Whatever Happened to Chinese Human Rights?

On the American campaign trail this year, China's people went missing.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Every four years, presidential campaigns thrust China into the political limelight. The candidates seem to relish any opportunity to accuse their opponents of being "soft" on China and its human rights abuses. The campaign’s intoxication with tough talk is often followed by a post-inauguration hangover, however, as the winner realizes the difficulty of finding solutions to a wide range of international challenges — halting the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting economic growth, protecting the global environment, ensuring energy security — without cooperation from the Chinese government. It is a Washington ritual that goes back to the country’s 1949 founding and the debate over who lost China to the "immoral" and "godless" communists.

President Jimmy Carter is famed for injecting human rights issues more prominently into U.S. foreign policy, but when he normalized relations with Beijing in 1979, it was Republican candidate Ronald Reagan who seized the moral high ground, saying he "would not abandon friends and allies." (Ironically, Reagan went on to authorize the sale of advanced military hardware, including Blackhawk helicopters, to China’s People’s Liberation Army.) In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, candidate Bill Clinton accused then President George H.W. Bush of coddling the "butchers of Beijing," and then promptly abandoned attempts to link trade and human rights after taking office.

But this year, the human rights element has largely been missing from the campaign. Even the dramatic case of blind human rights defender Cheng Guangcheng, who briefly thrust issues of rule of law and justice onto the U.S.-China agenda in April by fleeing into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has not inspired either candidate, beyond a brief attempt by Mitt Romney to politicize Chen’s case. Compared with past campaigns, human rights in China have largely been an afterthought.

Both Romney and his opponent, President Barack Obama, had a chance to speak more comprehensively about China at their foreign-policy debate on Oct 22, but both punted. When moderator Bob Schieffer asked the candidates what kind of relationship they wanted to have with a rising China, Obama said China was both an "adversary" and also a "potential partner in the international community, if it’s following the rules." The rules he referenced were those governing trade and freedom of navigation, not human rights.  Romney, like Obama, struck a cooperative tone: "We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible."  But he too defined "responsible" only in terms of trade policy.

Neither candidate mentioned human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Great Firewall, jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, China’s support for Sudan, or China’s obstruction of United Nations Security Council action on Syria. Neither named the leader of China, President Hu Jintao, or made reference to the leadership transition underway and what it might portend.

China has been present in the campaign, but mostly in one dimension: trade. Obama fired a salvo in this year’s State of the Union Address, noting that his administration had brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate of the previous administration. The president also announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate "unfair trading practices in countries like China."

Romney countered with a February 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the United States should, "directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation." He promised to designate China a "currency manipulator" on the first day of his presidency, and also pledged to beef up U.S. military forces in the Pacific to "guarantee the region remains open for cooperative trade. Romney did briefly mention China’s human rights record in his op-ed, but offered no specifics on how his administration would support Chinese dissidents, or how his approach would differ from Obama’s.

China might now be powerful enough that both candidates are reluctant to raise human rights issues for fear of it withholding cooperation in other areas. In February 2009, on her first trip abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights that "Successive 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."

But one of the principle architects of U.S. engagement with China, Ambassador Winston Lord, takes a different view. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lord who was ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989, offered up his "10 commandments" for dealing effectively with China. First commandment: "Don’t Demonize China." Second commandment: "Don’t Sanitize China." Speaking up for human rights in China may not curry favor with China’s ruling elite, but according to an October Pew Research Center poll, 52 percent of Chinese people remain favorably inclined toward U.S. ideas about democracy even though only 43 percent have a favorable view of the overall relationship. Perhaps not surprisingly, the younger, richer, and better-educated Chinese are, the more likely they are to identify with U.S. ideas about democracy and human rights. This suggests that U.S. advocacy for human rights may resonate among those Chinese most likely to shape the country’s future.

And human rights issues don’t have to be viewed in isolation. The candidates could easily pivot from human rights in China to the creation of U.S. jobs. The links between China’s human rights practices and the ability of the United States to compete globally on a level playing field may not be obvious, but linked they are, as Yoda might say. China gains a competitive advantage from cheap labor, lax environmental protection laws, and expropriated land. Beijing will continue to enjoy those advantages so long as Chinese workers are denied the right to form independent labor unions, Chinese people are punished for demanding clean air and water, and Chinese peasants are pushed off their land without fair compensation.

The candidates’ failure to put forward concrete ideas on how to advance human rights in China is a shame. There are many avenues available to encourage reforms — through educational exchanges, judicial training, journalist training, rule of law seminars, support for civil society, broadcasting, Internet freedom initiatives, vocal support for dissidents, and official human rights dialogues.

Increasing U.S. support for rule of law and human rights in China would be a smart play for three reasons. First, it would garner favor within China. The most courageous advocates for human rights and justice in China live inside the country, not along the banks of the Potomac. Second, it would enhance U.S. economic opportunities by strengthening the Chinese middle class (the consumers of the future) and depriving Chinese state-owned enterprises of some of the unfair advantages they enjoy as a result of low-wage labor, lax environmental regulations, and stolen land. Third, it would actually promote China’s own long-term stability. China is experiencing tens of thousands of protests every year, many focused on economic injustice. By repressing those seeking redress for grievances — whether they are Tibetan monks or disconsolate factory workers — the Chinese Communist Party is only undermining its own legitimacy and allowing problems to fester. Maybe by 2016, an American presidential contender will notice.

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