Human Rights and China
Some human rights groups have expressed consternation at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent comments regarding China and human rights. For example, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Human Rights Program at Trinity College in Connecticut - Sonia Cardenas - recently criticized Secretary Clinton's comments in the International Herald Tribune. Cardenas' views are important given she has studied this topic in some depth - she is the author of the book "Conflict and Compliance: State Responses to International Human Rights Pressure." In her IHT op-ed, she said (emphasis mine, throughout this post):
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have set back the cause of human rights in China when she said on her Asia tour that while the United States will continue to press China on issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and human rights, "our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."
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.
Clinton's defenders would point out that there is nothing new here. The debate over linking human rights and trade preferences, for instance, is longstanding. It was President Bill Clinton, after all, who de-linked the two foreign policy issues in Chinese-U.S. relations in 1994, when China's "most favored nation" status was formally separated from its human rights record.
[...] she went out of her way to downgrade human rights, placing economic, environmental and security relations above the abuse of countless individuals under Chinese rule...
I am sympathetic to Cardenas' general argument about the importance of the United States pressing other countries on human rights issues, regardless of the other aspects of our dealings with those countries. However, a closer examination of this issue suggests that Cardenas was downplaying Secretary Clinton's actual statements, contradicting some of her own past research on China and associated findings on how to accomplish human rights goals, and worse, failed to follow her own advice by offering a compelling approach to China (in her op-ed) that would actually work. Let's consider each of these points in turn.
1. Secretary Clinton's position
Let's start with the full transcript of Secretary Clinton's remarks on 2/20:
QUESTION: : China.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes.
QUESTION: : What do you see as the biggest challenge here, and why is it that there is an impression out there that human rights groups, not just people like us who are (inaudible)?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that everything is part of the agenda for this first visit. We have an opportunity, we hope, to engage with the Chinese on a range of issues. Let me just mention three of them. One is economic crisis. China and the United States are intertwined when it comes to our recovery. We both have undertaken stimulus packages. We both face difficult domestic challenges. And I think there is a lot of room for cooperation, which we are going to be seeking.
Secondly, global climate change. It's one of the reasons why I asked Todd Stern, another envoy that we have appointed, to come on this trip, because so many of the opportunities for clean energy, technology and the like are going to come out of this region of the world. I mean, Japan, South Korea, China are uniquely situated to be part of the answer to the problem of global climate change. How we engage them, particularly China, is going to be an incredibly important part of our diplomatic (inaudible).
And finally, a range of security issues. What will China be willing to do with respect to the Six-Party Talks and their bilateral relationship with North Korea? What's their perspective on Afghanistan and Pakistan where they have not only historical interests, but current commercial and security interests as well? There's a very broad security agenda to discuss with them.
Now, that doesn't mean that questions of Taiwan and Tibet and human rights, the whole range of challenges that we often engage on with the Chinese are not part of the agenda either. But we pretty much know what they're going to say. We know that we're going to press them to reconsider their position about Tibetan religious and cultural freedom, and autonomy for the Tibetans and some kind of recognition or acknowledgment of the Dalai Lama.
And we know what they're going to say, because I've had those conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders. And we know what they're going to say about Taiwan and military sales, and they know what we're going to say.
QUESTION: : So can't you just stipulate that at the beginning?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I mean Matt, there's a certain – I mean, look, there's a certain logic to that. I mean no – I don't mean to in any way to say that we know everything that's going to happen. But successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those.
So I think it's fair to say that I come with a full agenda. But it's also, I think, fair to say we know, kind of, what the dialogue is on these others. We don't know yet how we're going to engage on the global economic crisis and the global climate change crisis and these security issues. So if we talk more about those, it's in large measure because that's where the opportunity for engagement is. And that doesn't mean that we have any lesser concern about the need for China to be more willing to recognize and protect the human rights of people, from free speech and freedom of religion to everything else.
Here is what David Rothkopf had to say at Foreign Policy (a partial extract):
Her openness generated criticism on several fronts. Glen Kessler's piece in Monday's Washington Post notes that human rights activists were unhappy that she observed that while she would raise human rights issues with the Chinese, she knew what their practiced response would be...
She did not say she would not raise the issue. (Indeed meeting to promote gender equality or visiting a church was dealing in important ways with critical human rights concerns.) But she did soundly seek to advance the national interests in terms of economic collaboration and working together on climate issues where she could. Similarly, her comments about the failure of sanctions in Burma or the questions associated with succession in North Korea were consonant with the kind of openness and directness that has won kudos for President Obama, and they indicated a desire to deal with real problems and not to engage in the useless kabuki theater of diplomacy where it is counterproductive.
This is was plain-speaking, deft diplomacy. Her point that the United States and China would rise or fall together recognizes that the core superpower relationship of the 21st Century is not the zero-sum game of the Cold War years but requires a new doctrine of interdependency that recognizes the challenges and imperatives associated with the fact that our most vital partner on many issues may be a vexing rival on others.
In a follow-up Q&A session on 2/21 in the presence of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, here is what Secretary Clinton said:
[CLINTON]....In engaging China on a broad range of challenges, we will have frank discussions on issues where we have disagreements, including human rights, Tibet, religious freedom, and freedom of expression. The promotion of human rights is an essential aspect of our global foreign policy, and something we discussed candidly with the Chinese leadership.
QUESTION: Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. Secretary Clinton, in 1995, here in Beijing you gave a speech which, at the time, was regarded as the strongest criticism of China's human rights record by a visiting foreign dignitary. It made you something of a hero, both to Chinese human rights activists and their families, as well as in the international human rights community.
Yesterday you told us that, while you would raise human rights, it could not be allowed to interfere with other priorities, like the financial crisis, and climate change, and security issues like North Korea.
How do you answer critics who have already responded to yesterday's comments, suggesting that they are a betrayal of the stand that you took in 1995, and that, as a practical matter, they undermine such leverage, as the United States may have with China on human rights?
And, Foreign Minister Yang, what was your response to Secretary Clinton's remarks of yesterday? Do they strike you as perhaps a more pragmatic and mature approach on the part of the United States to human rights in China?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as I have said, the promotion of human rights is an essential aspect of U.S. global foreign policy. I have raised the issue on every stop on this trip, and have done so here, in my conversations with the foreign minister. Our candid discussions are part of our approach, and human rights is part of our comprehensive agenda.
At least as important in building respect for and making progress on human rights are the efforts of civil society institutions, NGOs, women's groups, academic institutions, and we support those efforts. And I have highlighted their good work in each capital I have visited, and I will do so here, as well, tomorrow.
FOREIGN MINISTER YANG: (Via interpreter.) In my talks with Secretary Clinton today, we covered a wide range of areas, including human rights. I said that, given our differences in history, social system, and culture, it is only natural that our two countries may have some different views on human rights.
But I also said that it is the commitment of the Chinese government to continue to engage in human rights dialogues with the United States on the basis of equality and non-interference in each other's internal affairs, to increase our mutual understanding, narrow differences, and work together to advance the cause of human rights. Though these days it's a bit chilly in Beijing, but I have confidence that you will see the biggest number of smiling faces here.
It is provided for in China's constitution that the state respects and protects human rights. The Chinese government attaches great importance to ensuring the basic human rights of its people, and their freedom of religious belief. We are ready to engage in exchanges and contacts with all other countries to promote human rights. Thank you.
So, you can make up your mind on how to interpret Secretary Clinton's position, but at the minimum it is more nuanced than what Cardenas portrayed her position to be.
2. Impact of Past Human Rights Pressure on China
It is instructive to note the Chinese Foreign Minister's response extolling the importance of human rights - but not for the reasons you think. In fact, in the Introduction section of her own book,, Cardenas pointed out explicitly why China is a difficult challenge when it comes to human rights enforcement. She discussed what happened after strong international criticism of Chinese actions in 1989 at Tiananmen Square:
...The Chinese leadership responded to this pressure with a mixed array of strategies. First, it rejected international pressure verbally, arguing that such pressure constituted interference in its internal affairs. At the same time, it complied symbolically in both its rhetoric and its gestures: for the first time, the Chinese government acknowledged the importance of human rights norms, while defending its rights record and promising improvements; it admitted foreign delegates to discuss human rights concerns; and it released some political dissidents. At the level of actual compliance, however, there was a rise [italics in original] in the level of repression, including thousands of political detentions, and a sharp increase in state executions. 
In other words, a firestorm of international criticism over its human rights violations was followed by an increase in Chinese violations of human rights norms.
Later in the introduction, she added:
As the China example illustrates, governments often commit publicly to an international norm, showing leniency in a particular case or even implementing international norms, at the same time that they proceed to violate these norms.
Reading her op-ed, however, one would not come to know that China falls into the bucket of countries that cannot be persuaded to change in a meaningful way using firm or even harsh words or "human rights pressure".
3. Human Rights Pressure and Customizing Policy
What's more, the synopsis of Cardenas' book has this to say:
International human rights pressure has been applied to numerous states with varying results. In Conflict and Compliance, Sonia Cardenas examines responses to such pressure and challenges conventional views of the reasons states do—or do not—comply with international law. Data from disparate bodies of research suggest that more pressure to comply with human rights standards is not necessarily more effective and that international policies are more efficient when they target the root causes of state oppression.
Emilie Hafner-Burton wrote a book review of Cardenas' book in which she said:
Compliance is not an “all-or-nothing” affair (p. 1). It is a multifaceted process – a collage of choices and actions that takes different shapes in different environments, distinguished by acts of norm commitment or avoidance and, quite separately, acts of norm fulfillment or violation. Where norms collide, Cardenas explains that international and domestic human rights pressures can have both direct and indirect effects on the practices of states. They can lead directly to more commitments or indirectly to fewer violations, but only if certain conditions are met. “The greater any apparent threats to national security, the stronger the pro-violations constituencies, and the more deeply entrenched the rules of exception, the less likely that any actor can transform readily a state’s interest in breaking international norms” (p. 31). Which norms survive the battle is not determined by who is most committed. And deciding who won the battle is usually harder than it looks – states often create the appearance of compliance without actually complying (p. 97).
What should a smart policy maker do? She should encourage states to take on commitments to global norms protecting human rights but not take their responses at face value – states are full of trickery when it comes to putting the norms into effect. And she should customize international pressures to fit the domestic conditions of the problem state.
With all of the above context added, you can imagine my sheer disappointment with Cardenas' op-ed.
First, it downplayed Secretary Clinton's nuanced position - a position that can reasonably be interpreted as heeding what is historically known about China's behaviors and its responses to human rights pressure.
Second, it failed to acknowledge what Cardenas has stated in her own book vis-a-vis China, namely, that even with the most intense international pressure after the Tiananmen Square incident, China's public claims of supporting human rights were actually belied by their actual actions - which were marked by an increase in state repression and reduced human rights.
Third, it failed to heed Cardenas' own advice that the U.S. should customize foreign policy to the state in question - in this case China. After all, her op-ed had nothing prescriptive in it specifying how Secretary Clinton should specifically tailor our human rights approach to China in a way that would generate actual results as opposed to feel-good talk.
Fourth, her op-ed stated, in a somewhat misleading fashion that:
Further evidence suggests that human rights pressure - not just dialogue - is essential for eventual reform. In fact, some research indicates that the consistency of applying human rights pressure, even at the level of rhetoric, is more important than the intensity of pressure applied.
Such pressures lead governments to make concessions, which in turn can empower groups to mobilize and demand further change, occasionally setting in motion a longer term dynamic of gradual reform. All told, there are both principled and pragmatic reasons to promote human rights seriously in foreign policy.
I call this a bit misleading because it fails to acknowledge what she has pointed out in her own book, that this type of generic approach is not necessarily particularly effective in many cases, including China.
Fifth, she fails to note that Secretary Clinton's position is fairly aligned with her boiler-plate prescription of continuing to exert human rights pressure, and especially dialogue - which is exactly what Secretary Clinton has promised.
A final point. China is in a very different league from most other nations that might succumb to pressure on human rights using economic means. In their paper "The Cost of Shame: International Organizations, Foreign Aid, and Human Rights Norms Enforcement", James H. Lebovic and Erik Voeten observed that:
The evidence is that UNCHR resolutions have no impact on aggregate bilateral aid but have a substantial effect on multilateral aid. Indeed, we estimate that a public UNCHR resolution condemning the human rights performance of a government costs it slightly more than $2 per capita in World Bank aid – amounting to a more than one-third reduction in World Bank aid.
Anyone want to guess whether the World Bank, the IMF or the U.S. is about to impose severe economic strictures on China, even if there are massive human rights violations within China that puts its international reputation at stake? The fact is that the U.S., especially after the horrible Bush era with untold human rights violations, is in a very weak position to be lecturing other countries, especially China, on human rights. Moreover, China today is even more powerful than it was in the 1980s and 1990s and it has been keeping other countries and their economies afloat - including that of the United States. In this scenario, advocating boiler-plate and extraordinary weak measures that have been shown to not work in the past, without identifying more specific solutions that might actually work with China is disappointing to say the least. I agree that Secretary Clinton should continue to press China on human rights, but I have to say I am underwhelmed by some of these experts who claim to know better than her on how to deal with China.