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Rebuilding a United Front on China Rights

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The Wall Street Journal,17 May 2011



The U.S. and European Union can push for human rights protections in China if they work together again 


Sensing a shift in tone, media coverage of the recent Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue focused heavily on senior American officials’ increasingly assertive critique of China’s worsening human rights situation. Chinese officials responded mildly, if condescendingly, with Vice Premier Wang Qishan characterizing these criticisms as arising from Americans’ poor understanding of China’s ancient, complex “Oriental” culture.

Despite the U.S. side’s tougher human rights talk and an equally difficult economic context, it is notable that relations between the U.S. and China continued on as before. While commentators concluded the S&ED yielded little concrete progress, both parties heralded the talks as positive.

The European Union-China summitry that followed was a different story. European officials said little or nothing about human rights in public and were reportedly muted in their private criticisms. Nonetheless, their Chinese interlocutors lashed out against interference in China’s internal affairs, using much stronger rhetoric than in response to the American broadsides. Moreover, Sino-European talks failed to avert a volley of trade enforcement actions, initiated by Brussels and quickly responded to by Beijing.

This divergence in U.S. and European approaches, and Chinese responses, is the culmination of a long-standing trend. While the EU’s remonstrations have ticked up a bit in response to the disappearance and detention of dozens of leading dissidents, lawyers, journalists and cultural figures, Beijing has effectively cowed European human rights advocacy through aggressive use of its growing economic and political sway. The convergence of Europe’s expanding economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region with a period of weak American leadership on human rights and democracy promotion exacerbated this disarray.

Trade with China is a key driver of growth for many European economies, including heavyweights Germany, France and the U.K., and the Chinese know it. Beijing has never hesitated to use economic weapons to shut down criticism of its human rights record, but in recent years they have built up a larger and more diverse store of ammunition.

ASSOCIATED PRESSEuropean weakness is repaid with Chinese belligerence.

For example, Beijing imposed a range of punishments on Norway over the December 2010 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, including farcical food safety barriers to the import of Norwegian salmon. Although Norway’s non-membership in the EU and its lucrative oil exports have largely insulated it from Europe’s economic doldrums, its government is nonetheless under intense pressure from domestic producers to make some gesture of apology to Beijing.

Unfortunately the Europeans themselves have inadvertently aided Beijing’s efforts, as EU officials acknowledge when they curse the difficulty of corralling 27 countries. While the challenge of developing a common foreign policy provides an easy excuse, the Europeans have allowed themselves to be pitted against each other economically and bullied into a series of unfortunate compromises on matters of principle. They seemingly have not absorbed the hard lesson that Beijing views such quiescence not as a friendly gesture, but rather as confirmation of their belief that “the West” uses human rights and free trade as political cudgels to contain China.

Ironically, now that Obama administration officials have rediscovered their voice on human rights in China, they are lamenting the absence of reliable European partners. Having ignored previous complaints from human rights groups about the Europeans’ utter lack of backbone and averted official attention from Chinese abuses during the early part of President Obama’s term, the U.S. is now partly to blame for Europe’s chronic weakness as a partner. Even if Europeans suddenly recover the will to stand up to Chinese bullying, the habits of Euro-American cooperation on human rights issues have been weakened by years of neglect.

While the Europeans have to work out the internal dysfunction of their foreign policy process for themselves, there are steps they and the U.S. can take now to rebuild an Atlantic partnership on China human rights issues. These include: intensifying efforts at bilateral consultation and cultivation currently underway; enhancing coordination within multilateral human rights mechanisms; reinvigorating and expanding the human rights coordination mechanism formerly known as the Bern Process; and developing an additional forum to coordinate assistance programs focused on governance, the rule of law, media access (especially broadcasting into China), Tibetan welfare, and other political and rights issues. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a renewed expansion of trade opportunities between the U.S. and Europe would help reduce reliance on Chinese markets for growth.

Neither side can control what Beijing does, but an effective U.S.-led partnership with Europe stands a better chance of exercising influence. Strong and consistent leadership from the U.S. on human rights issues could prod the Europeans to take their human rights responsibility seriously. But the EU will only follow the U.S. into the breach if they are confident the U.S. won’t leave them hanging when Beijing dangles some much-desired deliverable. The U.S. may be able to “lead from behind” on Libya, but it can’t afford to do so in Asia.

Ms. Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank.