When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton touches down in Beijing this week she will face an authoritarian Chinese government wringing their hands over a remarkably brazen online petition for human rights and an end to autocratic rule that is circulating among its citizens.
The reason: Charter 08 is the longest sustained human rights campaign in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre 20 years ago this June and continues to spread throughout China despite the government's best attempts.
It was released by Chinese intellectuals, lawyers, and dissidents on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Dec. 10 and has since been signed by over 8,000 ordinary Chinese citizens, who are bravely displaying their names, addresses, and occupations online for all to see, including China's fearsome secret police.
Clinton should capitalize on the momentum created by the charter to promote a responsible human rights agenda. To be sure, much has changed in China since Tiananmen Square.
But, despite progress in realizing social and economic rights and some increases in individual freedoms, China today remains responsible for profound violations of its people's civil and political rights, from restrictions on free expression and religious freedom to detention without trial, torture, excessive use of the death penalty, involuntary resettlement, and forced abortions. In its foreign policy, China often backs repressive regimes around the world, including Sudan and Myanmar (Burma), and waters down international sanctions against them.
America and China's interrelated responsibilities to address climate change are expected to dominate Clinton's conversations with the Chinese. Cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is critical to our bilateral relations and to the health and prosperity of the planet. But China is unlikely to meet its environmental obligations without the accountability provided by democracy and human rights.
In addition to the Tiananmen anniversary, 2009 is also a year of multiple significant political anniversaries as well as the year for China's evaluation under the UN Universal Periodic Review. In fact, the Human Rights Council and several UN member states have called on China to extend to its citizens – especially ethnic minorities, journalists, and human rights defenders – full access to human rights.
In anticipation, the Chinese government has already intensified security. Strong crackdowns against protesters in Tibet have been under way since January. Authors of Charter 08 have been harassed and detained. Beijing police barred organizers of the "20 Year Anniversary of China/Avant-Garde Exhibition" from hosting events, and other Tiananmen-related crackdowns are likely to continue in the coming months as the government attempts to avoid Tiananmen-related "embarrassment."
The Obama administration should not allow these anniversaries – and the human rights values they represent – to go forgotten. Not only does the United States have a moral obligation to confront human rights issues in China, but it is in the best strategic interests of the US to do so. Given the high degree of interdependence between the US and Chinese economies and China's growing military reach, American interests are best served by a stable China with a robust commitment to the rule of law. Those conditions are undermined by a failure to respect human rights.
Recalling her groundbreaking pronouncement as first lady at the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference that "Women's rights are human rights," Clinton should take similar advantage of this week's discussions to persuade China that it will not be able to address these pressing issues successfully if it ignores human rights. The secretary must stress that greater democracy and human rights will be integral to China if it is to be the highly respected global leader it aspires to be.
No one is better placed than Clinton with her international reputation for hard-headedness and high ideals to help China make the connection between greater freedom and respect for the rule of law and more effective government and less civil unrest. Her message should be straightforward: It's a new day in America and can be a new day in US-China relations, but bilateral relations will never be fully harmonious without real progress on human rights.
• William F. Schulz, a senior fellow in human rights policy at the Center for American Progress, is former executive director of Amnesty International USA. Sarah Dreier and Winny Chen are researchers at the center.