Image credit: Donkey Hotey.
That China would become an issue in this year’s US Presidential Election came as a surprise to no-one, but the nature of the discussion, focusing on trade and jobs with nary a mention of human rights issues is a dramatic break from tradition.
Campaigning against incumbent President George H. W. Bush in the early-90s, Bill Clinton famously attacked Bush for coddling the “butchers of Beijing”. Admittedly Clinton abandoned this apparently anti-China pose once he took the presidency, but Chinese human rights issues are still normally an easy foreign policy talking-point for anyone campaigning for election.
But this year, the human rights element has largely been missing from the campaign. Even the dramatic case of blind human rights defender Cheng Guangcheng, who briefly thrust issues of rule of law and justice onto the U.S.-China agenda in April by fleeing into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has not inspired either candidate, beyond a brief attempt by Mitt Romney to politicize Chen’s case. Compared with past campaigns, human rights in China have largely been an afterthought.
Neither candidate mentioned human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Great Firewall, jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, China’s support for Sudan, or China’s obstruction of United Nations Security Council action on Syria. Neither named the leader of China, President Hu Jintao, or made reference to the leadership transition underway and what it might portend.
The Obama administration has always been cagey on confronting China over human rights issues. Secretary of State Clinton famously said that human rights “issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.” This apparent unwillingness to discuss matters which could only antagonise Beijing may have been unsuccessful however, at least where the Chinese people are concerned – a Pew Global Survey found that during his tenure average Chinese have become significantly less approving of President Obama and the US.
Increasing U.S. support for rule of law and human rights in China would be a smart play for three reasons. First, it would garner favor within China. The most courageous advocates for human rights and justice in China live inside the country, not along the banks of the Potomac. Second, it would enhance U.S. economic opportunities by strengthening the Chinese middle class (the consumers of the future) and depriving Chinese state-owned enterprises of some of the unfair advantages they enjoy as a result of low-wage labor, lax environmental regulations, and stolen land. Third, it would actually promote China’s own long-term stability. China is experiencing tens of thousands of protests every year, many focused on economic injustice. By repressing those seeking redress for grievances — whether they are Tibetan monks or disconsolate factory workers — the Chinese Communist Party is only undermining its own legitimacy and allowing problems to fester. Maybe by 2016, an American presidential contender will notice.
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