FPI Bulletin: How the Obama Administration should follow up on its rhetoric on rights in China

May 11, 2011

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From FPI Director of Democracy and Human Rights Ellen Bork

"Deplorable.” That’s how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described China’s human rights record in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. Obama administration officials have been talking about human rights in China a lot lately. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary Clinton, and other top State Department officials, including Michael Posner (who gave a very negative assessment after the U.S-China Human Rights Dialogue in Beijing) have all spoken up.

Is there anything new here? At the opening of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington this week, Secretary Clinton asserted that “over the long arch of history...societies that work toward respecting human rights are going to be more prosperous, stable, and successful.” This is not so different from the approach President Bush took, insisting that respect for human rights and political liberalization serve China's own interests.

Arguing for “stability” as the rationale for political liberalization and respect for human rights has a built-in contradiction. It suggests that China’s communist leaders will see the wisdom of letting go of power. Unfortunately, they don’t see things that way. They are keen to keep the Chinese Communist Party in power and claim that American overtures on human rights and democracy are part of a plot to destroy China.

Secretary Clinton’s remarks about China do not seem to reflect any wisdom gained from the experience of the Arab spring – that stability by dictatorial regimes is illusory, and support for that kind of stability is counterproductive and immoral. If China’s people, no less than Arabs, have a right to emerge from decades of repression, American rhetoric and actions must reflect it. If there is nothing behind the talk, then more than language will have been degraded. Washington will be seen as weak and China and other dictatorships will be emboldened.

What kinds of things could be done?

Washington should convene a meeting of foreign ministers from democratic countries in Asia and Europe to agree on basic principles for supporting democracy in China. These principles should include aid to human rights activists and democrats in Hong Kong, Tibet and East Turkestan, or what China calls Xinjiang.

Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected leader of the democratic Tibetan exile government, should be included in any future meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama. President Obama should also meet Rebiya Kadeer, the exile Uyghur leader, as President Bush did.

The Obama administration has batted down a report that it was considering visa restrictions for Chinese officials and their families in response to the ongoing crackdown on dissidents, but denying entry to the U.S. for Chinese officials involved in repression seems like an obvious thing to do.

For Congress, the confirmation hearing for Gary Locke to be the next American ambassador to Beijing presents an opportunity for a discussion of the administration’s thinking on human rights and how it will be put into practice.

That democracy is a universal value embraced by Chinese rather than a foreign concoction has been demonstrated time and time again by Chinese activists and intellectuals willing to go to jail and suffer for their beliefs. Democracy as an objective of Chinese people has been expressed in Charter 08, a blueprint for a democratic China, signed by thousands including the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. American policy should take the CCP canard about democracy as a foreign plot head on.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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