Bush goes soft on China.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 21 2003 6:02 PM

Chinese Whispers

Why has the Bush administration stopped fighting Beijing's human rights abuses?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

It's one of the oldest tricks in Washington, and sometimes it still works: Slip a stinker into the news cycle on Friday and hope that the weekend flushes it down. In this case, the stinker was the Bush administration's March 11 decision to forgo a resolution condemning China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. This was the first time since 1998, and only the second time since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, that a U.S. administration had gone to Geneva as a member of the commission and failed to take the Chinese to task. But from the Sinophobic pages of the Weekly Standard to the pulpits of the Family Research Council, we've heard barely a peep. There's been scarcely any news coverage or complaints in Congress either.

Has China's human rights record suddenly improved? Not likely, given Beijing's broad crackdown last year in the run-up to November's hand-over of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. In fact, a comparison of the last two State Department human rights reports suggests little change: In both years, "the Government's human rights record … remained poor, and the Government continued to commit numerous and serious abuses." (You can find the 2002 report here; for a nonofficial perspective, see Human Rights Watch, and for China's riposte, see this article in China's People's Daily.) More than 200,000 people are serving re-education sentences in labor camps. While comparing tallies of dissidents freed and arrested is about as objective as trading baseball cards, this year's State Department report is damning in several respects: It cites a doubling of the number of annual executions (to 4,000), part of Beijing's intensifying "strike hard" campaign against crime, and it raises the number of people reportedly in jail for their activities during the Tiananmen protests by a factor of 10, from 200 to 2,000.

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In announcing the U.S. decision to stay mum on China in Geneva, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "It's our hope and expectation that we will see further concrete progress in 2003 with China's new government." Well, cough-cough, the progress we've seen so far includes severe acute respiratory syndrome. In an ugly demonstration of Beijing's disregard for the lives and livelihoods of China's people, Hu Jintao took five months to say anything about a global epidemic that has now infected more than 3,800 in at least 25 countries and so far killed more than 200. Hu spoke only after Chinese authorities had squelched news of the epidemic, dragged their feet on public health measures, and ordered doctors to lie to World Health Organization inspectors about the number of SARS cases. (Let's hope Assistant Secretary of State for Asia James Kelly packed a few extra face masks for his upcoming trip to Beijing for talks with the North Koreans.) That kind of behavior may lack the evil panache of stringing Tibetans up by their toes, but it still ought to give pause even to those with no concern for more traditional violations of human rights.

So, where's the outrage? Why aren't more people upset about the Bush administration letting China off the human rights hook? Well, for starters, it's been almost 15 years since the government crackdown at Tiananmen, and China's overall human rights situation has improved greatly since then. Moreover, ever since the United States dropped the annual ritual of approving China's most-favored nation trading status in 2000, Congress has had less enthusiasm and fewer opportunities for beating up on China about human rights, especially when doing so might have negative economic consequences for us. And the political dividends from the partisan cycle of bashing opposing administrations for going "soft" on China may be diminishing. After all, it's not so easy for Democrats to slam George W. Bush for essentially following the China policy of Bill Clinton, who ended up pretty much embracing the China policy of George H.W. Bush.

But more important, the war on terror and the threat from North Korea have prompted policymakers, legislators, and the commentariat to look at China in a different strategic light. For all but the most dedicated yellow-peril-mongers, Middle Eastern Islamists have displaced China as Bad Guy No. 1. When you have Arabs flying planes into buildings, the occasional buzzing of U.S. spy planes by Chinese MIGs is a little less likely to stir the blood. (And hey, Chinese export Yao Ming hasn't hurt in the goodwill department, either: How many 7-foot, 5-inch Arabs are playing in the NBA and doing Apple commercials with Mini-Me?) What's more, we need China to pressure its old Cold War ally North Korea to put a cork in its nuclear program. We're more likely to get China's help in both these areas, the argument goes, if we aren't publicly sticking it to them on human rights.

Maybe so, but there were good reasons to have thought twice before sacrificing human rights on the altar of strategic interest. First, China is arguably the country with the most to lose if North Korea openly goes nuclear, a development that could well prompt Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan to consider doing the same. They need us at least as much as we need them. Second, the price of China's cooperation in the war on terrorism has included our ignoring or, in some cases, supporting its harsh campaigns against separatists with legitimate political grievances. Third, as the spread of SARS shows, China's growing integration with the world means that other countries are less and less immune to the consequences of its human rights failings.

We don't yet know whether it's more effective to pressure China about human rights in public or in private. The last time that the United States didn't push for a resolution, in 1998, the Chinese agreed to release prominent dissident Wang Dan, to sign a U.N. covenant on civil and political rights, and to smooth the way for a relatively successful visit by President Bill Clinton. But as any hapless Falun Gong practitioner will tell you, those gestures hardly marked an end to China's bouts of bad behavior. We do know that Beijing cares intensely each year about the U.S. game plan in Geneva—even though every U.S.-backed resolution against China has gone down to defeat. That suggests that the price tag for not trying to pass such a resolution ought to be very, very high.

Whatever concessions the Bush administration won from China probably won't be known for months, but the gap between the administration's rhetoric and its actions doesn't give much cause for hope. After beating its breast about being kicked off the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2002 and then elbowing aside Italy and Spain to rejoin the commission this year as a self-proclaimed "driving force," the United States kept quiet about China and said nothing about Russia's conduct in Chechnya. Instead, it dinged Cuba: small, isolated, and incapable of standing up to Uncle Sam.

So much for Bush's big words last June at West Point: "Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right or wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities." In Geneva, at least, the morality was missing in action.

James S. Gibney is executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a former foreign service officer.

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