Time for new dialogue for China human rights

Kelley Currie Contributor
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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.

After initially scoring some successes, such as political prisoner releases and changes to PRC laws criminalizing certain political behavior, however, these dialogues increasingly became empty bureaucratic exercises. The cramped agendas proceed on the basis of the “equality” of the human rights practices of the two sides, and with an out-sized focus on legalistic issues where China could claim substantial gains and sharpen its critiques of its dialogue partner. Dialogues with European countries increasingly focused on their “technical assistance” programs, and some of the most useful dialogues with formerly communist Eastern European countries were shut down altogether. China successfully pressured dialogue partners to exclude critical NGO voices that had previously participated in talks, and certainly never engaged its own growing grassroots NGO sector in the dialogue process. As a result, the dialogues were transformed into heavily scripted government-to-government exchanges that relegate human rights issues to a bilateral backwater.

Several recent events, however, have demonstrated the serious dangers posed by a China that achieves economic preeminence and military parity with the developed West while resisting political liberalization at home, and exposed the need for a renewal of international human rights strategies on China. As a result, there is growing interest among advocates—and new potential partners outside the human rights community—in identifying and employing a more effective approach to human rights in China.

This opening has, in a real sense, been created by China’s increasing intransigence and belligerence on the world stage, and the Chinese authorities’ severe retrenchment on human rights issues at home. The long-time mantra of the human rights community – that the authoritarian nature of China’s regime has consequences beyond the fate of a few dissidents and Tibetans – is starting to resonate. The convergence of these forces can be seen most vividly in the Google spying and censorship case. Google’s announcement that it would no longer censor its search engine results in China as required by the government, and its concurrent charge that Chinese hackers had penetrated its secure servers, both to steal proprietary code and to snoop into human rights activists’ private email accounts, was a perfect illustration of how China’s illiberal government policies and practices impact those hoping to do business under this regime. More broadly, recent opinion polls have shown increasing dissatisfaction with Chinese economic policies among multi-national corporations, and China’s approval ratings dropping in other countries. The willingness of some businesses to go public with their concerns and even explicitly link the harm their business suffers to China’s political model is a sea change from the past.

The challenge for the human rights community now is to take maximum advantage of this potential opening to rebuild a more durable, effective coalition in support of human rights in China. They should do this through vigorous outreach to groups outside the traditional human rights community who are increasingly attuned to the downside of Chinese autarky: the business community, security analysts, internet freedom advocates, faith communities, environmental activists, and especially local and regional activists in Asia. Once the coalition has been expanded, it needs to be more strategic and targeted in its approach. This means developing strategies that play to the strengths of a loose-knit, diverse group working across open societies, and similarly exploits the weaknesses of China’s brittle, top-down authoritarian structure and political culture. There also needs to be a considered effort to find ways of supporting the most vulnerable activists working for change inside China.

The human rights community should not look to or wait for the U.S. and other governments to lead this effort. Instead, they should go back to their roots and push these governments to reexamine their own practices in dealing with China, using the many and varied available political forums to point out the hypocrisies and dangers of ignoring China’s rampant human rights problems. The unraveling of the wishful thinking that China’s economic development would lead to political liberalization is creating a unique opportunity for those who care about human rights and freedoms in China, and we must seize it. Let the dialogue begin.

Ms. Currie is a Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington, D.C. think-tank.