Addressing the human rights issue in Sino-American relations.

Author:Van Ness, Peter
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

Under the best of circumstances, policymakers from China, the United States or any other major power must attempt to reconcile at least three competing priorities: national security, economic viability and moral authority. Each of these three dimensions of foreign policy typically has its own separate and conflicting logic. security issues are most often seen in realist terms, assuming a world of anarchy and the inevitability of zero-sum games (e.g., I can gain only at your expense). Economic problems are usually addressed from a quite a different perspective, assuming instead opportunities for interdependence and mutual benefit in a struggle, often understood in liberal terms, over how the benefits are to be shared (e.g., we both gain; but each will try to get the bigger share). Finally, moral questions are typically perceived in terms of absolutist alternatives (e.g., "mine vs. yours, or even good vs. evil") -- we might choose to coexist, to compete, or even to fight over who is right, but the outcome is rarely a compromise.

These three dimensions of foreign policy also seem to represent a rough hierarchy of priorities: first security, then economics and finally questions of morality. If the state is threatened, national security takes precedence. Economic policy is reshaped to support national defense, and moral debate tends to be suspended for the national emergency (e.g., my country, right or wrong). If, however, there is no major perceived threat to state security, then economic priorities take precedence. Finally, moral issues are most likely to receive priority in those countries, like the Group of Seven today, which perceive no military threat from any other state and which are economically well off.

This is not necessarily the hierarchy of foreign policy priorities that one might prefer; rather, it is presented here as a general approximation of what seems to happen in response to changing world events.

Human rights has emerged as one of the foremost moral issues of the post-Cold War world. Foreign ministry officials and national security advisors are being pressed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizen activists to take human rights abuse more seriously as a foreign-policy priority. Systematic monitoring and detailed reporting of human rights abuse by NGOs (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House), individual journalists and government reports (like the annual Department of State country reports) have produced a growing database to support comparative analysis and sustained policy debate.

This paper is an analysis of how the United States and China are treating the issue of human rights in their bilateral relationship. It assumes that no matter how much some U.S. and Chinese officials and trade council lobbyists may hope that the issue will disappear, NGOs and citizen activists in both countries will keep human rights high on the agenda of Sino-American relations -- particularly in a post-Cold War world characterized by a sharp decline in state-to-state security threats and increasing general economic prosperity.

Human rights, however, cannot be treated in isolation. In order to implement an effective and sustainable human rights policy, it must be designed in a way to complement security and economic concerns. Especially when considering that each of the three main dimensions of foreign policy is customarily treated in terms of a separate logic, human rights, like any moral foreign-policy priority, must be considered in terms of a broad concept of "national interest." This analysis attempts to show how both Beijing and Washington might address human rights as a foreign policy issue more effectively -- and in ways that could enhance economic and security cooperation between China and the United States rather than threaten it.

There is an emerging consensus among analysts that the recent differences in Sino-American relations have the potential to evolve into a strategic confrontation between the two countries. Before the Bill Clinton-Jiang Zemin summit in New York in October 1995, for example, some press commentaries pointed to the meeting as an opportunity to avoid "a new cold war."(1) Clearly, no country would benefit from such a confrontation. The greatest energy for such a confrontation is often generated in the moral dimension of foreign policy, in disputes over differing political philosophies and social values, making the strategic confrontation even more volatile and difficult to contain.

However, this essay argues that, paradoxically, it may be in the handling of some of these sensitive moral issues about which the two governments most disagree, including human rights, that a way might be found to identify common ground suitable for a dialogue that might in turn help to avoid such a self-defeating strategic confrontation. First, I will describe contemporary American and Chinese human rights diplomacy, then "the China threat" and finally a design for pursuing human rights in the national interest.

George Bush and the Beijing Massacre

The violent suppression of the student-led protests of 1989 by the People's Liberation Army in front of the television cameras of the world's leading media organizations, assembled in Beijing to cover the meeting of the Asian Development Bank and a Chinese summit meeting with the Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, shocked the Western world. The reality of the Chinese Communist Party's insistence on totalitarian control over its own citizens, so long ignored in the West as part of the Nixon-Kissinger realpolitik of playing Communists against Communists, was revealed in horrific detail for all to see.

Forced by citizen outrage to respond, Western governments tailored their denunciation of the massacre to articulate the emotions of the moment, without, if possible, endangering long-term strategic and economic ties with China. George Bush, elected president just a few months earlier, was particularly concerned about maintaining the working relationship with the Chinese leaders that he had established as head-of-mission for the United States in Beijing before diplomatic relations between the two countries were formalized.

President Bush led the Group of Seven wealthy capitalist countries to impose a limited set of sanctions on China at the their July 1989 meeting in Paris; but, at the same time, Bush secretly sent to China two of his most trusted national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, to assure Deng Xiaoping of continued American cooperation. The covert contacts were revealed later in the year when Scowcroft and Eagleburger returned to China for a second visit.

The first foreign visit the president made after his election was to China, and presumably China was to play an important role in his strategic design for U.S. foreign policy. However, the duplicity of his China policy, once the Scowcroft and Earleburger visits were revealed, helped to fuel a debate in the Unite States about human rights in China. A broad alliance of activist Democrats in the Congress, human rights NGOs, and Chinese student dissidents (some of them leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrations who had eluded the public security drag net to escape abroad) lobbied the U.S. government to make human rights a top priority in American policy on China. New organizations, such as the New York-based Human Rights in China, worked to keep the memories of June 4th alive.

Opponents of Bush's policy seized on the fact that the PRC's "most favored nation (MFN)" trading status (customary tariff benefits conferred on major trading partners) had to be renewed each year because of a legal provision in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974. The amendment required that the president submit a waiver for all non-market-economy countries each year.2 In the case of China, the president would have to state his intention to renew or not to renew by June 3rd, just by chance the anniversary of the Beijing Massacre.

As a result, during the remaining years of the Bush Administration, the debate about human rights and China policy in the United States evolved into an annual-cycle in which human rights proponents focused their efforts on Congress, attempting to place conditions on the annual renewal of China's MFN. President Bush opposed these attempts to constrict his China-policy options, but the annual debate helped to keep the issue alive in U.S. national politics. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party's unrelenting suppression of political opposition in China and its insistence on the right to monopolize political power and to rule arbitrarily helped to fuel the flames of the U.S. debate.

Bill Clinton, Human Rights, and China Policy

Bill Clinton made human rights in China an important issue in his campaign for the presidency in 1992, and the expectation, both from supporters and political opponents alike, was that if Clinton were elected, there would be important changes in U.S.-China policy. There were important changes as it turned out but not in the way that most people expected. Clinton in 1993 imposed conditions on granting China MFN status, with a year's grace period for the Chinese to comply; but then in 1994, when Beijing failed to comply, Clinton backed down, lifting the conditions that he had imposed a year earlier.

Clinton's collapse in the face of Beijing's intransigence left U.S.-China policy in shambles. Lobbies tugged in different directions, pressing alternatively to make Taiwan, trade relations, or human rights a special priority. The White House seemed to change priorities from one minute to the next, appearing to make concessions to all of them but leaving the impression that there was no integrated Clinton policy toward China. Beijing, assuming that Clinton was soft, probed to gain advantage from Washington's disarray

The Republican victory in the Congressional elections of 1994 brought...

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