Viola Rothschild is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
When United States President Donald J. Trump makes his first visit to China next month, you can bet that human rights will not be at the top of the agenda—or on the agenda at all. During his nine months in office, President Trump has remained conspicuously silent on human rights, choosing instead to establish friendly relationships with a series of autocrats known for their human rights abuses, including the leaders of Egypt, Turkey, and the Philippines. Trump administration officials are currently working on crafting a ‘comprehensive’ China policy review that will reassess the White House’s approach towards Beijing. The review reportedly focuses almost exclusively on economic issues, and does not make any mention of human rights.
Chinese leaders, on the other hand, take human rights very seriously. In fact, in preparation for this month’s 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government recently published a book titled “China’s New Achievements in Human Rights (2012-2017).” The book features a lengthy foreword by Foreign Minister Wang Yi praising the “continuous developing and improvement of human rights” in China under President Xi Jinping.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the book neglects to mention a few of what it terms President Xi’s “brilliant achievements” in human rights. This summer alone has witnessed some of Xi’s finest work: in July, China’s most famous human rights and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo died from untreated liver cancer under guard at a state hospital—the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in state custody since the Nazi regime. Several other prominent rights activists and lawyers were “disappeared,” or put on trial on national television to “voluntarily” confess to their crimes. Three student democracy leaders were sentenced to prison in Hong Kong, marking a massive setback for the semiautonomous city. In western China’s Xinjiang autonomous region, authorities have continued their sustained crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority, forcing them to install surveillance apps on their mobile phones, banning their native language in local schools, jailing prominent Uighur scholars, and even reaching beyond China’s borders to repatriate Uighur students studying abroad. Grassroots groups, including feminists and Christians, have faced intensifying crackdowns, and recent laws on foreign NGOs have further stifled civil society participation.
Past U.S. administrations have struggled to effectively pressure China into to making human rights concessions, but there have been some small victories. After intense negotiation, dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Xu Wenli, both leaders in the Chinese democracy movement, were granted medical parole and released to the United States after 34 combined years behind bars in 1997 and 2002, respectively. In 2011, then Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly confronted China on their human rights abuses at the opening of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In 2012, under intense pressure from the Obama administration, Chinese officials let blind activist Chen Guangcheng come to the United States. In 2015, after five prominent feminist activists were imprisoned in China, President Obama refused to attend a United Nations summit meeting hosted by Xi celebrating the 20th anniversary of a historic women’s rights conference in Beijing. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power attended instead, and highlighted several international cases of gender discrimination—including in China. Though these moves did not precipitate major change, and U.S. policy has been primarily non-confrontational, human rights issues were at least on the table. They aren’t anymore.
As the world’s second-largest economy, China is not afraid to lash out at international critics and even use its economic clout to impose sanctions on those that displease them. Indeed, it’s not difficult to see why human rights issues are increasingly taking a back seat to trade and security talks. But the United States’ recent silence on human rights comes from more than just fear of crossing their largest trading partner and creditor— it’s because the Trump White House simply doesn’t care.
In March, in the wake of international outcry, eleven countries signed a letter criticizing China for torturing human rights lawyers. The United States was not one of them—marking the first time the United States refused to sign this type of joint initiative. In June, Ivanka Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke out against international human trafficking, citing China’s use of North Korean forced labor. However, their tepid scolding rang hollow given that earlier this year, several Chinese labor activists were arrested or detained after investigating alleged labor abuses at a factory that makes shoes for several international brands, including Ivanka Trump’s. The day after Liu Xiaobo’s death, Trump praised President Xi Jinping in an interview, referring to him as a “terrific guy.”
Gone are the days when the United States could (or would) use trade and investment to leverage support for human rights. This spring, in a scathing rebuttal to the State Department’s 2016 China Human Rights Report, Chinese state media released a parallel report calling out the hypocrisy of the United States:
“With the gunshots lingering in people's ears behind the Statue of Liberty, worsening racial discrimination and the election farce dominated by money politics, the self-proclaimed human rights defender has exposed its human rights "myth" with its own deeds.”
They have a point. From the Chinese perspective, when it comes to its commitment to human rights, the United States is wavering and has relinquished all moral high ground. The U.S. role as “world policeman”—predicated upon the perception of righteousness, global leadership, and economic superiority—was eroding long before Trump took office. But now, as Beijing cracks down on human rights at home, and flexes its muscles abroad, the United States remains silent. Rather than stepping up, the United States is mired in its own controversies, and has not demonstrated any real ability or desire to advocate for international human rights.
Maintaining a stable economy and avoiding nuclear war are important. But so are human rights. Despite what Chinese officials might tell us, domestic situations have global consequences. As the U.S.-led world order continues to deteriorate under the apathy of the Trump administration, China can and will seek to play a more prominent role on the global stage. If China insists on behaving like a bully at home, and cannot guarantee its own citizens basic rights and freedoms, how can we expect it to behave any differently as a world power?