Clinton’s Missed Opportunity in China

Merle Goldman is Professor Emerita of History at Boston University, and an associate of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard. She writes in The Boston Globe that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to not broach human rights in talks with China last week was a “missed opportunity,” especially given the publication of Charter 08.

During her recent trip to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not give much attention to human rights issues. The major focus was on economic policies and global warming. As important as these issues are, China’s policies on human rights and its treatment of grassroots political movements could have a greater impact on the United States and international relations than economic or climatic issues.

In December, a group of Chinese citizens launched a movement called Charter 08, which presented a blueprint for fundamental legal and political reforms with the goal of achieving a democratic political system.

Patterned on Vaclev Havel’s Charter 77 movement in the former Czechoslovakia, China’s Charter 08 criticizes its government for failing to implement human rights provisions to which it had signed onto, such as the United Nations Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and amendments to China’s constitution in 2004 that included the phrase “respect and protect human rights.”

From CNN:

In the past, Clinton has been an outspoken, staunch critic of China’s human rights stance. But officials have said privately that a new approach to dealing with China’s human rights record, including less public criticism and more private discussions, may prove more productive in changing Chinese behavior.

Today, the State Department has released its annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.” While Clinton had reservations towards openly speaking on human rights practices in China, the State Department report minces no words; it is a harsh warning to Chinese officials.

The government’s human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas. During the year the government increased its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Tibetan areas and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), increased detention and harassment of dissidents and petitioners, and maintained tight controls on freedom of speech and the Internet. Abuses peaked around high-profile events, such as the Olympics and the unrest in Tibet. As in previous years, citizens did not have the right to change their government. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both local and international, continued to face intense scrutiny and restrictions. Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture and coerced confessions of prisoners, and the use of forced labor, including prison labor. Workers cannot choose an independent union to represent them in the workplace, and the law does not protect workers’ right to strike.

The government continued to monitor, harass, detain, arrest, and imprison journalists, writers, activists, and defense lawyers and their families, many of whom were seeking to exercise their rights under the law. A lack of due process and restrictions on lawyers further limited progress toward rule of law, with serious consequences for defendants who were imprisoned or executed following proceedings that fell far short of international standards.

In response, the Chinese government was quick to blast the report. From Xinhua:

The report turned a blind eye to the efforts and historic achievements China has made in human rights that have been widely recognized by the international community.

It willfully ignored and distorted basic facts, groundlessly assailing China’s human rights conditions and making random and irresponsible remarks on China’s ethnic, religious and legal systems.

Watch Hillary Clinton’s press conference releasing the report: