Promoting Human Rights in China: Practical Steps for U.S. Policymakers

Promoting Human Rights in China
Practical Steps for U.S. Policymakers

by Robert M. Hathaway
March 1, 2002

In order to successfully manage the Sino-U.S. relationship in the coming years, Dr. Hathaway suggests that U.S. policymakers adopt a strategic vision that aims to balance the full range of America’s policy objectives in order to promote the totality of its vital interests. In addition, Dr. Hathaway argues that U.S. policymakers must understand that human rights may be perceived in China as “a peculiarly western, if not American, notion.”

President George W. Bush issued a forceful plea for religious and political freedom during his brief visit to Beijing in February 2002. In a speech delivered at Tsinghua University and broadcast throughout China, the president declared that “freedom of religion is not something to be feared.” Innocuous words to American ears, these were truly revolutionary sentiments to a Chinese audience. Religious believers pose no threat to public order, Bush insisted. “My prayer,” he added, “is that all persecution will end, so that all in China are free to gather and worship as they wish.”

The Bush administration had been notably silent since September 11 on China’s human rights behavior, and the president is to be commended for raising these issues during his visit in such a public manner. Given the current U.S. preoccupation with terrorism, it would have been a grave mistake to allow the Chinese to conclude that human rights have slipped off the U.S. agenda.

At the same time, there is an important difference between publicly haranguing China on human rights, which will play well in many American circles, and acting as an effective advocate for better human rights practices in China. In discussing sensitive issues with a Chinese audience, the manner is frequently as important as the message. Bush’s call at Tsinghua University for greater freedom was issued in respectful tones. He did not hector or lecture his Chinese listeners. He avoided coming across as arrogant or condescending. He candidly conceded that the United States has sometimes failed to live up to its own declared ideals. Such humility, from the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, must have been well received by many Chinese.

Beijing’s sorry human rights record continues to offend most Americans. The State Department’s 2001 human rights report concluded that in some respects, human rights conditions in China are getting worse, not better. Shortly before Bush’s trip to Beijing, a Chinese court sentenced a Hong Kong citizen to two years in prison for bringing annotated Bibles into China for use by a banned evangelical Christian group, even though the Bible is legally available in China. His release a few days before Bush’s arrival merely underscored the cynicism behind Beijing’s attempt to buy western favor by occasionally releasing prominent prisoners. Reports about a renewed crackdown on Christians and other religious minorities in China follow a long string of Chinese activities that most Americans deem…