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Challenging China: How the U.S. Can Change the State of Human Rights

China Infographic

By Jordan Dannenberg

On January 26th, a Chinese court sentenced Xu Zhiyong, a prominent human rights advocate, to four years imprisonment for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” The Noble Prize Winning Liu Xiaobo is currently serving eleven years for “inciting subversion of state power.” While these stories have made international headlines, the status quo of human rights throughout China is equally flagrant. As noted by Human Rights Watch’s 2014 World Report, China continually justifies human rights abuses by deeming them imperative for stability. Freedom of expression and religion are regularly accosted, as are women’s reproductive rights despite a revision of the Old Child Policy in November. China’s unprecedented economic growth has been at the center of America’s foreign policymaking in recent years. Nonetheless, foreign policy is highly multifaceted and requires attention to a wide variety of issues beyond economic ones. In short, the United States’ commitment to human rights in China is severely lacking. Greater diplomatic engagement in China, including open discourse, by the Untied States is both an obligation and imperative for the international community.

One of the reasons it has been so difficult for the United States to appropriately engage China on the issue of human rights abuse is that the two countries fundamentally disagree about the definition of human rights. The American understanding of human rights is founded upon the legacy of certain inalienable rights and is similar to the definition utilized by international organizations. The Chinese government, however, defines human rights as also containing economic and social rights, but only as they fit within the confines of Chinese “culture.” This disagreement in definition has been exemplified throughout recent history when China has viscerally responded to criticism. China perceives American criticism as an attempt to inhibit Chinese development, and in many ways China is accurate in this assessment. This is precisely why a separate, economically unrelated human rights dialogue is imperative.

In recent years, human rights talks between the United States and China have become but a faint dream. If the United States approaches dialogue with a strong message that it is also unthreatening to the Chinese focus on growth, mutually agreed upon goals can be more easily ascertained. The current Chinese government is highly effective at achieving goals when it wishes to, which is why goal-focused talks should be a high priority. Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Employing the right figures is essential to making human rights talks a reality. With new ambassador Max Baucus set for confirmation, and an American Secretary of State and Chinese President that recently took office, today’s diplomatic officials are a promising group. After years of inconsistent diplomatic direction on the human rights issue in China, Baucus seems to have a clearly defined outlook. He recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “protection of human rights is probably the bedrock, fundamental goal.” Moreover, Baucus emphasized the need for “constructive engagement” and “common ground,” which will be essential parts of effective open dialogue.

By providing stronger financial support to Chinese NGOs and non-profit organizations focused on human rights, the United States can provide direct assistance without having to directly engage with the Chinese government, which always poses a challenge. According to the Congressional Research Service, of the $279 million allocated by the State Department between 2001 and 2010 for human rights, democracy, Tibetan communities, and the environment in China, the large majority of the money went to US-based organizations. While the work US-based organizations do is certainly important, the allocation of more funds to organizations actually located in China itself would allow for a more direct impact. The status quo of human rights in China is poor, but citizens are able to organize and protest more readily than any other time in recent history. American support for Chinese NGOs like Empower and Rights Institute, which aims to fortify leadership and grassroots networking and educate marginalized groups on rights protection, will help the Chinese citizenry to promote change from within. Also, supporting the training of skilled lawyers that help to ensure the rights of the Chinese citizenry can help to combat the abuses of the court system. Considering the Chinese government’s opposition to foreign criticism, empowering the Chinese population is one of the most promising remedies to the human rights problem in China.

In order to maximize change in China, the United States must project a consistent image on the matter of human rights by setting a better example for the rest of the world. In other words, the United States must have a record with which to back up calls for change. This means dealing with racial disparities in criminal justice, improving labor rights, resolving the roadblocks that have prevented the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and much more. These are divisive political issues in the United States, but reasserting American commitment to human rights in China can facilitate progress on these issues at home.

As a world leader, the United States has the responsibility to ensure that human rights are a significant consideration when formulating foreign policy. China is powerful and its influence is undeniable. But a powerful China does not necessitate a conciliatory America. The United States is the only world power influential enough to effectively advocate for change in China. This influence enables the United States to engage in independent human rights discourse without fear of economic turmoil. As evidenced by Presidents Carter and Reagan, human rights can be an effective part of foreign policy. Now is the time to work toward real change in China.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of PPR.

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