Much more to US-Chinese relations than just human rights

As Chinese President Jiang Zemin makes his way across the country, many Americans have called for President Clinton to demand that China make major improvements in the treatment of its people – particularly political dissidents, Tibetans and other minorities and prisoners – or otherwise face U.S. sanctions and ostracization from the world community. While such a stance may demonstrate America’s moral fiber and allow us to shed any sense of guilt over conditions in China, adopting a confrontational China policy will not help improve the lot of average Chinese; nor does it reflect the complex reality that is China.

In 1993 President Clinton threatened China with trade sanctions – removal of China’s most favored nation trading status – if it did not improve certain human rights practices. When China called his bluff, Clinton, as expected, did not follow through. Doing so would have sent relations into a tailspin, hurting big business, dissidents and strategic planners alike. Instead, Clinton soon reverted to the historic U.S. policy followed since Nixon – trying to find common ground with China when possible, while trying to negotiate through differences.

Clinton’s mistake was not in following through on his threat, but in making the threat in the first place. To compound his problem, Clinton has done little to defend his policy. The vacuum created by his silence has been filled by the far right and left, which have advocated a much more confrontational stance that sees our relations in zero-sum terms. (Ironically, just as some Americans saw Clinton as appeasing China, many Chinese believe Clinton has been trying to undermine and contain it.)

Clinton has begun to more forcefully defend himself and reshape the contours of the debate. More importantly, engagement has begun to bear some fruit. China has lowered its tariff levels and made reforms in intellectual property rights. Regular interaction of military officials has led to an improved (though still somewhat incomplete) understanding of China’s military capabilities and intentions, and China has improved its record on non-proliferation issues. And on human rights, China has announced it will sign the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

More broadly, it has recognized the legitimacy of international human rights norms, even if it is still in violation of them. While the picture on all fronts is admittedly still mixed, a confrontational approach would certainly have resulted in stalemate and perhaps direct conflict. Treating China as an enemy is the surest way to make it one.

The confrontational approach is flawed because at its base is the view of China as a static entity that has changed little from the days of Mao. The reality is far more complicated. Economic reforms have been accompanied by growing private freedoms and greater horizontal links throughout most of society. The government is formally Leninist, but policymaking is often more akin to bargaining, hence the difficulty of agreeing to, not to mention implementing, various reform measures.

The best way to understand this complexity is to learn more about China through reading books, making friends or seeing movies. If you must see Brad Pitt’s Seven Years in Tibet and Richard Gere’s Red Corner, balance these one-sided pictures with movies produced by China’s own foremost young movie talent, such as To Live and Qiu Ju Goes to Court, both available with subtitles at your local video outlet. The latter two do far more justice to China’s human predicament without making a villain or angel of anyone.

Engagement may not ensure full protection of human rights and China’s adoption of national-level democracy, but it does encourage positive social and economic trends in China as well as encourage China’s integration into the international community.

-Scott Kennedy is a doctoral student in political science, specializing in Chinese politics.

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