What’s the Best Way to Advance Human Rights in the U.S.-China Relationship?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Nicholas Bequelin:

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.

Tom Sloan—AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators protesting prisoner abuse at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base kneel before the U.S. Supreme Court during a rally against torture in Washington D.C. in January 2008.

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.

The keys to effective promotion of the human rights agenda in the U.S.-China relationship are relatively straightforward:

First, what is most important is for the United States to set the best possible example. The past few years have been problematic in this respect, with issues ranging from the legality of the Iraq war to Abu Ghraib to the C.I.A. renditions.

Second, the U.S. government needs to be consistent in the way it raises its concerns on human rights, and not be shy to use vocal diplomacy when private diplomacy yields no result. Too often, the U.S. is sending conflicting messages, one day stressing its attachment to universal human rights norms, and the next stating that the U.S. and China "agree to disagree" on a range of issues, including human rights. This undermines the universality of human rights.

Third, the U.S. must mainstream human rights perspectives across the full spectrum of its engagement with China. The compartmentalization of human rights as a minor rubric of diplomacy is bound to fail, because the Chinese side knows human rights have no bearings on other aspects of the bilateral relationship. The business environment for U.S. companies operating in China is directly linked to issues intimately connected to human rights, such as the elastic character of China’s state secrecy laws or the introduction of provisions in the criminal law that allows for secret detention by the police.

Fourth, the U.S. must forge partnerships and coordinate more effectively with other rights-respecting countries in their effort to press China on specific issues and cases. There has been very little said by any head of state about the fact that China is the only country in the world that holds a Nobel Peace Laureate in prison (while his wife is imprisoned at her home outside of any legal procedure.)

Finally, the U.S. must be ready to take steps when the situation demands it. For instance, given China’s absolute refusal to engage on any issue related to the situation in Tibetan areas, the U.S. must be ready to upgrade its contacts with the Dalai Lama, and encourage other countries to do so.

The United States does more to raise human rights issues with China than any other country, but it often conveys the implicit message that it does so out of moral convictions, not out of well-understood national interest and concern for human rights globally, and that greatly diminishes the effectiveness of such statements.


Nicolas as usual is clear, comprehensive, and on point.  So just a few quick thoughts.
Old language, concepts, and either-or thinking cannot analyze and respond effectively to historic and new realities, especially when the domestic and international landscapes are reconfiguring at high speed on the Internet. Greater transparency, accountability, and respect for law, will advance the interests of all stakeholders—governments, the business community, and international and domestic Chinese civil society. We all are traveling in the same real-time virtual boat.
U.S. policymakers must pivot their attention to Chinese citizens and support them through clear international human rights messaging backed by effective action, including diplomatic and technical assistance programs and strategies.  Policymakers must read the writing on the micro-blogging wall that runs behind and over China's increasingly porous Great Firewall. While it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to give up its monopoly on political power, it also is clear that its members may no longer have the choice if they want to claim any lasting legitimacy. The CPC will have to respond to the massive explosion of citizen actions across China on critical issues—endemic corruption, forced demolitions and land grabs, deadly workplaces, mass transportation accidents, and tainted consumer products.  U.S. and other international policymakers must recognize and support this rising citizen action fueled by demands and expectations from the grassroots of society.
Finally, the role Hong Kong can play should not be underestimated. Foreign governments should rethink the separation of their Hong Kong consulates from their embassies in Beijing.  Is Hong Kong the tail that wags the dog?  For more than 24 years, that over 100,000 protestors have assembled in Victoria Park on the anniversary of the June Fourth crackdown suggests one answer: past abuses and impunity need to be addressed for national healing and a rule of law to take root. The past, present, and future of Hong Kong and the Mainland are intertwined. This presents political, legal, and social challenges—and strategic opportunities.

Nicholas and Sharon have framed the issues so well and made many valuable recommendations. As a latecomer to the discussion, I’d simply like to add the following points from my own perspective.

We all agree that China’s progress toward a society that truly respects and protects human rights depends primarily on the efforts of the Chinese people, many of whom already are working actively to build civil society institutions, demanding government accountability and limits on state power, and struggling to protect the rights of others as well as themselves. Human rights engagement by any country, including the United States, must recognize these efforts and work to support and further develop them.

I believe that human rights engagement only can be really worthwhile if it is critical engagment that understands that progress blooms from argument and debate. The United States cannot avoid addressing the most serious human rights violations in China out of fear that, by appearing too confrontational, it risks damaging other aspects of the relationship. For its part, Beijing must stop responding with angry rhetoric every time it hears something it doesn't like. In this same vein, the United States also should expect to listen more to Chinese critiques of American human rights problems.

Getting both sides to approach human rights engagement on these terms is no simple matter, and Beijing may have further to travel than Washington in this respect. There will be disagreements, but engagement must be about more than simply acknowledging differences and “agreeing to disagree.” It should involve recognizing the value of substantive, critical discussion in which all parties are held accountable equally for their commitments to human rights under international law.

While there’s much work that the United States can and should do to undo the damage done to its human rights reputation in recent years, 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. At many times in its history the United States has not been willing enough to see itself as an equal and active participant in a global process of protecting and promoting universal human rights standards. This is not to deny that the United States still has an important leadership role to play, but this leadership must be understood in the context of multilateral processes aimed at realizing the full set of internationally recognized human rights in all countries, including China and the United States. The human rights project should be the responsibility of all of us, in every country, not a source of political finger-pointing between global competitors.

We should remind our politicians that promoting China’s adherence to universal human rights norms is not just a matter of moral idealism, but also a matter of sound strategy.  First, everyone will feel safer as businesspeople, scholars, and tourists when China has rule of law, and this includes not only Americans but other foreigners and Chinese as well.   Second, China’s strategic intentions will be more transparent if they are shaped in an open political process, and this will reduce suspicion of China by all of China’s neighbors and the U.S., which also will be good for China itself.  Third, China will be more stable politically once the regime is grounded in the consent of the people, and a stable and prosperous China is in the interests of the rest of the world. Finally, a world with a robust set of international norms and institutions that regulate fields such as trade, investment, the environment, arms control, and human rights will be a more predictable and peaceful world, where conflicts of interest can be sorted out and common interests advanced in reliable ways. Such a world cannot be built without the full participation of a rising great power like China. 

I think it is important to recognize the urgency of attempting to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship. First and foremost, it is urgent because such a vast number of persons in China itself are deeply affected. Second, it is urgent because it is impossible to promote human rights globally if there is no advance in human rights in China.

One of the reasons that the United States 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.

For the most part, I agree with Nicholas Becquelin about how to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship. The only point of difference I  have with him is that Nicholas writes that “irrespective of the issue of moral imperatives…it is clearly in the U.S. national interest that China” should gradually become a more open society. My difference here is that I would not draw a line between “moral imperatives” on the one hand and “the U.S. national interest” on the other hand. That is because the U.S. considers itself to be a global power with global responsibilities. If it is not to encounter strenuous resistance to its efforts to play a leadership role on a host of global issues, its policies have to have a moral character. It must respect human rights in its domestic policies and it should promote human rights in its international policies. Of course, the two are closely related.  Among other things, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and C.I.A. renditions have done a lot of damage to U.S. standing internationally and have undermined significantly the U.S.’ capacity to promote human rights in China and elsewhere. Efforts to undo the harm that the U.S. has done to itself domestically must go hand in hand with efforts to improve its role internationally.

Finally, I particularly agree with Nicholas “That the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself.”  Also, I agree with his list of the issues that are driving this struggle for rights, but would add what seems to me another factor. I think that there are important sectors of Chinese society—among them journalists, scientists, academics and lawyers—whose struggle for rights is based partly on recognition that being good professionals in their chosen fields requires them to exercise their rights. It is not only that citizens of China are disaffected by government abuses. It is also that many Chinese want to manifest their readiness to maintain certain standards, to adhere to ethical principles and to enjoy the respect of their peers.     

Coming last to a discussion is close, at least, to cheating. I can endorse not only Nicholas’ thoughtful proposals, but also those of all of the earlier respondents. I do, in fact, agree with most of what everyone has said before me in this conversation. I want to add just a few small points and express one concern about the language with which we discuss how the U.S. can best advance human rights goals in its relationship with China, language that I worry belies an implicit acceptance of a realist or pragmatic approach that risks being vulnerable to the vagaries of politics and perceived national interests.

Although Nicholas pushes back against the so-called “realism” of the last 25 years or so and Aryeh Neier appropriately reminds us that it is important for U.S. “policies to have a moral character,” the thread that runs most powerfully through each statement is that the United States needs to stay the course on human rights in China because it is “in the U.S. national interest” and “a matter of sound strategy.” I do not want to deny the importance of persuading those with a stake in the relationship that a China that respects human rights will be good for the United States and the world in the ways that the discussion suggests. But I worry that this discourse has a danger of instrumentalizing human rights and submerging their universal and obligatory nature. Nations’ interests change, and respect for human rights in one country, particularly a global economic actor and partner like China, will not always be perceived as beneficial to the interests of every other country. While the United States promotes human rights in China as a genuine interest, it should never shrink from reminding the Chinese government that human rights are important, first, because they are a moral and legal imperative and the substance of every person’s dignity.

I join the other respondents in agreeing it is important to “recognize that the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself.” And I am afraid I join the other respondents in not being able to offer many concrete proposals for how to complement the efforts of those Chinese citizens, efforts that are nothing short of remarkable to anyone who has observed human rights in China for the last three or four decades. Recognizing that greater respect for human rights will ultimately come from within is the easy part. How to create and implement constructive governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental support for domestic efforts is a continuing challenge. I want to offer one modest suggestion. The United States could be more active in ensuring that the practices of U.S. businesses in China respect human rights. From efforts to improve the conditions of workers in factories producing clothing and electronic devices for the global market to constraints on the activities of Internet companies that facilitate human rights violations (an area in which the issue of the United States serving as a model is particularly at stake), the United States could do more.

Finally, I believe there are small but important measures the United States could take to enhance the persuasiveness of its discourse with China on human rights. First, although the language of economic and social rights remains outside official U.S. policy and rhetoric, recognizing China’s staggering accomplishments in improving the well-being of its people would give U.S. officials a wedge of appreciation that could help open up room for tough demands for civil and political rights. Over its 60 years, China has reduced poverty, moved from literacy for less than a quarter of the population to nearly universal literacy, doubled the life expectancy of Chinese citizens and reduced maternal and infant mortality by enormous amounts. It would be an easy gesture of respect to give China credit for these gains that have improved the lives of one-fifth of the world’s people.

At the same time, the United States should take seriously China’s own rhetoric about its commitments to civil and political rights. The frankness of the discussion in China’s 2008 submission to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review process is a far cry from the defensiveness of China’s interactions with U.N. bodies in the preceding decades. China acknowledged that it still has progress to make in economic and social rights – that poverty continues, that “[t]he employment situation remains dire,” that there are great divides of well-being between urban and rural citizens and between the Han majority and ethnic minorities – but it also admits that “[t]he judicial mechanism for protecting human rights needs to be further improved,” that it needs to promote gender equality, that “citizens’ orderly participation in political affairs” and “democratic institutions” and elections must be strengthened, that it must guarantee “the people’s rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard and to oversee,” and that it needs to make a priority of “improving the human rights training given to public servants, providing education in human rights and the legal system to all members of society and enhancing citizens’ awareness of their rights and obligations.” When, as Nicholas and Aryeh urge, the United States works in concert with other states to advance respect for human rights in China, one starting point should be taking seriously the commitments China has articulated in its own small but important opening to international human rights discourse and processes. That means both holding China accountable for fulfilling those commitments and including in the dialogue offers of the cooperation that China has long claimed to favor.