The Foreign Policy Initiative
By Ellen Bork | June 16, 2015
From June 22-24, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob J. Lew will host the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a high level conclave that is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s effort to engage the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. In September, General Secretary Xi Jinping will travel to the U.S. for his first state visit since taking China’s top posts.
This high level engagement between American and Chinese leaders comes at a time when repression inside China has reached new heights. “In 2014,” according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, “the Chinese government set its worst record of human rights violations since the mid-1990s, especially in terms of abuses aimed at silencing, intimidating, and punishing those who promote the protection of fellow Chinese citizens’ rights.” Although this trend has been underway for some time, CHRD noted its intensification under Xi who has “spearheaded an ideological shift that harkens back to the Maoist era” by emphasizing “a CCP orthodoxy that rejects constitutional democracy, human rights, free press, and rule of law as ‘Western universal values.’”
Regrettably, there has been no effective response from the U.S. to the crackdown. American leaders have squandered their moral and political leverage without meaningful achievements such as release of political prisoners or democratic elections in Hong Kong. Washington has segregated human rights from other bilateral interests, which signals the lower priority it places on the values that underpin America’s success at home and leadership abroad.
In the meantime, China continues to redefine and propagate a view of human rights that serves its own agenda. In a white paper released on June 8, China claims to have made “tremendous achievements” in human rights last year. The report cites a blizzard of statistics about everything from the rise in personal incomes to the number of 4G cell phone users and the increase in cinema box office receipts.
Much about the report may seem risible, but it is a part of a larger strategy. First, Beijing’s emphasis on economic achievement serves the Party’s need for a source of legitimacy to replace communism. Beijing is also promoting a “China model” that offers authoritarian rule and economic growth as an alternative to democracy. The purpose is to undermine universal values and democratic norms, in other words, to change the rules of the game to the advantage of China and other dictatorships.
The June 8 report’s fulsome claims about conditions in Tibet, which the PRC invaded and occupied in the 1950s, are especially problematic. According to the State Department, China’s government strictly controls access to Tibet for foreign diplomats, journalists and rights monitors. Often, access is completely denied, and Tibetans who attempt to provide information to outsiders are subject to retaliation. When outsiders are admitted, they are closely monitored and confined to tightly controlled itineraries.
While the U.S. should continue to differentiate itself from China by respecting our visitors’ freedom to travel within the U.S., there should also be accountability for those foreign officials who play an active role in repressing their fellow citizens. One example of such accountability is the “Magnitsky Act” that directs the imposition of visa bans and financial sanctions on Russians responsible for gross human rights abuses. Another measure now pending, theReciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2015 (H.R. 1112), is based on the simple principle that “the Secretary of State, when granting diplomats from the People’s Republic of China access to parts of the United States, should take into account the extent to which the Government of the People’s Republic of China grants United States diplomats access to parts of the People’s Republic of China.”
An American policy of engagement without conditions has coincided with a worsening trend for human rights in China. The White House has extended its hand before determining whether Beijing was willing to unclench its fist. Therefore, now is the time to make clear to the PRC that deepening ties to the United States, including state visits, will depend on the release of political prisoners, free elections in Hong Kong, and access to Tibet for American diplomats.