How to Deal With China’s Human Rights Abuses

When world leaders touch down in early September in the city of Hangzhou for this year’s G20 leaders’ summit, which China will they see? The one of glossy skylines, enviable growth statistics, and perfectly choreographed diplomatic exchanges? Or the one in which China’s prominent human and civil rights lawyers are detained, forcibly disappeared, and prosecuted on charges of subversion? The one in which civil society groups aiding survivors of domestic violence and sexual harassment are abruptly shut down?

And will they see the ominous international trend emerging, of Chinese authorities and their agents abducting critics outside the mainland, then broadcasting some of their “confessions” on national television, while often denying their lawyers, family members, and—in the cases of those who hold other citizenship—even embassies access to them? To be fair, governments and international institutions have expressed concern about these trends. “These actions undermine China’s claim to be a rule of law society and run contrary China’s human rights commitments and hinder its attempts to build a more transparent and effective justice system,” commented the United States Department of State. The European Union agreed: “These cases are part of a worrying trend and call into question China’s respect for the rule of law and for its international human rights obligations, not least freedom of speech.” And in March 2016, a dozen governments made a rare public joint statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, claiming that “These actions are in contravention of China’s own laws and international commitments.” Yet increasingly, these expressions of concern read more as statements of the painfully obvious. What they lack is clarity about what the United States, the European Union, or others will actually do in response to China’s sharply escalating repression.

For more than a decade, the strategy of governments with an interest in human rights in China has been persuasion and even chumminess, punctuated periodically with public outrage at some particularly negative development, such as the imprisonment of the democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, who was later awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. And sometimes, these governments have put forward logically coherent and instrumentally compelling arguments to appeal to Beijing’s interest in long-term stability. They cite the need for an independent judicial system, and the value of differing views to reach good policy decisions and of a predictable legal system for foreign and domestic investors. And, critically, they try to find, engage, and support the work of more reform-minded elements in the Chinese government, government representatives have told me privately.

But those elements are much harder to identify under the harsh, doctrinaire rule of Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping. And as sympathetic as those reformers may have been to more rights-respecting rule, since Xi ascended to the top of the Party in late 2012 they have not been in a position to see meaningful liberal reforms through the stifling one-party system.

Decades of experience should make clear to Washington, Brussels, and others that Beijing responds only to the expectation of unpleasant consequences.
Moreover, Beijing simply does not believe that respecting human rights will produce more peaceful, stable outcomes in the regions of Tibet or Xinjiang, or that tolerating peaceful criticism is critical to China’s future. Increasingly, it construes all manner of behavior it does not like as a threat to national security. And while many governments recognize Beijing’s abusive trends, few are willing to consider leveling meaningful consequences in response, often privately lamenting their lack of leverage.

But the U.S., the E.U., and other nations are able to find their voices and their leverage when China’s conduct on national security or economic issues proves problematic. Do they wring their hands, fretting about Chinese leaders’ “face”—as they often do when privately explaining why they don’t engage in stronger public diplomacy on human rights issues—when discussing China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Seas? No: The U.S. deploys guided missile destroyers through those waters, proving a point about freedom of navigation. When Beijing or its agents hack large government-run databases of critical information, do governments limit themselves to raising these issues on the sidelines in a closed-door meeting? No: They summon to their capitals senior Chinese government officials and explain that, on the eve of a state visit, sanctions against individuals and organizations will ensue if the attacks don’t stop. And indeed the attacks abate. Do major businesses and industries settle for their governments’ making statements about the investment and trade secrets hemorrhaged in China, or Chinese policies that disadvantage foreign companies? No: They take cases to the World Trade Organization, add requirements for reforms in China into bilateral investment treaties, and collectively push back against proposals such as “indigenous innovation.” These tactics require tenacity, confidence, and unity among companies and governments. While they certainly do not always work, in many cases they lead to changes in Chinese government policies, showing that it is possible to change Chinese officials’ calculus and behavior.

While many governments recognize Beijing’s abusive trends, few are willing to consider leveling meaningful consequences in response, often privately lamenting their lack of leverage.

Decades of experience should make clear to Washington, Brussels, and others that Beijing responds only to the expectation of unpleasant consequences. It’s hardly only their fault that the human rights situation in China has deteriorated, but it’s equally clear that their standard tools—primarily private persuasion, occasionally public condemnation or modest engagement with Chinese officials—have not produced the desired results.

For those countries who wish to effect positive change on human rights in China, Beijing’s desire for cooperation on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to anti-corruption and its integration into global economic and governance systems provide opportunities. If governments, the E.U., the United Nations, and others are as serious about trying to improve the human rights situation in China as they claim to be, and are not just happy with a strong political or trade relationship, they should rethink their approach and consider the following entry points:

  • Beijing’s desire for international cooperation with its anti-corruption campaign: This signature campaign of Xi’s is made possible by systemic human rights violations. While some of those affected have engaged in massive corruption, the campaign is also a political one, aimed at Xi’s opponents in the Party. Beijing is increasingly pressuring governments around the world to hand over alleged fugitives. Yet a system of fair trials, particularly for those the government has determined to be guilty, is not on the horizon. Other governments should publicly decline all anti-corruption-related cooperation with China until it shows that it can provide due process consistent with international human rights standards.

  • Beijing’s desire for international cooperation with its counter-terror campaign: China has legitimate concerns about terrorism. But as Human Rights Watch and others have pointed out for many years, China’s abusive practices in Xinjiang may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, with both the local ethnic minority Uighurs and the majority Han paying a high price. While Beijing is using the fears of terrorism globally to persuade other countries to legitimize and cooperate in its domestic efforts to hand over alleged terrorists—a term Beijing frequently applies to refugees and peaceful critics of the government and Party—other governments should make it publicly clear that they will refuse to return any accused until China institutes effective and durable rights reforms in its justice system for dealing with these kinds of cases.

    Government officials have privately admitted that bilateral counterterrorism dialogues with China, its participation in summits on countering violent extremism, and engagement with the Ministries of Public and State Security accomplish little or nothing to change Beijing’s policies and practices. Nonetheless, Chinese authorities are eager to show off their purported cooperation with foreign governments as evidence of support for their approach. There is little to lose in conditioning such cooperation on Beijing making critical reforms to meet key standards: a willingness to provide credible evidence that terrorism suspects have committed genuine criminal offenses; that those charged, prosecuted, and convicted have enjoyed basic fair trial rights; and that significant progress toward eradicating torture and other ill-treatment of terror suspects has been made, among other things.

  • Beijing’s concerns about its long-term rule: While some aspects of Xi’s rule, including the anti-corruption campaign, are popular domestically, the Party faces growing internal dissent and public dismay about the slowing economy, income inequality, and a failure to genuinely tackle corruption. More than six decades into its rule, the Party has shown no intention of subjecting itself to a democratic election. Other governments that say they promote democracy and political participation should demonstrate this commitment and put pressure on Beijing by matching each meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official with a meeting with a civil society figure from China. Democracies should end their policy of China exceptionalism and start calling for free and fair elections at every opportunity, just as they do for countries like Burma and Cambodia. At the same time, governments should resist Beijing’s efforts to intimidate them into abandoning support for independent civil society across China as Beijing tries to remake that sector in its image. Some governments have underwritten technology that allows Internet users in China to vault over the “Great Firewall” of censorship; this helps access information about developments in China, such as information about the anti-corruption campaign, or major events like the 2015 protests in Hong Kong or Taiwan’s recent election.

  • Beijing’s dislike of public embarrassment: Why do governments fret so much about Chinese officials’ “face?” Chinese officials do not concern themselves with the “face” of the people they are torturing, imprisoning, or harassing. And why do those governments not seek to help those unlawfully detained and at risk of torture, by confronting their tormentors? From Xi downwards, the prospect of being publicly confronted in high-level meetings about the egregious treatment of specific individuals has proven an effective deterrent. No senior official from any rights-promoting government should fail to publicly call on his or her Chinese counterpart to release or cease the ill-treatment of a specific individual unjustly held. Heads of government considering attending the September G20 summit should publicly stipulate as a condition of their participation the release of high-profile political prisoners, such as Liu or Ilham Tohti, a Uighur economist serving a life sentence on baseless charges of “separatism.” Chinese ambassadors around the world should be called in regularly and asked explicitly to provide explanations about the missing Hong Kong booksellers and human rights lawyers, and about the ongoing harassment and prosecution of labor activists and feminist advocates. Conversely, “like minded” ambassadors serving in Beijing should meet with civil society representatives from China who have sought respite in those countries. Such governments could also urge local parliamentary debates about existing human rights-related sanctions on China—mostly stemming from the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre—to refresh the debate about tools available to governments.

  • Beijing’s quest for pomp to protect its power: Contemporary international politics offer few optics stranger than Xi—presumably no great fan of monarchies—alongside Queen Elizabeth II. Few of the Chinese officials at the September 2015 White House state dinner appeared eager to actually engage in discussions with other guests. Nevertheless, Beijing sees these kinds of high-wattage diplomatic interactions as essential to cementing China’s status as a world power. Again, this creates an opportunity for governments concerned about human rights violations: dial down the pomp for the abusers, and dial it up for those trying to combat it. Imagine state dinners or summits in which China was represented not by abusive authoritarians who have never deigned to submit to a popular vote, but by individuals who work on legal and political reform, environmental policy, transparency, and genuine efforts to combat corruption; the images and the possible policy outcomes are compelling. Similarly, like-minded governments should carefully review their “people to people” initiatives to ensure that the participants are not exclusively those vetted by Beijing. Often, these exchanges matter far more to Beijing than they do to the other government in question, and are therefore a useful tool.

  • Beijing’s need for the rest of the world: For all the hostility directed toward “the West,” senior Chinese officials still urgently need and want regular access to the outside world. They need access to markets governed by robust institutions, they need access to free-thinking institutions of higher learning, they need second passports should blame for some domestic infraction come their way, and they need international banks in which to stash ill-gotten gains. There are numerous possibilities of more fine-grained approaches here. Many senior Chinese officials with long track records of presiding over human rights abuses have bank accounts outside the country that could be frozen; investors around the world should demand that Chinese companies investing abroad perform human rights due diligence and demonstrate they are addressing problems or otherwise face civil actions; known human rights abusers could be blocked from obtaining visas to travel abroad. Similarly, requiring greater transparency outside China of investments by Beijing’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation (CIC), might illuminate opportunities for leverage. From Burma to South Africa, tactics like these have helped stimulate positive change.

This more assertive stance on human rights may prompt a backlash of hostility from Beijing, or a wave of anti-Western sentiment. But its bluster should not obscure the extent to which China is already globally enmeshed and cannot simply withdraw in a fit of pique—witness the volume of cash flooding out of the country, the long lines for visas at many embassies in China, and the numbers of people who have quietly obtained second passports or homes abroad.

No matter how well-intentioned, no matter how consistent, and no matter how passionately argued, efforts to persuade Beijing that its self-interest depends on better respect for human rights have failed. The regime in Beijing is bent on systematically crushing independent civil society, producing laws that provide the thinnest of legal veneers to the worst rights violations, and exporting its lawless behavior. Absent immediate, painful consequences to Beijing for its actions, no number of statements will stem the tide of abuse. And that leaves the country at greater risk of instability—a frightening prospect for everyone.