Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How to Promote Human Rights in China?

The Center for American Progress, one of the Washington think tanks I respect the most, has issued a new report on the promotion of human rights in China, entitled Strategic Persistence: How the United States Can Help Improve Human Rights in China. The report was written by William Schulz, a senior fellow at CAP who was formerly executive director of Amnesty International.

The report contains an overall assessment of the human rights situation in China, and offers some detailed recommendations about how the U.S. government, business, and non-governmental organizations can promote human rights there. But to me, the most important and persuasive part of the report is the overall strategy that Schulz believes should underpin American policy on the subject.

Schulz begins by underscoring two key assumptions:

  • First, our leverage to force China to advance human rights and democracy is limited. Our “sticks” are relatively weak and counterproductive. This was already demonstrated after the Tiananmen Crisis of 1989, when we tried but failed to use trade policy to force improvements in China’s human rights record, but then backed down when in essence Beijing called our bluff. The lack of leverage, and the cost of trying to exercise it, would be even greater today.
  • And second, the growth in the various elements of China’s national power, and the emergence of a wide range of transnational issues in a globalized world, means that the agenda between the two countries is far longer than ever before. No longer can we focus entirely on the traditional trinity of trade, Taiwan, and human rights. We now must address a far greater range of bilateral, regional, and international issues now than we did twenty years ago, and we need China’s cooperation if we are to manage those issues successfully.

Still, as Schulz points out, the promotion of human rights remains an important American objective, for both moral reasons and practical ones. We want Chinese, like all people, to enjoy rights that we regard as inherent and inalienable, and that are now enshrined in several international legal conventions that China has signed and ratified. Violations of human rights undermine the Chinese business climate: they are a potential source of political instability, can reduce the government’s responsiveness to economic and social problems, and can produce reputational risks for firms operating there. As Schulz points out, China’s domestic policy on human rights is correlated with Beijing’s reluctance to criticize human rights violations by repressive regimes in the Third World, let alone to accept the principle of humanitarian intervention.

Of course, democratization will not solve all America’s international problems. I don’t agree with the former Clinton administration’s position that democracies inevitably make better trading partners and agree with the United States on key international issues. That’s an exaggeration, as our trade disputes with Japan and the disagreements with our European allies over Iraq have so amply demonstrated. But while all good things do not necessarily go together in the real world, promoting human rights will remain, and should remain, an American foreign policy objective.

How then to promote human rights in the new context, in which America needs Beijing’s cooperation on a variety of international issues and America has limited leverage over the human rights situation in China? Here again I agree with the principal conclusions of the CAP report. Putting them in my own words, and occasionally adding my own gloss, I would summarize them as follows:

  • We should focus on supporting positive developments, working with both Chinese government agencies and with civil society where it is possible to move forward. But I don’t see this as a choice of “carrots” over “sticks,” as the CAP report does. Describing this policy as offering China “carrots” might imply paying the Chinese government to do something they would not otherwise do. Rather, we would be providing funds and technical assistance to enable the Chinese government and China’s emerging civil society to conduct reforms that they already want to undertake, and encourage them to take those reforms one step further.
  • We should continue to make candid assessments of China’s human rights situation, through such mechanisms as the annual State Department human rights report. But in so doing we need a broad definition of that subject. Civil and political rights, as Schulz points out, are not conterminous with democracy. Indeed, the attainment of these two objectives will almost certainly occur on quite different time scales, the first sooner than the second. Furthermore, internationally protected human rights include economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights. Poverty alleviation is as worthy an objective – and as admirable an achievement -- as democracy promotion. Relatedly, those assessments should also be well-informed and well-balanced, acknowledging positive developments as well criticizing as negative ones. One-sided critiques of China’s human rights violations will have little credibility, either in China or in third countries.
  • Our approach to promoting human rights in China should be as multilateral as possible. This means working with our allies to present a common front on the issue, and pressing the UN Human Rights Council to look objectively at China’s human rights record. Working through multilateral channels will be frustrating at some times, as in the recent Universal Periodic Review of China conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, where China rejected a large number of the recommendations submitted by democratic states. Multilateral mechanisms are unlikely to be any more effective at forcing change in China than are measures taken unilaterally by the United States. But sometimes they will have an impact, as when dockworkers in several African countries refused to offload Chinese weapons destined for Zimbabwe. And working multilaterally demonstrates that concern with human rights is not simply a unique American preoccupation, and that America’s assessments of China’s human rights record reflect not just American preferences, but widely shared norms.
  • Businesses should also promote human rights, in part by raising questions about the operational and reputational risks associated with working business in countries that violate them, and above all by doing no harm when conducting business there – with regard both to how they treat their own workers, and to whether they sell the Chinese government equipment (such as police surveillance equipment) that can be used to violate human rights of Chinese citizens.
  • Perhaps most important, as the emphasis changes from threats of sanction to offers of assistance, the focus will also shift from the role of government to the role of NGOs. NGOs can better perform both the critical and cooperative functions outlined above. Compared with governments, they are under fewer obligations to weigh other factors in their approach to China. While they should also be objective and well-balanced, as advocacy organizations they can also be blunt and outspoken. And, also compared with governments, NGOs that operate in China are in a better position to promote positive developments inside that country, albeit perhaps with financial assistance from governments and international organizations.

CAP’s call for “strategic persistence” on human rights is a modest prescription that carries no guarantee of short-term success. But it is a realistic one, based on the acknowledgement that the more can be achieved by encouraging positive developments and by offering candid but objective criticisms of negative ones than by threatening sanctions that will be costly, ineffective, and possibly counterproductive.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Will Australia Have to Choose Between the US and China?

I mentioned in an earlier blog the Australian concern that the balance of power in Asia might be shifting away from Australia’s ally, the United States, and toward China, a country that many Australians still mistrust. I noted that this was one of the two issues that I was most frequently asked about during my visit to Australia at the end of last year. The second, which I have not yet had time to write about, was closely related to it: will Australia ever be forced to choose between China and the United States?

Here, the question is just as interesting as the answer, because it says much about Australian history, and the ways in which the present situation Australia faces are both familiar and unprecedented.

The familiar aspect of Australia’s present international situation is the Australian perception that is a relatively small country, whose larger neighbors cannot entirely be trusted, and which therefore needs a stronger ally, necessarily at a distance. Until World War II, that ally was Britain; since World War II, that ally has been the United States.

These alliances have been in some ways comfortable to Australia. Britain was the previous colonial power, and then British monarch remained Australia’s head of state after Australia achieved independence. The United States shares many common values with Australia, and common historical links to Great Britain.

However, no matter whether it was Britain or America that served as Australia’s ally, Australia has always appeared to fear abandonment – that is, that the stronger ally would desert it in a time of need. Perhaps this has been a result of the geographical distances between Australia and its ally, or because of Australia’s peripheral strategic location, which might make the ally less inclined to defend it.

One way that Australia tried to cope with this risk was to demonstrate its fidelity to its ally, repeatedly and at considerable cost.

One only has to visit the Australian War Memorial in Canberra – one of the world’s most remarkable military museums – to have that point brought home. From the Sudan in the 1850s and the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, through two world wars, through Korea and Vietnam, and now down to Iraq and Afghanistan, Australians fought, with great heroism and sacrifice, alongside their stronger allies, even though Australia itself had not been attacked. (To be sure, Australia was attacked by the Japanese during World War II, but only several years after it had already declared war on Germany in 1939.)

To some degree, when the stronger ally was Great Britain, the ties to a common monarchy appeared to require this. In Australia’s declaration of war in 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, the prime minister of the time, Robert Menzies, explained his decision extraordinarily concisely: “Great Britain has declared war on [Germany], and as a result Australia is also at war.” But legalities aside, the main motivation was to show faithfulness to Australia’s principal security guarantor, in the expectation that such fealty would be rewarded in the event of a threat to Australia.

When applied to the present situation, Australia’s concern is therefore that, if the United States got into a conflict with China over Taiwan, American would expect Australia to come to its aid, and that Australia would feel obliged to do so. Faced with a conflict between the two great powers of the region, Australia would be faced with an awkward choice: remain loyal to its ally, or avoid any commitments to that ally in order to avoid hostilities with a very powerful neighbor.

And that leads to the second historical comparison: the one that is unprecedented for Australia. In the past, Australia’s two major allies – the United Kingdom and the United States – were simultaneously Australia’s biggest trading partners. That is no longer true. China is now Australia’s largest trading partner, because of its large and growing imports of raw materials from Australia. To choose between China and the United States is not just a choice between war and peace, or between accommodating a potential enemy and remaining loyal to an ally, but also a choice between one’s most important strategic partner and one’s most important commercial partner.

Of course Americans can reassure Australians that China and the United States share a powerful common interest in avoiding conflict or confrontation, certainly on a scale that would involve allies like Australia. Thus, the apparent necessity to choose is most likely a false dilemma.

Still, this question does raise yet again a difference between the ways in which Americans and Asians think about the region. To Americans, the biggest question concerns the strategic implications of the rise of China. To most Asians, the most important question is the likely American response to that development.

To Americans, in other words, the issue of greatest concern is the future of China; to Asians, in contrast, the issue of greatest concern is the future of the U.S.-China relationship. And given Australia's long-standing tradition of loyalty to its allies, that issue is of particularly great interest.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

China's Perception of Obama

This blog is drawn, with slight modifications, from a posting that appeared on the Asia Foundation's blogsite, In Asia (http://asiafoundation.org/in-asia)

- - -

I was recently asked to describe how the Chinese have assessed the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Their assessment has evolved somewhat over time, and can be divided into three stages: the campaign, the transition, and the (still very young) post-inaugural period. For each, we can consider both official and unofficial Chinese opinion. The latter, some of which appears in the Chinese press and on Chinese blogs, provides useful supplement – and sometimes, an interesting contrast – with more official statements and commentary.

The Campaign

During the campaign, the Chinese officially said little that would hint towards a preference among the three major candidates: John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The Chinese generally like continuity of leadership in the U.S. They prefer leaders they know, who have already been converted from an initial skepticism about China to a commitment to a reasonably close working relationship. This was the case with President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. This election year, however, there was no incumbent and all the leading candidates ran on platforms promising significant change.

But, of all the candidates, they knew Hillary Clinton best. Yet Clinton worried them as well, since the Chinese were not confident that she had overcome her critical views of China’s human rights records, especially with regard to women and Tibetans, to the same degree her husband appeared to have done. And some of her statements on trade issues during the latter stages of the campaign, especially as she fought to save her candidacy in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, appeared to reflect a high level of protectionist sentiment.

The Chinese also generally prefer Republicans to Democrats, largely because the presidents they have worked with most closely – George W. Bush, his father before him, and especially Richard Nixon – have been Republicans. They also fear that, compared with Republicans, Democrats are more likely to criticize China’s human rights record, and represent protectionist sentiments within American society. But the Chinese were considerably concerned about candidate John McCain. McCain did not focus on human rights or trade issues, but he had called for the creation of a “League of Democracies” that might not only exclude China, but also serve as an alternative to the United Nations for legitimating American foreign policy initiatives, which might include sanctions and humanitarian intervention. McCain also favored the deployment of an American ballistic missile defense system, and explicitly stated that one of its targets would be China’s strategic capability.

In spite of those concerns, although the Chinese never expressed a clear preference, based on their traditional criteria, Barack Obama would probably have been their last choice: a Democratic candidate who had never visited China, with whom Chinese had few personal ties, and who promised the greatest degree of change in both American domestic and foreign policy.

Chinese outside of government had their own views of Obama, which seem to have gone through an intriguing evolution as the campaign proceeded. Like much of the rest of the world – and like many Americans — Chinese were intrigued about the possibility that an African-American might actually be elected president of the United States. At first, some actually appeared to think that this was sign of American weakness – even of the decay of the American political system. But as they learned more about Obama and his background – the fact that he had been educated at Columbia and Harvard, that he was highly intelligent and extremely articulate, and that his policy positions placed him in the middle of the political spectrum rather on the extreme – reservations turned to admiration. Many ordinary Chinese, especially those sympathetic to the United States, reacted to Obama’s election with admiration, and even joy. Many thought that it reflected the openness of American society and the responsibility of the U.S. political system. As one friend wrote me just after the election, they felt it showed what “a great country” the United States is.

The Transition

Faced with the fact that America had elected the candidate they knew least, and about whom they had some of the greatest reservations, the Chinese then had to prepare themselves for the inauguration. Not only did Chinese officials and the official Chinese media express their desire to continue a cooperative relationship with the United States, but they also presented several reasons why they were confident such a development would occur.

Restating a key theme in Chinese analysis of U.S.-China relations since 1980, well-connected Chinese scholars said that the desire for cooperative engagement with China has consistently been mainstream American policy. Even those presidents who had campaigned against that policy or for other fundamental changes in American relations with Beijing – presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — had eventually changed their minds after a relatively short time in office. Even if Barack Obama were to adopt a tougher American line toward Beijing, that would be unlikely to endure.

This time, this was especially true because of the growing economic interdependence between the two countries. Especially during the present global financial crisis, that interdependence, and the importance of the two economies, would make cooperation essential. The growing list of transnational issues in which the two countries had a stake – terrorism, proliferation, energy security, and climate change – also appeared to Chinese analysts to be a powerful factor promoting a cooperative and stable relationship.

In this election especially, China had not been a major campaign issue. That in itself was reassuring to the Chinese, since it reduced the chances that the newly elected president would adopt a more hostile or critical approach to Beijing, even temporarily. And of the three major candidates, Obama had appeared marginally less protectionist than Clinton, and certainly did not support McCain’s positions on ballistic missile defense and a league of democracies

Finally, although Chinese had often expressed a greater degree of comfort with Republican presidents, some officials began to acknowledge the contributions of Democratic presidents to the U.S.-China relationship. It was Jimmy Carter who had actually completed the task of normalizing the relationship; and it was Bill Clinton, despite his original threat to remove China’s Most-Favored-Nation trading status, who had negotiated China’s membership in the World Trade Organization and who had secured permanent normal trade relations for Beijing.


It has been just a couple of weeks since the inauguration of Barack Obama, but some Chinese are now expressing some signs of concern about the new president’s intentions toward their country.
Obama’s inaugural speech did not contain any explicit reference to China, and thus did not include a commitment to continue a cooperative relationship between Washington and Beijing, as some Chinese may have hoped. Instead, it referred to the successful American struggle against fascism and communism under earlier administrations, and then talked critically about those governments that “suppress dissent” and are on the “wrong side of history.”

It is not at all clear to me that these passages were intended to refer to China. And yet, it is true that the phrase “the wrong side of history” had been used by Bill Clinton, in a meeting with Jiang Zemin, to refer to China’s policy toward Tibet. If Barack Obama and his speechwriters did not remember that reference, Chinese analysts most certainly did.

Of even greater concern were the written responses to questions about the currency question made by Timothy Geithner during his Senate confirmation hearings after his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. Geithner’s answer included the sentence that “President Obama – backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency,” implying to some that the Treasury Department would cite China as a currency manipulator in its next semi-annual review of the question. Also, they feared that the new administration would support some kind of legislation that would impose sanctions against China and presumably other countries who had been found to be manipulating their currency.

In fact, Geithner’s full answers qualified that particular sentence in important ways. He said that, in the short run, the most important economic challenge facing the two countries was not addressing the value of the renminbi, but rather coordinating stimulus packages that could promote the recovery of the global economy. And, over the longer term, the issue again was not necessarily currency value, but rather the underlying need to encourage China’s shift away toward consumption-led growth (and, by implication, away from export- or investment-led growth). When and if the U.S. did raise the currency issue, Geithner carefully quoted Obama’s campaign statements that he would “use aggressively all the diplomatic avenues open to him to seek change in China’s currency practices,” wording that did not necessarily imply the use of countervailing duties or other sanctions, and even raised the question of “how and when to broach the subject in order to do more good than harm.” But it was the opening sentence, not the subsequent qualifications, that attracted most attention both in the U.S. and in China.

At a minimum, therefore, these two statements – Obama’s inaugural address and Geithner’s confirmation testimony – were somewhat ambiguous about the new administration’s approach to China. The explicit official responses – as during the transition period – have been largely optimistic. Both Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Zhou Enzhong, continue to express their hope for a stable and cooperative U.S.-China relationship. But there have also been indications of concern, particularly from unofficial observeers.

Obama's inaugural speech contained elements that were worrisome both to both Chinese officials and to Chinese analysts in universities and think tanks. Deleted from Chinese broadcasts of Obama’s inaugural speech and from the transcripts in the official Chinese media were the passages about America contributing to the end of communism, and to authoritarian regimes standing on the “wrong side of history.” Interestingly, too, some Chinese analysts have referred to yet other aspects of the inaugural address that they regard as negative. China Daily carried an article that criticized Obama’s reassertion of American global leadership in his inaugural address, commenting caustically that “U.S. leaders have never been shy of talking about their country’s ambition to be the leader of the world. For them, it is a divinely granted destiny no matter what other nations think.”

Geithner's testimony at his confirmation hearings aroused even greater concern. One prominent Chinese specialist on U.S.-China relations was quoted as saying that Geithner’s comments on currency manipulation reflected a lack of “maturity,” while a Chinese central bank official warned that a finding that confirmed China manipulated the value of the renminbi would obstruct cooperation on what Geithner had acknowledged to be the more immediate issue: cooperation on managing the global financial crisis.

But Chinese observers have reserved most of their venom for the charges in American commentary – now heard with increasing frequency – that the high Chinese savings rate, the high Chinese foreign exchange reserves, or both, provided the liquidity that produced the asset bubble that lay at the bottom of the global financial crisis. Xinhua’s reaction was typical: “The high savings rate in emerging markets is not a reason for developed countries to loosen financial regulation and look on, arms folded, as financial institutions develop new derivatives and let financial bubbles balloon. The reasons for the current financial crisis lie in excessive consumption, high indebtedness, and lack of financial regulation.” These comments were echoed more recently, although a bit more indirectly, by Premier Wen Jiabao in remarks made at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos. Chinese appear concerned that this analysis lies behind the Obama Administration's apparent determination to place more pressure on China to revalue the renminbi.


In short, Chinese observers are viewing the incoming Obama Administration with some apprehension. Officials have been more reserved in their expressions of concern than have analysts, but in general the Chinese reaction has contained three themes: (1) worry that the Obama Administration will take a harder line on trade and human rights; (2) disappointment that it has not expressed a clearer desire for a cooperative relationship with China and has not assigned higher priority to its relations with Beijing; but (3) confidence that ultimately the Obama Administration will realize that America's relationship with China is so important that cooperation with Beijing will be necessary.