Hillary Was Right to Downplay Human Rights in China

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently concluded her first trip abroad, where she visited Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia. Going into the trip, she stated that human rights would be on the agenda with China:

"Human rights is a part of our agenda with the Chinese, as is climate change and clean energy and nuclear nonproliferation and dealing with the North Korean denuclearization challenge and the six-party talks," she said, according to a transcript of her remarks released by the State Department. "And that's why we want a comprehensive dialogue. We're not going to be shying away from talking about human rights issues, but we have a very broad agenda to deal with when it comes to China."

As it turns out, Secretary Clinton did not strongly emphasize human rights during her trip to China, where such concerns are most relevant. While this policy decision prompted criticism from a number of domestic advocates, it was the correct decision.

Sources of Criticism

The strongest criticisms of Clinton's trip came from liberals concerned that de-emphasizing human rights during a publicity tour would hinder progress towards global respect for human rights. (And to be clear, this was a publicity tour - the administration is reviewing policies in every imaginable area, just as George W. Bush did following the Bill Clinton era and Clinton did following the GHW Bush era. Hillary could not have been communicating details of new policies because, at this moment, there are none.) The Washington Post:

In fact, her comments understated the significance of what a secretary of state says about such matters, and how those statements might affect the lives of people fighting for freedom of expression, religious rights and other basic liberties in countries such as China.

The Boston Globe:

Clinton made another kind of gaffe when she said pressing China on human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." Even if these were her priorities in talks behind closed doors with Chinese officials, her comment sent the wrong message to those officials, to Tibetans and Chinese democrats, and to human rights defenders in China.

Sonia Cardenas:

Clinton's position has two potentially detrimental effects. It undermines the long-fought campaign for a comprehensive foreign policy, one recognizing the interdependence of human rights concerns with traditional strategic goals. And it ultimately fails civil society groups in China and those suffering human rights abuses.

Human rights activists in China are not fans outside of a Jonas Brothers concert. A wave or kind word from their role model, or the lack thereof, isn't the pinnacle of their existence. In between the handful of trips the American Secretary of State will take to China during her tenure, these brave men and women are fighting an existential battle against a dominant and extremely well-organized foe - the Chinese security forces. Those who choose this line of work in China are surely among humankind's most self-sacrificing - to act as though they require a few words here and there from visiting American officials to sustain themselves is to demean their bravery.

The Wise Choice

As I've argued elsewhere, international legitimacy depends on consistency. If you only emphasize human rights when vital interests aren't at stake, you're being hypocritical. Needless to say, this is a bad thing. As Anne Applebaum pointed out:

I also don't care what she says about human rights to the leaders of Iran, Zimbabwe or North Korea, if those words will have no meaning in practice. Grandiloquent human rights speeches that amount to nothing have been a hallmark of American foreign policy since at least 1956, when we didn't come to the aid of Hungarians taking part in a rebellion we helped incite. Fifty years of broken promises is quite enough, and if we're abandoning that habit now, good riddance.

Amen to that. The less we sound like we preach human rights only when it's to our advantage (and we're not prepared to back it up) the better.

China cares about publicity. They don't cancel initiatives important to the U.S. when we sell arms to Taiwan, but when we announce that we're going to do so. That may be practical, so as to dissuade us from actually going through with the arms sales, but nonetheless, initiatives such as military-to-military exchanges are vital, and cannot be risked over words that won't be backed up in the case of Tiananmen v2.0.

Why It Was Smart

The U.S. has other issues to discuss with China than human rights, like, say, nuclear war. As a Council on Foreign Relations brief notes:

U.S. military planners clearly see the potential for China to develop as a "peer competitor." The U.S. Defense Department's 2008 report on China's military power says "much uncertainty surrounds China's future course, in particular in the area of its expanding military power and how that power might be used."

China could easily have taken offense over Clinton's theoretical criticisms of China's human rights policies and canceled military-to-military talks that were called "the best set of talks that I have ever been a part of" by an American official. Previous military talks were called off in response to (the announcement of) U.S. arms deals with Taiwan, but are now slated to resume. And right after Clinton left, the State Department issued a report which criticized China harshly over its human rights policies. Needless to say, the Chinese were not happy.

The United States needs China to cooperate on issues of vital importance, including North Korea, financing the federal budget deficit, and averting an inadvertant nuclear war. If downplaying human rights allows us to do these things while also looking less hypocritical, why shouldn't we do so? China's human rights record is poor, and is already a non-trivial factor in Sino-American relations. But as with all other political issues, prioritization is crucial. Secretary Clinton did just this during her trip to East Asia and ought to be commended for it.