Capitol Hill legislators will join human rights and pro-democracy advocates in highlighting China’s human rights record when President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week.
Activists have been pressing the Obama administration to raise human rights and, more broadly, to challenge the growing influence of the authoritarian Beijing consensus.
“This is the first time in several decades that we have seen a great power that stands for and promotes an alternative vision of how states should relate to their people,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, a perspective “that poses a threat not just to political dissidents inside China but to a whole set of values and norms that underpin the international system”
“You will not see China playing a role called follow me,” said deputy foreign minister, Fu Ying. “China will judge the world from its own position and from what we see as the main trends of the world.”
But the regime has reportedly been using its network of Confucius Institutes “to fund dialogues that explore political alternatives to Western values” and investing huge sums in soft power initiatives to project its influence.
The belligerent campaign against the Nobel Peace Prize award to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo convinced some observers that Beijing’s commitment to undermining international human rights norms, conventions and institutions also represents an ideological challenge to the democratic idea.
In his meetings with Hu, President Obama must “lay down a marker” even if it “does not help you win the contest of ideas all by itself,” said Malinowski.
Some were reassured by last week’s White House brainstorming session, featuring activist Li Xiaorong; writer Zha Jianying, a signatory of the Charter 08 dissident manifesto; Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, a National Endowment for Democracy board member; writer Bette Bao Lord; and Paul Gewirtz, head of Yale’s China Law Center.
Obama was especially interested to receive advice on how and where the US should use its leverage, an administration official said, and how to reach into China to be heard.
“He is not interested in hectoring or lecturing or embarrassing them,” said the official. “He’s interested in affecting how people think.”
Beijing will, of course, insist that raising such issues amounts to interference in its internal affairs, reflecting Washington’s strategic objective of frustrating China’s emergence as a global power. Disconcertingly, such claims clearly have a purchase on Chinese public opinion.
The Wall Street Journal today cites opinion poll evidence that more than half of Chinese believe that US-China relations have deteriorated and 80% of them blame Washington.
In the absence of independent media and freedom of expression, many will be understandably wary of such polls. China’s “exterior face can seem oppositional, bellicose, and deeply illiberal,” analyst Bruce Gilley told a recent Congressional hearing. “But the interior mind is swirling, changing, seeking acceptance and humanistic.”
It is reassuring that the administration recognizes that while there are compelling strategic reasons for constructive engagement with the regime, it is also imperative to speak directly to China’s people in order to challenge this narrative – a nationalist discourse deliberately cultivated by a ruling Communist party that has dropped Marxist-Leninism as a source of ideological legitimacy.
The party is no longer monolithic, but “a collection of different and often competing interests….not held together by ideology but by the glue of nationalism, a force that ranges from low-key pride in China’s past and current achievements to strident jingoism” – in short, what analyst Susan Shirk calls a collective oligarchy.
“The party’s genius has been its leaders’ ability … to maintain the political institutions and authoritarian powers of old-style communism, while dumpling the ideological straitjacket that originally inspired them,” notes a leading party watcher.
The administration’s new tone and discourse will be respectful but firm, judging from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ‘s “polite” but detailed criticism of Beijing’s human rights record in advance of Hu’s visit, citing the suppression of pro-democracy Charter 08 dissidents and the detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
“The longer China represses freedoms,” she said, “the longer that Nobel Prize winners’ empty chairs in Oslo will remain a symbol of a great nation’s unrealized potential and unfulfilled promise.”
Delivering the inaugural Richard C. Holbrooke lecture, she explicitly refuted the nationalist narrative that the U.S. was determined to frustrate China’s rise in order to forestall any challenge to America’s global hegemony.
“Some in the region and some here at home see China’s growth as a threat that will lead either to cold war-style conflict or American decline,” she insisted. “And some in China worry that the United States is bent on containing their rise and constraining their growth — a view that is stoking a new streak of assertive Chinese nationalism. We reject those views.”
The ruling party has recently experienced pronounced divisions between reformist and conservative factions, with Premier Wen Jiaobo emerging as the most conspicuous voice for the former, insisting that political reform is essential for continued economic growth and modernization. But the conservatives’ insistence on continuity and stability, colored by a nationalist stress on the peculiarity of China’s “socialist democracy” have clearly won the day.
“The fact that China has enjoyed sustained, rapid economic growth and social stability and harmony proves that China’s political system fits China’s national conditions and meets the requirement of overall economic and social development,” Hu told Western media in advance of his visit.
“We will define the institutions, standards and procedures for socialist democracy, expand people’s ordinary participation in political affairs at each level and in every field, mobilize and organize the people as extensively as possible,” he insisted.
So how should the administration articulate the case for human rights and democratic reform with China?
Don’t allow Beijing’s protocol-obsessed leaders to set the agenda, writes Kelley Currie, a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute. The administration should make freedom of expression the primary focus of this week’s dialog.
US officials should “forget interviews with China’s censored state-owned propaganda organs, and instead host uncensored Chinese-language media like Radio Free Asia, leading Chinese bloggers and cutting edge media for pre-summit briefings.
Some observers contend that strategically vital economic and security concerns must always take precedence over issues of human rights, governance and democracy in US-China relations.
But ominous historical parallels suggest that there is a compelling security-based case for the White House and the State Department to consistently demonstrate US support for human rights, media freedom, the rule of law and civil society in China, according to former NSC Asia director Michael J. Green and Daniel Kliman, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
“As Japan and Germany rose in the early 20th century, these states lacked the rule of law and transparent governance that offered other states multiple avenues for reassurance and shaping of strategic behavior,” they write. “The result was rivalry and, eventually, war.”
Of course, the U.S. cannot compel China to democratize, note Green and Kliman.
While “sudden political liberalization without the underpinnings provided by the rule of law and good governance would only increase the risks of illiberal democracy and cause even greater uncertainty about China’s strategic trajectory,” they observe, it is nevertheless in Washington and Beijing’s mutual strategic interests to “recognize that economic interdependence and statements of strategic reassurance are no substitutes for evidence of greater transparency and liberalism within China.”