On July 9, in a speech in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a way to improve relations between China and the United States. According to a source close to the Communist Party, his remarks articulated with the view expressed earlier by President Xi Jinping that “cooperation” was the “only choice” for the two nations.
Wang Yi’s idea was that “think tanks in both China and the U.S. would draw up three lists of issues, with the first outlining bilateral and global issues the two countries could work on, and the second detailing issues on which they have disputes but expectations that can be resolved through dialogue. The final list should be of issues that cannot be resolved.”
Then, Mr. Wang intoned, “we should properly manage those disputes and minimize the damage to relations between the two nations.”
What might be those “unresolvable” issues on the third list, where the United States and China should agree to disagree? There is no question that Mr. Wang was referring to China’s egregious violations of human rights, including, inter alia, the incarceration and abuse of as many as 3 million Uighur Muslims; the persecution and torture of Chinese Christians and Falun Gong; the abrogation of China’s international treaty obligations to retain the autonomy of Hong Kong and its freedoms; the jailing and muzzling of dissidents and any daring to voice criticisms of the Chinese Communist regime; and the abject denial of fundamental civil and political rights, like the freedom of expression, to all Chinese citizens.
These are the items Mr. Wang is suggesting to compartmentalize so that they will not interfere with cooperation common global challenges, and bilateral problems like trade relations. What Mr. Wang is really saying is that concerns about human rights are off the table: Whatever else we may compromise on, you can’t take our human rights abuses away from us. And if you want to normalize relations with China, you must give up your concerns about human rights.
Mr. Wang thus wants to delink human rights from other issues, or more precisely, to keep human rights delinked from other policy regions. In fact, for the past four decades, America has largely keep its concerns about China’s human rights abuses compartmentalized from other issues. The U.S. compartmentalization of “competing policy fields” is exactly what China’s foreign minister Wang is advocating for.
At every critical point in the past 40 years of U.S.-China relations, few members of the U.S. scholarly, foreign policy, military and business communities have predicted that China’s behavior would be so troubling as it is today.
Forty-one years ago, when the U.S. and Peoples Republic of China (PRC) first established formal diplomatic ties, 31 years ago in the “trade-human rights” debate in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and 19 years ago, when the U.S. allowed China’s World Trade Organization entry almost without any institutional conditions, they effectively promoted the idea that compartmentalizing human rights so as to bring China into the global economic order would changes its behaviors, and that “normal” trade would lead to democracy, because trade would inevitably result in economic growth and the growth of the middle class, which would in turn demand more political freedom.
After Tiananmen, human rights activists came to Washington and tried to help Congress and China policy makers understand that continuing “normal” trade relations with China, delinked from human rights, would be like a blood transfusion to the Chinese Communist Party regime, making it more aggressive to the detriment of both the American and Chinese peoples.
Unfortunately, our warning largely fell on the deaf ears, and the rest is the history. Today, the members of the U.S. scholarly, foreign policy, military and business communities must have the courage to admit the mistake and the understanding and vision to go about the business differently.
Indeed, the United States, and other countries upholding basic freedoms, need to couple human rights with other issues, and insist that without ceasing its inhumane policies and practices, China can’t have wide access to our markets, and our basic science and technology, and our intellectual property. The United States needs to make it clear that we, as a people, cannot have normal relations with a government that so disrespects its own citizens, our brothers and sisters in China.
The Chinese Communist Party’s arrogance is based, not only on the impression that human rights abuses will be ignored by Western partners, but also on the belief that foreign partners need China so much, that China is in the driver’s seat in international relations and can dictate terms. Indeed, we have become accustomed to access to cheap consumer goods — some created by slave laborers in China. Meanwhile, wasteful materialism has exploded in the West, while our own industrial base has withered.
What is more, almost without serious challenge, China has corrupted the way human rights are conceived in international institutions. Denying the universality of human rights, China embraces a crude cultural relativism justifying the denial of freedom by improvements in the welfare of its 1.5 billion citizens.
In fact, China is a brutally unfair society, with a very weak social safety net. Benefits for those put out of work by the made-in-China COVID-19 pandemic are only $1.7 per week, and 78 million unemployed receive no benefits at all because they work without contracts. Chinese expenditures on health care total only 2% of GDP. (Economist Magazine May 9, 2020).
We in liberal democracies have encouraged China’s brutality, arrogance and aggression — by our greed, moral lassitude and indifference to principles essential to the preservation of our own freedom. Mr. Wang’s proposal will be welcomed by accommodation-minded leaders seeking “peace and stability” by sweeping China’s moral challenges under the rug, and indeed turning a blind eye toward how China is restricting freedoms, not just in China, but in other countries.
To change our posture toward China will require, in the end, a change in our approach toward our own societies. It will require us to examine and clarify our principles and priorities. China’s challenge is, in fact, an opportunity for renewal.
• Yang Jianli is president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and human rights editor of Dissident Magazine.