Advancing Human Rights in U.S.-China Relations

At ChinaFile, ’s Nicholas Bequelin leads discussion of how the U.S. can best promote human rights in China. Other participants include Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China, rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig, Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan, and Aryeh Neier of the Open Society Foundations and, formerly, Human Rights Watch.

The best way to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship is first and foremost to recognize that the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself. Such progress is neither the product of a gradual enlightenment of the one-party state nor the result of high-minded foreign pressure—although both can play a role, too. But the reality is that day-in-day-out, Chinese citizens are fighting for their rights, and that issues such as the rule of law, government transparency and accountability and exposure of official malfeasance are very much at the forefront of people’s preoccupation—as even the most casual survey of Chinese newspapers and magazines, not to mention microblogging, would reveal.

But such progress comes at a high price, especially for activists, and the question that U.S. policy makers face is whether the U.S. should stand by Chinese people who are pushing their government to pay more respect to fundamental rights and freedoms, or whether it should ignore them. It seems to me, irrespective of the issue of moral imperatives, that it is clearly in the U.S. national interest that China inches towards a more open and less repressive system of government than it has at present. The other approach, a form of engagement that mutes human rights, clearly has failed to yield any results in the past two and a half decades. While this approach styled itself as being “realist” (as opposed to the supposed “idealism” of human rights proponents) it is fairly clear today that the actual realists were those who predicted that such a low level of human rights engagement would yield nothing and even encourage the Chinese government in its repressive ways. [Source]

Amid heated discussion of the NSA’s domestic surveillance activities, Bequelin suggests that America’s most valuable contribution would be “to set the best possible example,” a goal compromised in recent years by “issues ranging from the legality of the Iraq war to Abu Ghraib to the C.I.A. renditions.” But Rosenzweig counters that “it is counterproductive for any particular nation to take responsibility for being a model of moral behavior and rectitude in the area of human rights.”

Aryeh Neier notes a critical change in the historical background for human rights promotion, whose implications extend well beyond bilateral Sino-:

One of the reasons that the and some of its Western allies succeeded a quarter of a century ago in promoting human rights in Soviet bloc countries is that they persuaded many in those countries that human rights and economic success went hand in hand. In recent years, however, China’s economic success during a period of economic trouble in the West has conveyed an opposite message. The difficulty of promoting human rights globally in these circumstances is exacerbated by the way that China uses its economic clout in its relations with other countries. Western pressures to promote rights often are defeated by China’s assertiveness in making clear that its trade and aid are not subject to human rights conditions. This has become an important factor in countering pressures for human rights in Africa, in Central Asia and in other parts of the world. [Source]