The Right Way to Pressure Beijing

Human rights groups are rightly outraged about China’s abysmal record. But it is foolhardy to treat a rising superpower like a tin-pot dictatorship.

Editor’s note: Given the recent tragic events in China, it is all the more important that the United States takes the appropriate track in working with the Chinese on human rights issues.

The following article is reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy Copyright 2008, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When the U.S. Congress recently passed a resolution calling on Beijing to end its repression of dissent in Tibet and open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, a Chinese spokesperson declared that the resolution had “seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Nor was this the first time the Chinese had expressed emotional distress at some political gesture. Everyone from the Icelandic singer Björk, who shouted “Tibet! Tibet!” at the end of a concert in Shanghai, to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who met with the Dalai Lama in Ottawa, has been accused of hurting the feelings of the Chinese. Indeed, the Chinese might be the only people who regard the rantings of CNN’s Jack Cafferty, who referred to the Chinese government as “goons and thugs,” as worth taking seriously. Nerves this sensitive bespeak either a severe case of adolescent angst or a revealing insight into national character, or both. It is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin or Robert Mugabe, or George W. Bush for that matter, confessing to having hurt feelings about anything, much less the kind of symbolic ephemera that seem to regularly rile the Chinese.

That the Chinese take symbolism so seriously, however, provides a rare opening for those who care about human rights. There are, after all, only a limited number of ways in which human rights groups or Western governments can influence China on civil and political rights. Formal diplomatic entreaties usually yield shallow results. Trying to isolate the world’s most populous country is not an option. Economic sanctions that worked against apartheid South Africa and maintain at least nominal pressure on countries such as Burma and Zimbabwe would be fruitless against the world’s second-largest economy. Military intervention to stop human rights violations is unthinkable.

All of this is enormously frustrating to those human rights advocates who want to see maximum pressure applied to a country that stifles political dissent; commonly resorts to torture; has imprisoned tens of thousands without due process; harasses its Tibetan and Uighur minorities, sometimes brutally; and executes thousands every year, frequently for petty crimes. Students for a Free Tibet, for example, calls for a boycott of all goods made in China. But it is foolish to think we can approach a nuclear power or a country with worldwide economic reach in the same way we do a tin-pot dictatorship or a fragile developing country. That is not to say that human rights standards ought to differ from country to country. Torture is torture whether committed in Lhasa or Abu Ghraib. But smart strategists always take into account the relative strengths and weaknesses of their targets and calibrate their strategies accordingly. It is savvy, not hypocrisy, to call for a different approach to China than we take toward Belarus or Sudan.

The fact that harder-edged sanctions are impractical when it comes to China does not mean that the only alternative is “quiet diplomacy,” which is too often code for diplomatic quietism. Nor does it mean that we must wait for economic growth to produce a middle class large and vocal enough to demand its rights. Quite apart from the fact that such a strategy countenances years, if not decades, of untold suffering, no one has yet shown that economic growth by itself will magically usher in the necessary political change. Were that the case, apartheid-era South Africa with its robust GNP would have been a model of human rights virtue.

Despite its ancient roots, China is a mere teenager on the world stage. The appropriate response is to ignore much of Beijing’s ranting, draw red lines beyond which China may not go without suffering serious consequences (as the United States has done at least implicitly regarding an attack on Taiwan or widespread massacre of minority groups or dissidents), and use incentives and disincentives in a sophisticated way, providing a measured response to misbehavior that keeps the pressure on without generating a self-defeating backlash.

This last part is, of course, the most difficult. But targeted pressure around the Olympics has already produced more Chinese engagement in the Darfur crisis than years of pleading. That several heads of state have canceled plans to attend the opening ceremonies might have discouraged an even more brutal response in Tibet than would otherwise have been the case. (The Chinese government has even agreed to open talks with the Dalai Lama, though how substantive they will be remains to be seen.) The possibility of additional cancellations and protests could spur at least a temporary easing of Chinese intransigence. A boycott of the games themselves, on the other hand, would very likely be counterproductive and generate enormous resentment among Chinese citizens. Adolescents need discipline, it’s true, but they can become obstinate if they perceive themselves to be treated with disdain.

What is the appropriate tack to take? The most successful human rights engagement with China—such as that of John Kamm, a former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong who has intervened on behalf of hundreds of political prisoners—is characterized by what one might call respectful tenaciousness. Trying to crack Chinese Internet censorship or highlighting the cases of those mistreated for seeking to advance the rule of law or exercise free speech, for instance, is always appropriate. But so is applauding China’s attempts to control corruption or experiment with local elections.

Effective human rights work requires two things. First, it requires a tragic sense of history—a recognition that, no matter what we do, we will never be able to save everyone from misery or suffering. Sometimes, for example, despite its immense power and resources, the U. S. government’s own ability to influence human rights is limited, and its willingness to do so in a bold way is compromised by competing interests. We who care about human rights would do well to recognize that and shape our recommendations to the U.S. government accordingly. Otherwise, we risk even greater marginalization than we already experience.

But secondly, good human rights work requires persistence and a long view, the recognition that human rights have become the lingua franca for much of the world and a ticket of admission to widely honored membership in the international community. The United States with its plummeting approval ratings around the globe has learned that the hard way. China too will learn eventually that the best way to avert hurt feelings is to avoid prompting criticism in the first place.

William F. Schulz, a Senior Fellow in Human Rights Policy at the Center for American Progress, was executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006. He is the editor of The Future of Human Rights: U.S. Policy for a New Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).


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