As the annual congressional debate on China's human rights record begins, it's worth noting that China is not the only country where the political opposition is harassed, imprisoned, or worse. So why do Americans rivet their attention on China and give Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, to name a few, a relatively free ride?
Answers aren't hard to find. Americans have felt a special affection for China ever since the clipper ship era in the 19th century, when Chinese porcelain and silk became the rage in the United States. More than a century later, we cheered Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during his 1979 ride around the ring of a Texas rodeo. Through all these years, the Confucian model has fascinated Americans, and the splendor and durability of Chinese culture have been much admired.
Precisely because the fascination with China is so strong, American praise and criticism often reach extremes. Today, Congress, the press, and human rights interest groups are asserting loudly and often that China is not living up to accepted standards of international behavior. The Chinese government, pointing to substantial improvements since 1979, is showing its resentment at being shamed before a watching world.
These emotional exchanges run counter to the interests of both governments, whose ability to maintain productive relations is key to peace and stability in Asia. The charged atmosphere also sharpens already serious disputes over Taiwan, intellectual- property rights, arms sales, and transfers of nuclear technology. More important, the charges and counter-charges have raised doubts in China about Washington's commitment to a "one-China" policy and have provided an opening for revisionists in the US.
The congressional debate now beginning also shows how differing political priorities can block consideration of long-term national interests. Republicans want to damage the president, and many Democrats hold that the United States-China relationship hinges on human rights issues. President Clinton, facing an electorate in a sour mood, is reluctant to appear "soft" on China, especially since he once accused George Bush of coddling Chinese leaders.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin, navigating in an uneasy transition to a new era of consensus leadership, is reluctant to appear soft on Washington, fearing attacks from hard-liners who want his job in Beijing. Under these circumstances, managing the human rights issue satisfactorily is a challenge to both countries.
Founding Fathers' example
American history provides a good starting point in searching for a workable approach. Our Founding Fathers believed that the US should act as a beacon lighting the way for others. They did not believe in telling other countries how to act. Instead, as Benjamin Franklin said, a good example is the best sermon.
Thomas Jefferson would have scoffed at the 1976 law, which requires the State Department to prepare annual reports on human rights around the world. Theodore Roosevelt echoed the founders' objective, and John F. Kennedy, while asserting that we oppose "the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed," was careful not to subordinate national-security interests to disputes over human rights.
Until the Carter administration, human rights were generally discussed in government-to-government channels, where steady pressure was applied away from the glare of publicity.
Even Jimmy Carter, the first president in American history to place human rights in the forefront of relations with other countries, found that it was necessary to create a special group, headed by then-Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to protect vital third-world relationships from being dangerously weakened by a preoccupation with human rights.
Applying these lessons would help restore balance to the human rights dialogue with China, returning it to diplomatic channels where it belongs and depending more on quiet pressure. There is little to be gained and much to be lost by continuing to treat human rights as a high-profile public issue and forgetting that our national interests require productive relations with China.
Human rights advocates should also weigh gains from China's fast economic growth against losses from slow human rights improvements. Tripling per capita income between 1979 and 1995 in the world's most populous country is an immense achievement, bringing adequate food, clothing, and shelter to tens of millions of Chinese.
Regrettably, China's dissidents have paid a heavy price, and China's callous public posture toward them has deepened that crisis. Over time, however, rapid growth is more likely than public denunciations to moderate authoritarian policies in Beijing, as it has elsewhere in Asia.
My impression, based on having lived in Beijing in the late 1970s and having returned there regularly since then, is that observance of human rights in China and tolerance of criticism of the government have increased remarkably.
Many Americans who regularly visit China and speak the language echo this view. Although the foreign press rarely writes about these developments, the changes are obvious to anyone willing to view China with an open mind.
Human rights advocates must recognize that despite different priorities, the United States and China need each other. The interests of both countries are at stake in maintaining stability in Asia, as the crisis in the Taiwan Strait shows. Both sides want strong bilateral economic relations.
Such coincident interests underscore the necessity of managing differences over human rights without jeopardizing the entire relationship. Washington has learned to do this with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, and it needs to learn to do the same with China. America's founders would not have humiliated China in public over human rights issues. We should not either.