U.S. Should Make More Public Statements About China’s Human Rights

When China’s leader Xi Jinping comes to the United States for his first state visit in September, will U.S. leaders use the summit to address the country’s deteriorating human rights conditions?

Not if the U.S. performance at June’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China is any indication.

Some plaudits are in order for U.S. efforts, particularly for Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s raising the many flaws in China’s proposed Foreign NGO Management Law and its many problematic consequences for civil society inside and outside China.

But even these relatively strong remarks betray a growing problem in U.S.-China high-level interactions: the unwillingness of American diplomats to raise publicly with their Chinese counterparts specific cases of human rights abuses. Neither Kerry nor Blinken raised Beijing’s concerted efforts to destroy Yirenping, an anti-discrimination group, or the New Citizens’ Movement, a civic rights forum. There was no public mention in this setting of well-known cases, such as imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, or even of Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, and Zheng Churan, the five feminists detained (and later released) this spring, on whose behalf U.S. officials spoke up in April. As a result, there were few facts offered to challenge Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi’s insistence that, “In advancing human rights, China’s achievements are there for all to see.” And there was little evidence that courageous activists in China could see, of the U.S. taking seriously its purported “whole of government” approach.

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden lowered the bar in his opening remarks. Biden didn’t remind his audience that China has freely undertaken a slew of legally-binding human rights commitments, or the extent to which it’s violating those.  Instead, Biden gingerly introduced the topic by cautioning that he wasn’t “lecturing,” and then rattled off a list of human rights abuses—without specifying that those abuses are taking place right now in China, enabled or tolerated by some of the very Chinese officials listening to the speech.  Having side-stepped the opportunity to challenge those officials, or at least make a principled argument, Biden concluded that “responsible competitors”—by which he presumably meant governments that respect human rights—do so “not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s absolutely economically necessary.” He then mentioned his “friendships” with people in the leadership, but named no human rights defenders from China.

Even China’s plans to host a commemoration this September of the landmark 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women on women’s rights went unchallenged: U.S. officials did not in public sessions challenge China’s ongoing harassment of the five feminists, who are released but remain criminal suspects, but opted instead to call the September gathering a “critical opportunity.” Instead, they opted for broad references to restrictions on civil society, exclusion of women from opportunities for “economic success,” and domestic violence. But no specifics were given—only broad, vague principles which posed no meaningful challenge to the Chinese officials present.

The White House’s readout of President Obama’s meeting with Chinese representatives to the Dialogue contains no reference to human rights.

On top of this, the U.S. “committed to enhance…counterterrorism cooperation” with China. Such an agreement gives credibility where it is manifestly not due, given China’s proposed counterterrorism law, which is nothing more than a legal veneer for human rights abuses.

Although China does suffer a number of deadly and apparently politically motivated attacks directed against the general population, the Chinese government long has manipulated the threat of terrorism to justify its crackdown on the 10 million ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang. United States officials will no doubt insist that it is better to have discussions that create opportunities to raise precisely those concerns. But clearly whatever concerns the U.S. raised at last year’s Counterterrorism dialogue were brushed aside in the drafting of this law. The U.S. should set far higher standards for China to meet before engaging in any sort of cooperation on this issue.

No doubt U.S. officials will point to their naming of individual cases at the overdue release of the State Department’s human rights report—the day after the Dialogue finished—and describe which cases they raised behind closed doors. These are necessary, but far from sufficient.

If publicly identifying individual cases and using them to challenge the Chinese government is a good enough strategy to use sometimes, it ought to be good enough to use in the forums where it matters most: at high level summits where it has the power to potentially embarrass Chinese officials into behaving differently.

Some senior U.S. officials shy away from causing embarrassment to senior Chinese officials, arguing that it is counterproductive. It's hard to know that definitively, especially when former political prisoners tell us and others that their treatment improved when their cases were publicly raised, suggesting that embarrassment does prompt a change in behavior. And these U.S. officials' logic concern about causing discomfort doesn't seem to apply when discussing equally tense, non-human rights-related issues like cybersecurity or currency manipulation. Some may think that raising individual cases or major issues like democracy will interfere with other priorities in the relationship. But both sides regularly state that the sum of the relationship is far greater than any individual issue, suggesting that bilateral ties will not collapse if the U.S. publicly calls for the release of a half-dozen critics of the Chinese government.

In fact, some U.S. officials note with surprise that an unusual number of the non-human rights related issues in the June 2012 Strategic & Economic Dialogue were dealt with efficiently—despite the parallel, global headline-making story of Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest in Shandong province to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. And some may think it more effective to be bland in public and push hard in private—as we know many U.S. diplomats have done. But despite those and other efforts, the results are there for all to see: a manifestly deteriorating human rights environment. The U.S. shares this view, but is inexplicably unwilling to use all the tools at its disposal—despite its claims to a "whole of government" approach—to change that reality.

Above all, speaking about individuals also gives critical hope to those in China who are suffering or jailed for trying to assert their rights, and no diplomat should ever shy away from an opportunity to mitigate that torment. That no single U.S. diplomat saw fit to do so publicly is a betrayal of all those in China fighting for their rights.