US-China Relations: Human Rights v. Cooperation?

by Bret Kincaid

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to China last week clearly illustrated the hard choices often made in foreign relations.  Her primary goal for the visit seemed to be to launch an effort toward economic, environmental, and strategic cooperation.  President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package will certainly need China's support as it continues to buy much of the debt the package will produce.  (Presently, China is the number-one foreign owner of US debt; it owns about $600 billion of the $10 trillion US debt.)  There was some firebrand preaching against human rights abuses, but against North Korea, not China.  Indeed, during her time in China, Clinton made a mere mention of Tibet—and in an almost defeatist tone: "We know we are going to press them to reconsider their position about Tibetan religious and cultural freedom … and we know what they are going to say because I've had those conversations for more than a decade with the Chinese," she said.

China's repressive policies toward Tibetan calls for more autonomy are among a long list of China's human rights violations. (  China is number one in the world in state executions, by far.  China also engages in widespread police torture of detainees and prisoners.  Women, girls, and several minority groups, including some religious groups, are oppressed.  Millions of Chinese citizens have little or no access to effective and fair judicial institutions.  It is no wonder international and human rights organizations first asked Clinton to make human rights a prominent part of her message and then decried her visit when she didn't.  (For a look at a major human rights charter drafted and recently promulgated by Chinese citizens and how China's government responded to it, click here. (

Did Clinton make an appropriate trade off by downplaying human rights in order to cultivate a working relationship with China?  To be fair, Clinton did meet at the US embassy in China with women's rights activists.  And she did attend a state-sanctioned Christian church.  These events issue a subtle but real message that the US cares about human rights and religious freedom in China.  However, the importance and decibel level of this message pales in comparison to the other objectives Clinton emphasized: US-China cooperation on economic, environmental, and strategic issues.  Indeed, China was reportedly "relieved" that Clinton "steered clear" of human rights issues. (

It is obvious that all humans deserve respect from their governments because individuals are made in the image of God.  Respect includes freedom from torture and execution, religious freedom, and enough individual and group autonomy to promote human flourishing, among many other things.  These are goods all humans deserve.  But there are also economic, environmental, and security goods that humans need for human flourishing.  The problem is how to adjudicate properly among these various goods as a state relates to another state who has the power and even inclination to shortchange some goods (like human rights) or link other goods (like buying US debt) to being left alone to do as it wishes relative to still other goods (like human rights)?

As for much foreign policy, there is no formulaic answer.  But there are actions we can expect of our government as it relates to China.

First, we should recognize the great strides China has made in the past 30 years since Mao Zedong died.  For instance, China partially marketized its economy, lifting some 200 million of its people out of poverty in the 1980s.

Second, we should also appreciate the immense challenges China's government has as it governs 1.3 billion people (i.e., 1 out of every 5 people on earth!) who represent a wide range of religious, social, and cultural groups surrounded by a strategically challenging regional neighborhood.

Third, we should be grateful (and therefore act humbly and gratefully) that China thus far has been, on balance, cooperative with the US rather than hostile and menacing toward its allies in Asia.

Fourth, the alternative—denouncing China's human rights violations—would likely undercut cooperative efforts for a long time to come and it certainly wouldn't achieve an improvement in human rights anytime soon.

Still, we should expect the US government to engage in diplomacy that doesn't allow US domestic interests to trump the human rights of Chinese citizens.  The well-being of ALL Chinese citizens, as well as of those impacted by China's policies (as close as Tibet and as far away as Darfur), should always be part and parcel of US expectations of China, and China should feel US pressure accordingly.

Given these expectations, perhaps we can judge Clinton's visit largely a success.  It seemed to kick the ball down the field of US-China cooperation over key issues even while Clinton gently reminded China's government that the US expects it to improve human rights inside its own country. Human rights and cooperation are not necessarily mutually exclusive foreign policy goals. However, the test will be what happens over the next year or two.  If the US continues to downplay China's human rights violations, it will have run aground not only on its own values, but will have let this false trade off undermine its human rights leadership in the world.

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