The opinion piece below by Joshua Rosenzweig, Dui Hua's senior manager of research and Hong Kong operations, assesses the state of human rights engagement with China prior to the US-China human rights dialogue, scheduled for May 13-14 in Washington, DC. An abridged version (PDF) was published in the April 26 edition of the South China Morning Post.
Critical Moment for China Rights Dialogue
Senior Manager, Research & Hong Kong Operations
The Dui Hua Foundation
In a few weeks, China and the United States will sit down in Washington for bilateral discussions on human rights. But until both sides are willing to bring clarity to core principles rather than just rely on empty process, the potential for true dialogue on this sensitive issue will forever be in doubt.
It’s been decades since China routinely condemned human rights in campaigns against "spiritual pollution" and "bourgeois liberalization." Facing international isolation for its crackdown against protest on June 4, 1989, Chinese leaders began taking numerous steps to better engage with the world on human rights issues. Beijing has been signalling its intention to adopt international norms for years through signing major human rights covenants, actively participating in the human rights institutions of the United Nations, and engaging in numerous bilateral dialogues and consultations with Western governments like the United States.
These dialogues have provided Western governments with opportunities to express concern about individual rights by pressuring Beijing to account for individuals jailed on political and religious grounds. But more tangible results have been few and far between. After many rounds of dialogue, violations continue unabated, and changing global dynamics are prompting more questions about whether such engagement is capable of achieving anything.
China’s importance as a trading partner and key player in diplomatic trouble spots like North Korea and Iran provides it with many opportunities to push back against Western criticism. Multilateral human rights mechanisms like the UN’s "universal periodic review" have become a safe place for rights abusing states to hide behind expressions of "unique national circumstances" and the notion that some human rights are more fundamental than others. And further enabling both processes has been Western hypocrisy on human rights, particularly the loss of US moral leadership as a consequence of the "war on terror."
Western governments must recognize that they have limited influence over the development of human rights and democratization in China and that progress there ultimately depends on the efforts of Chinese people themselves, both inside and outside government. Both sides need to be clear that the goal of dialogue with China is realizing universal human rights as agreed upon by international law in all countries—including Western countries—and not the imposition of a particular system of government.
Western participants in this process must acknowledge China’s progress, avoid double-standards, and not say one thing and then do another. For its part, China's commitment to universal human rights must be substantive, with more than lip service paid to addressing its deficiencies in the area of civil and political rights. "National circumstances" should no longer be allowed to be used as an excuse to avoid taking bigger steps to tackle remaining problems, and Beijing must resist the tendency to view criticism—both domestic and international—in terms of politicization and conspiracy.
Engagement can only be worthwhile if it is critical engagement that understands that progress blooms from argument and debate. Western governments cannot avoid addressing the most serious human rights violations in China for fear of appearing too confrontational, and Beijing must stop responding with angry rhetoric every time it hears something it doesn’t like. There will be disagreements, to be sure, but engagement must be about more than simply "agreeing to disagree." It should involve recognizing the value of substantive, critical discussion in which all parties are held equally accountable for their commitments to human rights under international law. In this vein, Western governments should also expect to listen more to Chinese critiques of human rights problems in their own countries.
If China and its dialogue partners can agree on these principles, bilateral engagement on human rights might yet bear fruit. If not, then much more is at stake than just the value of bilateral dialogue. With no state required to do more than profess pro-forma adherence to its principles and covenants and multilateral institutions left with little credibility to hold violators accountable, the future of the entire international human rights regime is in serious jeopardy. That is a fate that leaders in Washington, Brussels, Beijing, and elsewhere should be doing more to avoid.