Clinton: China’s Human Rights Record “Deplorable”, Leaders “Trying to Stop History”

Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic cover story, ‘Danger: Falling Tyrants’, examines the difficulties of promoting American values in a tumultuous Middle East, and includes some unusually “Reaganesque” comments from Hillary Clinton about China’s ongoing crackdown. Goldberg highlighted these in his introduction to the full transcript:

The Obama Administration has been ratcheting-up the rhetoric on China’s human rights record lately, especially since the arrest of the dissident Ai Weiwei, but Secretary Clinton, in our interview, went much further, questioning the long-term viability of the one-party system. After she referred to China’s human rights record as “deplorable” (itself a ratcheting-up of the rhetoric), I noted that the Chinese government seemed scared of the Arab rising. To which she responded: “Well, they are. They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.”

Clinton’s assertion that the repressive Chinese system will eventually collapse brought to mind nothing so much as Reagan’s statement, made to Richard V. Allen in 1977, about America’s goal in the Cold War: “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic,” Reagan said. “It is this: We win and they lose.” …

I traveled with Clinton on her most recent trip to and , in March, and she stated on many occasions during that trip that she was moved by the peaceful rising of pro-democracy protesters. Her comments on China to me suggested strongly that she sees the Arab Spring as the harbinger of a worldwide move toward democracy.

Clinton’s comments, from the transcript:

HRC: … We do business with a lot of countries whose economic systems or political systems are not ones we would design or choose to live under. And we have encouraged consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and recognition and protection of human rights. But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human rights record. We don’t walk away from dealing with Saudi Arabia —

JG: And (the Chinese) are acting very scared right now, in fact.

HRC: Well, they are. They’re worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool’s errand. They cannot do it. But they’re going to hold it off as long as possible.

Also at The Atlantic, James Fallows anticipated the remarks’ reception in Beijing, citing “the Dave Chappelle Factor”:

The U.S. always says, as it should, that it’s pushing for a steady increase in liberties within China. But that is different from, “time is running out for you, as it ran out for the corrupt Soviets.” If it doesn’t sound so different to you, trust me that it does to the Chinese leadership. (Yes, I recognize the potential distinction between the long-term success of China as a whole and the long-term survival of its current government. More on that another time.) The usual U.S. tone — we are your friends, but good enough friends to be frank about where we disagree — has been chosen by presidents from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama precisely because Chinese governments are so very, very suspicious that forces are plotting against them, internal and (especially!) external. The great paradox of the Chinese leadership, as everyone who has observed the place knows, it that it is simultaneously strong, successful, and insecure.

So when they hear a sitting U.S. Secretary of State make an offhanded remark that sounds like, “we know you’re going to collapse, sooner or later,” it’s like confirmation of their worst paranoid fears. Ah, at last the truth comes out! It’s like the old Dave Chappelle jokes about what the whites are saying when no blacks are around, or the Woody Allen nightmare-fantasy of attending an Easter dinner in Annie Hall (and growing a Hasidic beard while at the table), or any other suspicion of what someone else “really” thinks.

That’s why it would be interesting to hear Sec. Clinton’s discussions with the heads of the Chinese delegation, and , today. And even more interesting to hear the follow-on discussions among the Chinese about what the Americans “really” mean.