reluctant to talk to Myanmar officials, perhaps because they did not develop nuclear weapons."

WITH THE OUTBREAK of violence in Darfur in 2003, even some of the most sophisticated Chinese officials were startled to find themselves facing blistering Western criticism over their support for Bashir’s government. In 2007, a puzzled Chinese Foreign Ministry official asked me whether Bush had latched onto Darfur as a potential "legacy issue," like the North Korean nuclear negotiations, on which China and the United States cooperated closely and effectively. The official said, "For many Chinese, it’s a surprise. Two years ago, people, even academics, would say, ‘What is Darfur? Where is Darfur?’" A Foreign Ministry official told me, "One or two years ago, we didn’t realize that Darfur was so important."

Nobody has borne the brunt of foreign outrage over China’s Sudan policy more than Liu Guijin, China’s first-ever special representative for Darfur. Liu is the model of an old Africa hand: an influential veteran diplomat who served in Kenya and Ethiopia, as ambassador to South Africa, and as director of the Africa department in the Foreign Ministry. He is a sprightly man with owlish glasses, a ready smile, and a gracious manner. He’s steeped in Western literature, recommending to me Saviors and Survivors, a book by Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani that shows, Liu said, how the "Darfur issue has been highly politicized." When he gets going, he has the air of a man who’s not used to being interrupted.

Liu, who met with me at the gargantuan stone-and-glass Foreign Ministry building in Beijing in August 2009 and again in December 2010, was unembarrassed about China’s economic stake in Sudan. It is, he said, "a matter of fact that China does have a great interest there." He defended the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp.’s $7 billion investments in Sudan’s oil sector over protests from human rights campaigners: "I say that to get oil that way is not so rare. Lots of multinational corporations do that too. And not everywhere the multinational corporations go have that good a human rights record. So to have economic dealings in countries like Sudan, that the Western countries do not love, that is something normal." Even Liu, a sophisticated character, doesn’t register that this might not be the most winning banner for Chinese foreign policy: as principled as a multinational corporation.

During the worst of the slaughter in Darfur, in 2003 and 2004, China was the Sudanese government’s most powerful supporter. It used its U.N. Security Council power to block or water down tough measures against Sudan, like the imposition of sanctions or peacekeeping troops. Western accusations of genocide caused a particular headache because China is a party to the Genocide Convention, which obliges states to prevent and punish killings and persecutions "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." To dodge that obligation, Chinese diplomats deny that Darfur meets the definition. One Chinese official did tell me, "If there is a widely agreed opinion that there is a genocide, I think that the international community has the obligation to prevent or to help end it." But the official then downplayed claims from the likes of Bush and activist Mia Farrow ("the star lady") that Darfur counts as genocide.

A Foreign Ministry staffer remembered a colleague returning from a trip to Darfur and giving a PowerPoint presentation about the refugee camps. While admitting that Sudan might have stage-managed the trip, this official said, "We didn’t see anyone dying. It’s serious, but how serious? We have some doubts." Although credible human rights groups estimate that several hundred thousand people have died in Darfur, Chinese officials and elites are skeptical. "I don’t know how many people died," a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told me. Another asked: "There are so many crises that need attention. Why this one? We think it’s because of the strategic interest of Western countries."

But as the death toll mounted and the U.S. government repeatedly accused Sudan of genocide, Chinese policy quietly began to shift. Liu, who has met with Darfur activists, told me he was impressed with their effectiveness: "They are so successful, the Save Darfur Coalition and Enough." In a September 2005 speech that got Beijing’s attention, Robert Zoellick, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, urged China to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the world system and specifically rebuked China over its support for Sudan. In February 2007, Hu Jintao became the first Chinese president to visit Khartoum, offering loans, partnership accords, and financing for a new presidential palace. But in a break with past practice, China also privately pressured Bashir to accept new peacekeepers, according to Chinese officials. In public, Hu called for creativity in Darfur peacekeeping, as well as a U.N. role there. In July 2007, China for the first time joined the Security Council in voting to deploy a joint African Union and U.N. peacekeeping mission to Darfur, known as UNAMID. Liu bluntly said, "We played a key role in convincing Khartoum to accept UNAMID," and pointed out that China also sent about 300 Chinese engineers to help the peacekeepers.

In another step aimed at heading off Western criticism, in May 2007 China announced Liu’s appointment to his unusual envoy position. Liu, in a remarkable statement by the standards of Chinese officialdom, told me being named as "special envoy for a country which is thousands of miles far away from China — that is something unprecedented, the first time in history. It shows that China feels, though we still adhere to the principle of noninterference in the affairs of a sovereign state, we have a more flexible interpretation than 10 or 20 years before."

After the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Bashir in March 2009, China bristled and tried to neutralize the tribunal’s action. Even so, Liu said that behind the scenes, China’s "strong advice" to the Khartoum government was "please do not stop your cooperation with UNAMID or expel UNAMID. The consequences will be devastating." He warned the Khartoum government not to retaliate against foreigners living in Sudan, he said. His account is borne out by a confidential U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, recounting that in September 2008, before the arrest warrant, Zhai Jun, China’s assistant foreign minister (as paraphrased by a U.S. diplomat), "expressed grave concern" about ICC charges but "strongly counseled" the government of Sudan to "remain prudent."

Human rights activists argue that China’s shift hasn’t gone far enough. When I asked Liu about a U.N. request for Chinese helicopters to help more with Darfur peacekeeping, he replied that the Sichuan earthquake had shown China "so seriously lacking in necessary helicopters" of the kind needed in the vast spaces of western Sudan. He noted that, before the sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a U.S. arms maker had sold Black Hawk helicopters to China, which are now grounded for lack of spare parts. He wryly told a story about a Chinese leader who, visiting the United States, was asked for helicopters for Darfur. The Chinese leader pointedly replied that China didn’t have enough helicopters, but "if you could sell us some, we will pay you in cash, and immediately we are going to send them to Darfur."

Today, China is showing flexibility in another part of Sudan: the oil-rich south. As a January referendum on the secession of Southern Sudan approached, which a Chinese official admitted would inevitably mean southern independence, China nimbly built up ties with the southerners. A senior Obama administration official told me that Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top officials energetically enlisted China’s backing for the referendum, with many specific requests. "President Obama is raising it in every meeting with Hu Jintao," said this official, so that Bashir faced united American and Chinese support for the referendum. So long as the referendum was "free, transparent, and credible," Liu told me beforehand, China would accept it — an unusual solicitude about fair voting from a Chinese official.

But China has not abandoned its support of Sudan, only modified it. Beijing remains a powerful backer of Bashir, albeit with fresh reservations. Still, China’s changes in Sudan policy lend some credence to those who argue that Western engagement with China can have benefits for human rights even in China’s worst client states. "Publicly we are very cautious," acknowledged Liu. "But when we engage with our Sudanese brothers, I am sometimes quite straightforward." Liu said, "One strict principle is that we do not interfere. But we do not regard giving advice, suggestions, as interference." When I pointed out that when a country of 1.3 billion people suggests something, smaller governments are going to listen, he laughed in agreement. Another time, he said flatly, "When we give advice to Sudan, it has to consider it seriously. Because China is one of the few friends of that country."

SUDAN WAS A RARE CASE for China: where international pressure, not least U.S. engagement, was overwhelming. But China is less impressed with American clout today, and most places where China is investing and cultivating friendships, from Burma to Angola, haven’t made it onto the Western agenda in the same way. In these neglected places, China is free to stick closer to its own view of its influence. In particular, Chinese officials point to a success story for their softer kind of diplomacy, with a case that would startle many Westerners: Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe is a good example for us," said a senior Chinese official. As seen from Beijing, Zimbabwe exemplifies a model of inclusive compromise, with two local rivals coming together without thundering military or economic threats from self-interested superpowers. In September 2008, the dictatorial Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai made a quiet deal to move forward. The brokers were fellow Africans, not the meddling hegemonists of Washington and London. "It proves once again that it is a good way of countries to solve issues by themselves," said a Chinese official in Beijing. This official suggested that Zimbabwe made a good precedent for other troubled countries: "In light of what happened in Zimbabwe, we should still give time to the Sudanese government and parties in Sudan to make a new accomplishment." But there’s an obvious problem with this pleasant vision: Mugabe has repeatedly and brazenly violated the power-sharing pact, maintaining his grip on power while China continues its happy talk.

China has supported Mugabe since his revolutionary struggle against British colonialism and white supremacy. "He led the Zimbabwean people to win their independence," Xin, the Chinese ambassador, told me in May 2010 over dinner at a Hunanese restaurant in a low-density area of crumbling, ravaged Harare. "Just like Chairman Mao."

This friendship endured even as Mugabe drove Zimbabwe into economic collapse after 2000, with at least 80 percent unemployment, hyperinflation reaching 231 million percent, a quarter of the population fleeing, and female life expectancy plummeting to 34 years, the lowest on Earth. Chinese officials admit frankly that, unlike in oil-rich Sudan, they have little economic stake in Zimbabwe; "it’s just one drop in the sea," as one put it. But even so, "China did not stop our normal economic relations, as Western countries did," said Liu Guijin, himself a former ambassador to Zimbabwe. Another Chinese official said, "The West is suspicious: Why do you have such good relations with Zimbabwe? Is there a secret deal? I don’t know of any secret deal at all."

The key test for China came in March 2008, when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Tsvangirai, claimed victory over Mugabe’s party in presidential and parliamentary elections. Tsvangirai’s movement endured widespread government-backed violence, in which some 200 people died. When I asked Xin about this bloodshed, he replied, "If they say the president beat some people, did you see that with your own eyes? People could believe it or not."

Tsvangirai, shaken by the carnage, pulled out of a second, decisive round of voting scheduled for June 2008. Neighboring African states refused to accept Mugabe’s assertions of victory. Finally, South Africa helped broker a power-sharing arrangement, with Tsvangirai becoming prime minister while Mugabe held on as president. Despite loud MDC claims that Mugabe stole the elections, Chinese officials in Beijing are sanguine: "The Zimbabwe issue is by its nature a domestic issue; like in the U.S. you also in 2000 had this controversy."

This, for Chinese officials, stands out as the proper way to handle an African political crisis. A Chinese diplomat told me, "Many people in the West think it’s better to intervene in the domestic situation of the Zimbabwean election. We advocated that the Zimbabweans should solve the issue themselves, with what is good for the nation itself in mind. They went through some zigzags on the road, but the result is much better." A Chinese Foreign Ministry official praised Mugabe’s statesmanship: "For a hero of the liberation struggle to make such a big compromise is not an easy thing."

Now, Chinese officials are full of praise for the joint Mugabe-Tsvangirai government. One Foreign Ministry official said (without evident irony), "That agreement is a great leap forward." In Harare, a city that still suffers frequent power and water outages, Xin told me, "Things are getting better and better." The two parties, he claimed, are like siblings: "For ZANU-PF, there is a new brother, so they have to get used to discussing things." As for Tsvangirai’s movement, "The MDC is like a younger brother; they don’t have experience in running the country. They try to learn how to cooperate with the older brother."

China balks at using its considerable influence to pressure the regime. One Chinese official told me, "We cannot put a gun to Mugabe and say that you have to accept this or accept that." Liu argued that sanctions would be counterproductive: "It’s the ordinary people who suffer from sanctions or embargoes. That is not Mugabe."

It was particularly important to China that the deal be done without superpower interference. "We still see it as a domestic affair," said a Chinese diplomat. "It’s not something that needs the intervention of the U.N. Security Council." China usually reserves its Security Council veto for core security issues like Taiwan. In Zimbabwe, one Foreign Ministry official told me, "there is no direct [Chinese] interest involved, no vital interest involved."

But on July 10, 2008, just after Mugabe was sworn in for a sixth term as president, China vetoed a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and some of his top aides. Russia joined China, as did South Africa. Liu said that the African Union had asked China to veto the sanctions. "Because China is the only developing country" in the permanent five members of the Security Council, "that veto belongs to the developing countries," said a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, adding, "No matter how serious it is, it is their internal affair. If the U.N. Security Council really adopts a resolution to sanction Zimbabwe, it maybe sets a very bad precedent; it may set a precedent to have the U.N. interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country."

The reality in Zimbabwe — devastating levels of unemployment, infrastructure in collapse, Mugabe squarely in control — is miserably different from China’s rosy official version. It’s true that Zimbabwe halted its economic free-fall by adopting the U.S. dollar as its base currency, ending hyperinflation. But Mugabe has trampled the power-sharing deal repeatedly. He named loyalists to all 10 of the regional governorships, though they were supposed to be distributed among the rival factions. He grabbed the most important ministries. Without consulting Tsvangirai, Mugabe appointed a stooge as attorney general and reappointed the central bank governor who had presided over the country’s economic meltdown. In May 2010, to the MDC’s shock, Mugabe appointed the controversial former electoral chief, accused of helping rig the 2008 election, as the president of Zimbabwe’s high court. Tsvangirai’s finance minister, Tendai Biti, has complained, "ZANU-PF cannot continue to urinate on us."

When I asked Xin about these vehement complaints, he said, "First, I didn’t hear such comments from any ministers from the MDC. Second, I want to say that such a thing is just like in the past 30 years ago; there was a lot of not very accurate criticism of China." It’s hard to believe that Chinese officials are truly naive about Mugabe. Liu, who knows the old dictator well from his posting as ambassador in Harare, was unsurprised at the thought of Mugabe violating the power-sharing deal: "I could imagine it. He’s such a senior leader, well established, controls everything." Still, with Mugabe and Tsvangirai now jockeying over the prospect of new elections, Chinese diplomats seem to be among the last to publicly assert faith in a shotgun marriage that has overwhelmingly benefited Mugabe.

MY MOST RECENT TRIP to China coincided with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and democracy activist sentenced in December 2009 to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion. A few days before the prize was placed in Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair, an urbane, worldly Chinese official in Beijing, who usually emphasizes his country’s peaceful cooperation with the United States, vented some of his government’s fury: "If a million or even a hundred million people listened to Liu Xiaobo’s call and make moves to overthrow this government, what could happen to China?" This official heatedly warned that Liu Xiaobo risked igniting an "endless quarrel" like the Cultural Revolution, a dreaded memory among reformist Chinese elites: "How can China stand it? China will fall into a chaotic situation. Then China cannot pull people out of poverty. Nobody cares for China but us. The basic law helps us enjoy this kind of stability. We can prevent this country falling into the abyss."

This kind of scorched-earth response makes it tempting to explain China’s friendships with dictatorships as a simple affinity with China’s own resilient authoritarianism. After all, China has taken a hard line on domestic dissent over the past several years, including Liu Xiaobo’s stiff jail sentence. But Chinese officials style themselves as a different kind of government: one that has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, reached out to the world, allowed limited openness at home, and played a helpful role on the global stage. They point with pride to their role in pressing North Korea on its nuclear weapons and to China’s considerable contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

This self-presentation makes China’s support for radical tyrants like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il more than a little awkward. Mugabe drove his economy into the ground, and Kim rages against the international system; Chinese diplomats are proud of doing none of those things. Liu Guijin recalls sitting in on summits with African leaders, where "our paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said, ‘I don’t wish you to take up socialism.’" Liu, remembering China’s own experiences, told me he warns Africans against revolutionary excess: "If you go a more drastic revolutionary way, you will destroy infrastructure; you will undermine what you have achieved. You will have more resistance. And you may be faced with embargoes or sanctions."

That softer kind of thinking may yet leave an opening for people who care about human rights. After all, it’s easier for China to engage with the West on the human rights situation — couched in suitably diplomatic terms — in a faraway country like Sudan than within China itself. Even before the Sudan experience, Liu noted, China had become more open in its view of sovereignty: "Twenty years ago, we regard[ed] U.N. peacekeeping as a kind of interference in internal affairs. But now we are active participants." And the Sudan example demonstrates that smart, sustained Western engagement with China can pay off. China’s shift, however belated or inadequate, puts the lie to the notion that China will never pressure a friendly government about its domestic abuses.

Yet, getting China to reconsider its rogue relationships takes an enormous amount of effort and skill. Other issues — Taiwan, renminbi undervaluation, Iran — will threaten to crowd out America’s concerns about China’s record on human rights abroad, just as they do on China’s domestic human rights record. "I’d put Sudan in the same category of currency, Iran, and North Korea," a senior Obama administration official told me.

The Chinese government excels at spotting weaknesses in foreign pressure. Chinese officials are full of praise for Scott Gration, Obama’s special envoy on Sudan, who prefers offering inducements to Bashir. "There is a new approach of Scott Gration," Liu said after the Obama team took charge. "It’s no longer ‘You do this; we do that.’" In August 2009, when I told a Chinese Foreign Ministry official that Darfur was an important personal and moral issue for Obama, the official replied, "In the character of President Obama, we not only find his morality but also his pragmatism." (This was meant as a compliment.) But more recently, after a surge of sustained engagement on Sudan from the highest levels of the Obama administration, Liu noted that "not everyone in Washington agrees with [Gration’s] moderate policy." A senior Obama administration official told me, "We’ve seen them step up in surprising ways" on Sudan.

Yet America’s influence over a more assertively nationalist China is already on the wane. At a moment when many elites in today’s more self-confident China, particularly in the military, believe that the American system is in decline, dragged down by bitterly deadlocked politics and a stagnant economy, it will not be easy for the United States to engage with Beijing on its human rights impact abroad.

But a more responsible Chinese attitude toward its pariah friends would actually benefit China. By cozying up to Mugabe, China stands to alienate generations of ordinary Zimbabweans, not to mention the millions of other Africans looking on helplessly from outside. In April 2008, dockworkers at the South African port of Durban, with the backing of their powerful labor unions, refused to unload weapons bound for Zimbabwe from a Chinese ship. That could be but a taste of enduring African resentment of Chinese influence.

China risks falling into the same trap that America fell into during — and even after — the Cold War. In places like Pakistan and Argentina, Egypt and Tunisia, the United States championed convenient tyrants and thereby embittered ordinary citizens against America for decades. "Even when we are economically stronger, in the middle of this century, I hope China’s behavior will not be the same as the superpowers," Liu Guijin said. "We have such a unique history that is so similar with the developing countries." It is an admirable sentiment. There are some reasons to hope that China will get more responsible. But so far, there are few Darfuris or Zimbabweans who would see much to cheer in China’s growing global influence. China would not be the first big power to grow both strong and cold.

Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, is the author of Freedom's Battle and Stay the Hand of Vengeance.

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.