This article was first published in China Change web site on September 1, 2016
Human rights cannot be treated as a stand-alone issue anymore.
President Obama is going to China again, this time to attend the G-20 summit on September 4 and 5 in Hangzhou. Every time the President, the National Security Adviser, or the Secretary of State visits China, or every time Chinese leaders visit the U.S., human rights organizations and activists, inside and outside China, take it as an opportunity for change, asking the President or the senior leaders to pressure the Chinese government for human rights improvements, and to raise a number of individual cases.
To be sure, the administration makes an effort to hear from activists and NGOs. Just two days ago, for instance, National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with Chinese human rights advocates in the White House to hear about a range of human rights violations, and their specific requests.
The American leaders and high level officials do raise concerns and express their disappointment at the human rights situation in China. They raise specific cases and names, and sometimes that leads to better treatment in jail for persecuted Chinese citizens.
But overall, American concern and pressure have made little impact; all these dialogues and conversations, private or public, have produced few results. The human rights situation and the rule of law in China have steadily deteriorated.
The frustration in Washington, D.C. is palpable. From White House to Capitol Hill to the State Department, the prevalent sentiment seems to be that “we can’t influence the Chinese,” or “we have too many fish to fry with the Chinese and we need their cooperation.”
We at China Change are not surprised that nothing works. Nor are we surprised that people are sinking into self-defeatist propositions.
All evidence considered, we believe that the root of the problem is that the U. S. does not have a human rights policy toward China.
That’s right: we are not urging the U. S. to reconsider its human rights policy toward China; we are urging it to actually get one:
Human rights cannot be treated as a stand-alone issue anymore. U.S. officials talk about it with their counterparts in China. If it yields something, great; if it doesn’t, “Oh well, let’s move on.” When human rights is cordoned off from other issues, this is what happens: it allows both sides to make pro forma statements and then go on to other matters.
It can’t go on like this anymore. Human rights must be integrated with, and linked to, and leverage on, other engagements. How? That’s something the U. S. government needs to figure out.
The U. S. has to set clear human rights benchmarks for China according to international human rights standards. It is one thing to say that human rights issues are important to the U.S., but quite another to demonstrate that unequivocally. With no benchmarks to meet and with no consequences to be felt, why should the Chinese care about what the U. S. says? In fact, why do they even believe you really mean it? Maybe you don’t mean it as much as you say you do.
Human Rights Watch has for years urged democracies around the world to set human rights benchmarks in their interactions with China, and their recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Human rights, rule of law, and the development of civil society in China are national security issues for the U. S. The fact that the U. S. is leaving them loose and dealing with them haphazardly is hurting its own interests.
The U. S.–China relationship has been experiencing difficulties, and it’s only going to get worse for a very simple reason: once you scrape away the bare surface of the relationship, you will find that every single problem the U. S. has with China is in fact a human rights problem!
The lack of human rights and rule of law in China is what makes much of China an ill-informed region with a population manipulated with false information, rife with negative ideas and attitudes about the U. S. and the outside world. Such deliberate disinformation and agitation (which China is exporting beyond its borders) has real consequences.
The threat that a totalitarian China poses to the U.S. and world peace goes far beyond disinformation, and surely the national security advisers to the President know that very well. Or, do they?
Speaking today at an environmental summit about combating climate change, President Obama said, “It won’t happen if we just pay lip service to conservation but then refuse to do what’s needed.” The same applies to dealing with human rights in China.
As far as human rights are concerned, we don’t expect President Obama’s meeting with the Chinese will be any different from his other meetings with them over the past eight years, because we believe that any meaningful work has to start from here, in Washington, D.C., and other capitals of the free world.