The weeks leading up to the summit beginning on Thursday in Florida between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump have been pretty good for Beijing.
In mid-March, while visiting China, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson parroted Xi’s favorite talking points on the importance of a bilateral relationship built on nonconfrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for “win-win solutions.” By doing so, Tillerson implied a previously unacknowledged equality in the relationship. In late March, the family firm of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner ended talks with the powerful Chinese insurance company Anbang about redeveloping a Manhattan office building—but not before raising doubts about the impartiality of Kushner, a key foreign policy adviser to Trump. And Trump’s March 28 executive order rolling back Barack Obama’s advances in fighting climate change allows China to become the world’s most important advocate for countering global warming. “Trump is a Chinese Agent” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman bombastically—but not entirely inaccurately—proclaimed in a March 29 column.
Perhaps the most significant Trump–China blunder so far has been a sin of omission: the administration’s refusal to criticize China’s human rights record. Trump is clearly comfortable criticizing China, in both speeches and on Twitter, over its trade policies and military activities. But there has been no mention from Trump of Xi’s suppression of Chinese Christians who worship outside of state-sanctioned churches, the roughly 500,000 people reportedly in punitive detention with neither a charge nor trial, tightening internet censorship, the crackdown on Muslims in northwest China, or other human rights abuses.
The State Department declined to join a February letter, signed by 11 embassies, criticizing the torture of Chinese human rights lawyers. And while Tillerson did state, in a press conference held during his March trip to Beijing, that the United States will “continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom,” that rare mention was the exception rather than the rule. It’s not just China: Trump, who infamously praised dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin during his campaign, has sidelined human rights concerns in the Middle East as well. In early March, Tillerson skipped the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report, a breach of tradition that unnerved human rights advocates. That’s not to say previous U.S. administrations enshrined advocating for human rights as a core element of their China strategy. But the Trump administration’s omissions have been particularly striking.
There are clear moral reasons why this is problematic. While U.S. advocacy alone won’t democratize China or liberalize its Communist Party, publically and privately nudging Chinese officials, in a small way, helps improve the life of some Chinese, especially those agitating for more political rights. Beijing sometimes “responds to pressure,” Ely Ratner, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “And in its absence, they would do more” human rights abuses, said Ratner, who served as former Vice President Joe Biden’s deputy national security adviser.
Trump may feel that how China treats its citizens isn’t his problem. At the upcoming summit, his priorities are the trade relationship between the two countries and curtailing North Korea’s nuclear program. But ignoring human rights is also a bad negotiating tactic—one that will make those goals harder to achieve.
Put simply, Trump is throwing away a valuable bargaining chip. Publicly criticizing Beijing costs Trump almost nothing and might even help him improve his standing among both Democrats and Republicans while angering Beijing. Judicious use of that criticism, and allowing it to act as a barometer of the relationship, and of Beijing’s willingness to cooperate, could function as an excellent negotiating lever.
Why does Beijing care? Many Chinese believe that because of the size and complexity of their country, an authoritarian government is the only way to prevent domestic chaos. The United States, as the world’s only other massive, economically successful nation (sorry, India), belies that notion. Highlighting China’s human rights abuses and acting morally at home allows the White House to present the American democratic model as an alternative to China’s authoritarian system. By legitimizing the idea that democratic governance can work for large and complex nations, the United States threatens the Communist Party’s hold on power. Because the primary goal of Xi and other senior Chinese leaders is to stay in power, they should find this worrisome.
China also strives to portray itself—domestically as well as internationally—as a democratic, just society. One of Xi’s most widely used propaganda slogans is the 12 Core Socialist Values. “Democracy” is second on the list just behind “prosperity” and ahead of “patriotism.” Successfully criticizing Beijing’s human rights abuses punctures Beijing’s preferred vision of itself as a just nation, and in a small way weakens its hold on power. Internationally, it hurts China’s soft power and gives the United States increased ammunition in the struggle for the hearts and minds of China’s neighbors. “The regime in Beijing will deny it until the cows come home, but they do care about their international image,” Perry Link, a professor at the University of California–Riverside who has followed China’s human rights issues since the 1970s, told me.
Beyond negotiating strategy, a China that gave more respect to human rights would be a better partner for the U.S. government and American businesses. “If the United States wants greater clarity about China’s strategic intentions,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, a freer Chinese press “is better able to provide that. And if “U.S. businesses want greater confidence that they can carry out their work without getting arbitrarily detained, they need to push for a fairer justice system.”
There might be a strategy in Trump’s refusal to criticize human rights in China (and elsewhere in the world). “My sense is that he conflates human rights, and undue promotion of it, with democracy promotion and Iraq,” a Trump administration official told me. “He thinks that puts us in a down-the-rabbit-hole quagmire.”
Indeed, Trump appears to view human rights advocacy as a waste of time, or even a hypocrisy, given that the United States hasn’t always lived up to its professed values. This should come as a relief to the Chinese government, which annually needles what it sees as U.S. arrogance with its own report on American human rights abuses.
But one need not believe America is perfect to realize that U.S. pressure can help change things ever so slightly for the better in China, or that China cares enough about its public image that it may make concessions to avoid that pressure. It’s a worthwhile strategy for Tillerson, the (still-unconfirmed) U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Terry Branstad, and even for Trump himself to pursue.
If Trump mentions human rights in China, Xi will listen.