We Have Let the Chinese People Down

President Obama needs to stand up for human rights. Remembering Tiananmen is a good place to start.

Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images
Li Xin/AFP/Getty Images

In early May, more than a dozen people gathered in a private home in China to discuss an event that occurred 25 years ago today. Days later, police questioned many of the attendees, formally arresting five of them under the charge of "creating a public disturbance."

These men and women were just trying to commemorate — quietly and in private — the events of June 3-4, 1989, when, after weeks of student protests, Chinese security forces deployed lethal force against protesters, many of them students, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of peaceful protesters were killed and thousands injured. Some of the participants who survived were imprisoned for years afterwards. To this day, the Chinese government attempts to stifle any discussion of the events of June 1989, this year going so far as to block access to Google in the run-up to the anniversary. 

Unfortunately, such extreme measures by governments are not relics of a bygone era. They continue to occur on a daily basis in countries around the world. Halfway around the globe, Venezuelan students have taken to the streets in recent months, campaigning for more accountability from their government. Instead, the regime of Nicolas Maduro has responded to their peaceful protests with bullets, tear gas, and beatings. The students’ bodies now bear the horrific evidence of a government-sponsored campaign of repression and brutality. 

This repression in Venezuela is fueled by the Castro regime in Cuba, which provides Maduro with manpower and over a half century worth of experience in violating people’s human rights. Living just 90 miles from the United States, the Cuban people are among the world’s most repressed. Internet freedom is nonexistent, the jails are filled with political prisoners, and even the wives and daughters of the incarcerated are routinely beaten and intimidated by Castro’s security forces.

Meanwhile, in Iran, an ally of the Venezuelan and Cuban regimes, a group of young Iranian men and women were arrested in late May for posting a video online of themselves dancing to the U.S. pop song "Happy." The dancers were only released after apologizing on camera for their transgressions, but the director of the video remains behind bars. This sort of repression, as well as more extreme brutality, is commonplace in that country. 

What do all of these cases, spanning continents, cultures, and religions, have in common? China, Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran are all authoritarian regimes intimidated by even the slightest expression of their citizens’ basic human rights.

Unfortunately, infringements on personal liberties are occurring with increasing frequency. Freedom House’s annual survey "Freedom in the World" reported a decline in global freedom in 2013 for the eighth consecutive year. Despite these disturbing trends, we are far too often tempted to ignore these travesties.

We are told that these are different cultures, or that it’s none of our business. Some say speaking out in defense of those persecuted might actually reinforce the government’s narrative of foreign meddling and cause further persecution. Others claim that the oppressed don’t want help from the United States. 

I’ve been confronted with all of these arguments as I’ve advocated a U.S. foreign policy that defends freedom around the world. The reality is that our inaction and excuses abet regime-sponsored propaganda and repression.

In a late May speech at West Point, President Barack Obama said that support for democracy and human rights "goes beyond idealism; it is a matter of national security." But unfortunately, from Beijing to Cairo, from Moscow to Tehran, his record as president has been a halting and uncertain voice for liberty. 

Five years ago this month, he wavered as hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the street to protest the fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For days, the leader of the free world was silent as peaceful Iranian protesters were gunned down.

Similarly, in 2011 and 2012, the president hesitated when faced with the revolutions of the Arab Spring as the people of the region took to the streets against their corrupt and sclerotic rulers. In Egypt, the administration’s policy has managed to alienate all parties, undermining U.S. credibility in the process. Even in places, such as Libya, where we intervened, the operation was slow to start and quick to end, leaving behind chaos and uncertainty instead of stability. 

In Syria, human rights abuses by a dictator that we were told was a "reformer," have given way to all-out civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people and that is becoming a direct security threat to the United States as it grows into the world’s premier operational area for jihadists, including many Westerners.

In Russia, the president pursued a "reset" that largely ignored the deepening repression under Vladimir Putin. When Congress showed bipartisan leadership and passed the Magnitsky Act in December 2012, the administration fought the effort before trying to ignore the law’s required designations of human rights abusers. 

Instead of this hesitant and halfhearted leadership, the United States should unabashedly support the spread of economic freedom and democracy, both of which make countries inherently more stable, less conflict prone, and better partners for commerce.

So, how do we put this into practice? 

First, we need to be much more willing to back up our beliefs with vocal support for the oppressed. Far too often, U.S. policymakers don’t have the courage of their convictions or have decided that human rights diplomacy is futile.

I’ve been amazed by the number of foreign activists who have told me how meaningful an act of Congress or even a simple public statement I’ve made has been to their cause. Whether it is North Korean dissidents trying to raise awareness about that country’s modern day gulags, or Venezuelan students following the work of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Twitter — just like Soviet dissidents passed morsels of information regarding President Ronald Reagan’s advocacy on their behalf — those oppressed today look to the United States and America’s leaders to have the moral clarity to take up their cases. 

Second, we need to be more willing to use our economic might to back up our values. Despite the important role that sanctions have played as a tool of U.S. foreign policy, our government is incredibly cautious about deploying this tool in new cases, even when sanctions are targeted against human rights abusers or corrupt officials. Administration officials fight behind the scenes to water down
any congressional effort in this area and then drag their feet regarding implementation once Congress acts.

I’ve found this to be the case as I’ve worked with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to sanction those Venezuelan officials involved in violent repression. An administration official, Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, actually testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Venezuelan opposition did not support such sanctions. A spokesperson for Jacobson had to retract her testimony the following day after there was an outcry in Venezuela. 

If we are serious about incorporating democracy and human rights into our national security strategy — as the President’s West Point address suggests — we need to treat them as a significant component of our relationships with key countries, instead of as stand-alone issues.

Too often, we merely raise human rights concerns in "human rights dialogues" with authoritarian regimes, that do not receive high-level attention in Washington or the countries in question. And too often, tactical objectives win out over uncomfortable human rights discussions. What is lacking is a comprehensive human-rights based strategy for countries of concern. 

We should instead involve human rights diplomacy in all of our engagements with repressive regimes — no matter what official or cabinet agency is involved. For example, at our upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China, a high-level bilateral meeting, human rights should feature prominently along with talks about security and economic issues.

Solving these structural problems will take time, but we need to start now. After June 4, 1989, we didn’t continue to speak frankly and consistently over time regarding our concerns about the horrific events in Tiananmen Square. Over the following years, we let our desire for economic engagement and strategic stability outweigh our moral obligations. We have let the Chinese people down. 

We want a productive relationship with a growing China. But we do not make that outcome more likely by ignoring that, even a quarter century after the Tiananmen Square massacre, detentions continue when simple commemorations occur in private homes or on social media.

In January, at his confirmation hearing to be the new U.S. ambassador to China, I asked Sen. Max Baucus if our embassy in Beijing should be considered an "island of freedom," as the late Amb. Mark Palmer had advocated for all U.S. embassies around the world. Baucus said he would have to check and get back to me. 

I’m hoping that on this 25th anniversary of the events in Tiananmen Square, through the words and deeds of the U.S. government, or anywhere freedom-seeking people take to the streets for the rest of President Obama’s term, we’ll find out that the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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