Editor’s Note: The authors of this post are Chinese human rights activists.
By Yang Jianli, Founder and President of Initiatives for China, and Teng Biao, Visiting Scholar at The Institute for Advanced Study and New York University
We have watched the three presidential debates in dismay and surprise: While the third and final debate dealt with several important issues, it repeated a glaring omission of the prior two debates. Why hasn’t anybody raised questions about U.S. human rights policy toward China? It undoubtedly concerns the long term national interest of this country.
Here are the questions we’d have posed to the candidates:
you smeared the 1989 students’ peaceful protest in Beijing as a “riot,” characterizing their murder as an illustration of “strong” leadership. Do you think American presidents should embrace the power of “political winners” around the world, denouncing their peaceful petitioners? Would this not be a terrible message to the American people and to world dictators who would happily welcome your like-minded company if he became president? If so, would the human rights situation in many parts of the world be further imperiled and even the American people’s basic rights threatened? Would it make America great?
To Mrs. Clinton:
Unlike your opponent, you have a strong track record of promoting human rights around the world as First lady, Senator and Secretary of State. You rightly were coined champion of women’s rights. Your January 21, 2010 speech on the right to connect has been the most compelling statement yet in support of global Internet freedom. Personally, one of the authors, Jianli, is forever grateful for your signature on a letter of U.S. congressional members to the leader of China asking for his immediate and unconditional release while he was imprisoned in Beijing as a political prisoner (2002-2007). Yet, we still remember our sorrow upon hearing you say before your first official visit to China as U.S. secretary of State in February of 2009, that America couldn’t let China’s gross human rights abuse “get in the way of negotiating other issues like economics, climate change, or military matters.” As President, would you so blithely subordinate human rights in the case of China? Will you continue the appeasement policy towards the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party? Or would you uphold what you have elsewhere lauded as America’s dense of binding, universal values and not let other issue “get in the way of human rights?”
The queries we would have posed to Mr. Trump are self-explanatory. Let us explain why the other questions are so important.
Twenty-seven years ago, shortly after the Tiananmen Massacre, we urged the U.S. government to tie China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status to China’s respect for human rights. Without such a link, continuing normal trade with China would be like a blood transfusion to the Communist regime, making it more aggressive and harming the interests of both the American and Chinese peoples. Nancy Pelosi and George Mitchell’s legislation in 1993 embodied this idea. However, it was reversed in 1994 when the U.S. granted permanent MFN status to China.
That reversal was based on a theory, which was widely upheld by corporations, columnists, pundits and policy makers – that trade would inevitably result in better human rights. So to test that prediction, Congress established the Executive-Legislative Commission on China (CECC). The Commission has annually examined just how much China’s tremendous economic growth and enhanced
commerce with the world has led to real civil liberty and human rights for its citizens. This year’s CECC report
was just released. Like years before, the conclusion is clear: Things are “getting worse.” This finding is echoed in the annual human rights reports of the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and investigations conducted by the U.N.
With money and technology pouring in from the U.S. and the West, the Chinese Communist regime not only survived the 1989 crisis, it was catapulted into the 21st century. Its economic growth has lifted it from one of the poorest countries to become the world’s number two economy. But in human rights and civil liberties, China remains firmly near the bottom.
During the same period, the U.S. harbored the delusion that economic growth would bring about democracy in China. U.S. Presidents and senior officials avoided human rights issues in China, deeming them inconvenient. Now, the Chinese leadership cares little about the pressure from the West, because politicians and businessmen from around the world are salivating at China’s immense purchasing power.
Beijing tightly controls the fundamental freedoms. They have jailed thousands of lawyers, activists, bloggers and journalists every year; they tortured Tibetans, Uighurs, Falungong practitioners, Christians, petitioners and political prisoners, both of the two authors were tortured during detention; they have cut off Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; they have refused visas for New York Times journalists and critical scholars, and have blocked access to Twitter and Facebook.
Ironically, China, which screens, censors and bans any print and electronic publication, was invited to serve as the country of honor at the 2015 BookExpo America in New York. American NGOs and academic institutions self-censor so as not to anger China. Hollywood is the epitome of free American culture; filmmakers are free to ridicule, mock, and criticize American politicians without fear. But in their pursuit of China’s box office dollars, Hollywood executives have consciously decided to steer clear of any criticism of the Chinese government. Despite this, American movies are still censored in China, and some are not allowed at all. In the United States today, the Chinese government and its surrogates have wide access to universities, think tanks, and broadcast studios through which they can advance their opinions and rationalize their actions.
China is using the economic power it has gained with the help of the West to build a formidable military. As its power grows, China is demanding a re-write of international norms, wanting to create a new international order with China at the center of the Asia-Pacific region, bringing regional and world peace under threat. The current South China Sea tension, abducting overseas booksellers and activists, are just a few cases in point.
History teaches us that, when a dictator betrays the rights guaranteed the people by his nation’s own laws and constitution, his international agreements and commitments also are untrustworthy. In the 20th Century, we’ve also learned that a dictatorship that represses it’s people, will also amplify aggression abroad to divert attention from its citizens protest. So if America continues to sideline human rights in dealing with China, it would weaken its long term national interest. It’s time for America to stop compartmentalizing human rights and even pitting it against other policy issues. Human rights should be fully integrated into the relationship of the U.S. and China. Supporting the expansion human rights is always in America’s best interest.
In anticipation that both candidates will see and answer the above questions before election day, we hope these American leaders, especially the future president, have learned the lesson.