Time for new dialogue for China human rights

The latest session of the U.S.-China bilateral human rights dialogue is taking place in Washington this week, the first such meeting since May 2008. These sporadic, formulaic meetings long ceased to be useful in addressing China’s most serious human rights offenses. They have degenerated into surreal exchanges that give equal time and weight to Chinese critiques of America’s human rights “problems” and Chinese filibusters on the “progress” China is making in developing the “rule of law.” There is little reason to expect this upcoming dialogue will see any improvement, particularly given the low priority that the Obama administration has placed on human rights issues in the larger context of the U.S.-China relationship. The Obama team is anyway looking ahead to the “more important” Strategic and Economic Dialogue that is scheduled to take place in Beijing later this month.

The U.S. and other Western democracies have long struggled with the challenge of finding a meaningful and effective means of engaging China on issues of human rights and political reform. As China has become more powerful and influential on the world stage, its illiberal policies at home and abroad have created new challenges for human rights advocates on a global scale. While there has long been a segment of the China policy community that dismissed or minimized concerns about China’s human rights record, even some long-time activists became discouraged in recent years by Beijing’s seeming imperviousness to international and domestic human rights critiques, as well as the steady diminution of protests from Western democracies.

Using a combination of incentives, coercion and cooptation, China has been incredibly successful in its long-running efforts to reshape the international discourse on its human rights record, and marginalize human rights advocacy directed at it. In addition, over the past three decades, as global perceptions of China became more positive and relations between China and democratic countries evolved, criticism of China’s human rights practices has receded in both importance and volume relative to other countries’ overall discourse on China.

China and other leading countries now engage each other in a radical different fashion than they did 10 years ago. There have been several landmark events and particular dynamics that have fundamentally altered the landscape. For American activists and advocacy organizations, the establishment of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China marked a critical turning point. Prior to PNTR, the annual debate on renewal of China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status in the United States Congress provided a unique annual opportunity to discuss China’s human rights record. Because there had to be a vote on MFN every year, there was a guaranteed public, meaningful, high-level, inter-branch policy debate about the nature of the Chinese regime and U.S. response to it. Efforts to develop alternative venues for continuing meaningful debate about human rights in China largely fizzled after the passage of PNTR, and advocates of human rights in China have never recovered from the loss of this important forum.

The deterioration of United Nations human rights mechanisms and abdication of leadership on human rights issues by the UN has further weakened international efforts to support human rights in China. After China easily turned back several UN Human Rights Commission resolutions condemning its human rights practices, Western governments stopped pursuing such resolutions altogether. The Commission’s successor organization, the UN Human Rights Council, has proven even more feckless – an intentional feature as a result of heavy Chinese involvement in its design. China has also engaged in a sustained and successful effort to block non-government organizations’ (NGO) advocacy efforts at various UN forums, using the UN NGO credentialing system to restrict critics’ access to meetings, treaty bodies and committees. Western governments have done little to fight back.

As the utility of UN mechanisms collapsed, many Western countries pinned their hopes on engagement with China through bilateral human rights dialogues of the sort taking place this week. These dialogues initially proliferated between Western governments and the PRC. Some advocacy groups and NGOs found them to be useful forums for both pushing their own governments to focus on China’s poor human rights practices and, in some cases, a venue for direct contact with Chinese officials who would otherwise never directly encounter Western human rights campaigners. At a time when there were few other bilateral dialogues with China, the human rights channel was a major feature of Western democracies’ interactions with the Chinese government.