A New Approach to Human Rights in China

08/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On July 28, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up meetings with their Chinese counterparts at the first session of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. While human rights remained an issue too thorny to tackle full-force in this round of the high-level talks, getting human rights right with China could make or break future U.S. efforts to expand bilateral cooperation.

Beijing's current human rights practices seriously impede the country's ability to meet its global obligations, from climate change to the economy. If the United States wants to see real progress in the bilateral relationship and to partner with China to address global challenges, it will have to become more innovative in how it attempts to move China on human rights.

Washington has never had much success in shaming Beijing into improving its human rights practices. China responds to harsh rhetoric with hostility. The world clearly witnessed China's nationalistic response to the global rally for Tibetan human rights demands during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Instead, a more measured and thoughtful approach will yield greater results. Rather than condemn Beijing's abuses, the Obama administration should focus on enhancing political openness in areas that Beijing, at least tentatively, has already identified as in its interest: transparency, accountability, the rule of law, and advancing media and civil society.

In the immediate term, this means pushing for good governance in areas where China is already keen to cooperate. Paramount to good governance is making China's bureaucrats and judiciary more transparent and accountable, and allowing lawyers, journalists, and civil society groups to operate with fewer constraints. On climate change, for example, China needs good governance to meet its energy efficiency targets, to monitor greenhouse gas emissions properly and to reign in rampantly polluting factories. In the economic realm, China wants to strengthen its domestic consumption, and the U.S. wants this too, as Secretary Geithner said during his China trip in early June. To do this, China's $586 billion stimulus package must trickle down to the consumer transparently. Many Chinese leaders already recognize the need to improve governance. The U.S. should play up their interest by supporting capacity building in areas such as legal training and institutional development.

Gradually, good governance practices could transcend the specific areas of U.S.-China cooperation into a broader norm within China. The voices commemorating Tiananmen's twentieth anniversary and the wide popular support for Charter 08 show that China's citizens are increasingly advocating for their rights and freedoms. The Chinese government's tendency to suppress such public sentiments threatens the very public stability that its leaders covet. This is evident in the unprecedented 120,000 mass incidents reported in 2008, and artist Ai Weiwei's campaign to expose the names of the children who died under collapsed school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake. The U.S. can help China see this from the outside.

Equally important is ensuring that the U.S. human rights dialogue with China, set to resume at some undisclosed point in the future, does not spiral into the usual unproductive finger-pointing. To start, the U.S. should invite criticism of its human rights practices from China, which would raise leverage while pressuring China to discuss its own problems more honestly. Groups like the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China and Human Rights in China could use the bilateral forum to sit down with their Chinese counterparts, such as the government-sponsored China Society for Human Rights Studies, which will drive a more substantive, balanced debate. Judging from the European experience, China will not allow more independent-minded groups -- such as the Open Constitution Initiative, which recently published a report on China's failed policies in Tibet -- to join the discussion without a hard fight. The U.S. will have to be unwavering about bringing all voices to the table.

The best shot the U.S. has at influencing the human rights debate within China's leadership is by engaging the rest of the world. In Africa, China has been criticized widely not just for fueling the genocide in Darfur, but also for forgiving debt in countries like Angola and effectively condoning their human rights infringements. This has stirred groups like Africa's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to call for strengthening norms and institutions to "avoid any problems with the Chinese investment in Africa." The U.S. should step up involvement with groups like NEPAD and the African Union, and raise pressure on China to comply with international norms and standards.

Revamping the human rights agenda with China is a complex challenge and will not be realized without a concerted effort. Cooperation on human rights can significantly push forward a relationship that has already come a long way. Without addressing human rights issues, however, China will fail to cooperate with the U.S. meaningfully. If the Obama administration is serious about working with China, it will have to get serious about human rights.