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Biden Must Stand Up to China on Human Rights

The United States Too Often Finds Reasons Not to Act

Published in: Foreign Affairs
National flags of US and China wave in front of a hotel in Beijing on February 4, 2010. © 2010 Reuters

Raise human rights in meetings with senior Chinese government officials. Speak publicly and clearly about abuses instead of only to diplomats behind closed doors. Put the rights of China’s 1.4 billion citizens on the agenda in all major interactions with Chinese policymakers, whether these concern trade, climate change, or anything else.

Such were the entreaties Human Rights Watch made of successive U.S. administrations for decades. Had the United States complied with them before Xi Jinping came to power, it would have done the bare minimum to promote human rights in China. Today the demands are laughably insufficient. As the administration of President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take power in Washington, the Chinese government is systematically assaulting ethnic and religious minorities, including by arbitrarily detaining a million Uighurs and effacing Uighur and Tibetan culture. Chinese authorities have attacked activists and lawyers, made state surveillance omnipresent, and destroyed hope for democracy in Hong Kong.

The Biden administration will not be able to stand by, and it cannot treat Chinese human rights violations only as a foreign policy issue. Rather, the new administration needs to put China’s human rights abuses on both its foreign and its domestic policy agendas, because such violations threaten people not only in China, where sweeping campaigns of repression are well under way, but also in the United States, where companies, universities, and diaspora communities are vulnerable to Beijing’s influence. The human rights norms that China now undermines are global, and the consequences of their weakening will be global, too.

GETTING PRIORITIES STRAIGHT

Past U.S. administrations have tried to engage with Beijing on human rights. They have called on China to release political prisoners, offered asylum to high-profile critics of the Chinese government, and attempted to open discussions among Chinese officials and civil society leaders about human rights law and legal reform. But the task has proved Sisyphean, perhaps because the United States has tended to assign human rights a relatively low priority, and its inconsistent efforts have hardly kept pace with Beijing’s abuses.

The outgoing administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been frank about the abusive nature of Chinese Communist Party rule, and it has gone so far as to impose sanctions on Chinese government officials, agencies, and companies credibly alleged to have committed serious human rights violations. Human rights advocates have welcomed these moves but worry that questions about the administration’s motives undercut the message. The Trump administration has, after all, broadly degraded the U.S. commitment to human rights at home and abroad through its inhumane immigration policies and flouting of human rights laws and norms. Moreover, Trump’s lavish praise for President Xi and his stoking of xenophobic animus (his insistence on calling the novel coronavirus the “China virus” is but one example) have hardly signaled a principled interest in Chinese human rights.

The United States has long subordinated human rights concerns to its desire to win China’s cooperation on other matters. For decades, U.S. policymakers pushed China to liberalize its economy, arguing that if China opened up to trade and economic liberalization, stronger human rights protections would follow. No such thing has happened—instead, human rights abuses have proliferated.

The United States must now make itself a credible interlocutor for the Chinese government on human rights. To do so, the Biden administration will need to demonstrate its commitment to protecting those rights both domestically and globally. It will also need to take a principled and consistent stand on Chinese government abuses—one that does not prioritize making deals over addressing an urgent and deteriorating situation.

TIME FOR A CHANGE

Beijing has made alarming progress toward eroding established international norms, including that of holding states accountable for their human rights violations. The United Nations has become an important theater for those efforts. There, the Chinese government has harassed human rights experts and sought to exclude independent civil society groups from proceedings. Beijing has bullied other governments into supporting its anti-rights agenda and even signed other governments on its statements without seeking their support.

Fifty UN human rights experts have issued a call for an urgent debate, a special session, and a special rapporteur to investigate Chinese human rights violations. The Biden administration should support that demand. Washington should also help the victims of repressive Chinese policies, including Uighurs in Xinjiang, to gather and preserve evidence of the violations they have suffered in order to submit complaints, as allowed under such treaties as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Chinese officials know that the government they serve will not hold them accountable for abuses, but they are sensitive to international criticism—enough to respond to it with particular intensity. For instance, Beijing has orchestrated Potemkin visits for hundreds of diplomats, journalists, and religious figures in order to cover up human rights abuses and manufacture support for its policies toward Uighurs. Violations of the scope and on the scale of those in Xinjiang carry the prospect of international scrutiny and legal accountability that responsible Chinese officials should be made to fear.

The human rights norms that China undermines are global, and the consequences will be global, too.

The United States under Biden will need to spearhead a coalition of like-minded democracies if it is to roll back Beijing’s anti-rights agenda at the United Nations. These countries should put forward candidates for the institution’s major offices, participate in its influential bodies, and insist that independent civil society groups—especially those critical of the Chinese government—are welcome at the United Nations.

But such coordination should not be limited to the United Nations. Many of the best tools available to democratic governments for imposing consequences on human rights abusers are most effective if many countries adopt them at once: targeted sanctions on perpetrators, for example. Last summer, Beijing imposed a draconian “national security” law on Hong Kong. Several governments—including those of the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand—suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong in response. Further coordination of this nature could persuade Chinese officials to change course.

The Biden administration should seek to restore Washington’s ties to the remnants of independent civil society across China—including activists, scholars, lawyers, and religious leaders. Xi’s government has silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile many people, such as Cai Xia and Nathan Law, who have promoted unconventional views or criticized the ruling authorities. These figures have sacrificed much in order to get Beijing to respect its human rights commitments—a goal the United States says it shares.

A DOMESTIC AFFAIR

The Biden administration should treat the Chinese government’s hostility to human rights not only as a foreign policy priority but also as a domestic one. Chinese nationals, including members of minority communities, who study or work at universities in the United States have reported that Beijing seeks to control them by monitoring classroom discussions and threatening their family members, among other means. When those affected have brought their concerns to U.S. law enforcement or other agencies, they have found little understanding. And no U.S. administration has done an adequate job of preventing U.S. companies that operate in China from committing or enabling rights abuses.

The new administration should consider creating a supra-ambassador position to bridge the gap between the U.S. State Department, where most expertise on China currently resides, and the domestic agencies. This new official could help law enforcement and educational institutions, for example, and respond to human rights violations emanating from Beijing, even while ensuring that these domestic concerns are a part of the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s brief. The official could also work to combat the racism that President Trump’s rhetoric has encouraged against people of Chinese descent, underscoring that a rights-respecting U.S. administration will protect—not demonize—this community.

Human rights violations inside of China have global consequences: if nothing else makes that clear, the COVID-19 crisis should, worsened as it was by the Chinese government’s early censorship. The Xi government threatens human rights globally even more than it did four years ago. The Biden administration has a formidable task ahead of it, but it should start by making human rights a priority in its China policy, reviving its alliances, and strengthening human rights institutions. By taking the lead on this important issue, the United States could bring some relief to those around the world now struggling to secure their rights.

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