Outrage Without Strategy Means Failure on China and Human Rights

The deplorable human rights record of the Chinese government has long featured in U.S. political discourse as an example of that venerable trope, the heroic individual demanding freedom from the tyrannical state. U.S. leaders quite naturally align themselves with the advocates of freedom, coming to their aid by repudiating and punishing their tormentors.

The antagonism between civil society and the state highlighted in this view is undeniably true, but this truth is only partial. Its seeming clarity threatens to obscure the complexities of Chinese politics and U.S.–China relations in ways that may produce counterproductive responses.

The political journey of a friend of mine in recent years illustrates dynamics excluded from the conventional human rights framing. I first met Zhao (a pseudonym) a decade ago while doing research in Shanghai, when both of us were grad students interested in leftist politics. I joined a reading group he was running with other Chinese grad students and we discussed ideas that posed a deep challenge to Chinese social and political inequalities.

In the years since, his critical energies have increasingly flowed away from inequalities within China to focus instead on the inequality between what he sees as a domineering United States and a victimized China. Increasingly he deems the Chinese government as the champion of the beleaguered Chinese people, whose opportunity to rise in wealth and status is being harshly circumscribed by jealous American leaders. To him, “human rights” is a fig leaf for the defense of naked U.S. power and a feature of western culture foisted on countries like China, whose level of development makes it inappropriate.

It was not state propaganda that moved Zhao in this direction — when we first connected he was already perfectly capable of seeing through official Communist Party narratives. Instead, it was heavy–handed U.S. behavior, tendentious U.S. narratives that refuse to give any credit to the Chinese system, and the glaring hypocrisy of American leaders harshly condemning Chinese abuses while remaining silent on the abuses of countries U.S. leaders are cultivating to counter China.

From Zhao’s experience, we can discern additional truths: that U.S. human rights rhetoric is not impartial but is a feature of geopolitical rivalry; that this fact threatens to discredit the whole idea of human rights in the eyes of many Chinese; that the Chinese government strategy of casting human rights defenders as agents of U.S. power rather than advocates of universal values may in the process find considerable success among Chinese citizens.

Yet Zhao’s truths are also selective. Other friends of mine bear witness to the reality not only of Chinese government repression but the dramatic expansion of that repression in both quantitative and qualitative terms over the last decade. The labor activist forced to move to Hong Kong to continue his work after the crackdown on worker rights, only to be hounded from Hong Kong when the mainland government crushed its democracy movement. The Uyghur scholar detained under atrocious conditions, forced to recite loyalty oaths that only poisoned him against the regime. The feminist activists studying overseas, wracked with fear that even outside the country they will suffer terrible consequences for criticizing officials’ increasingly open misogynistic policies.

The vision of human freedom and dignity expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a standard against which to judge the Chinese political system. Many of those same principles are enshrined in the Chinese constitution, making the argument that they are alien to Chinese culture untenable. By both measures, the Chinese government falls far short.

Yet neither document provides a strategy to achieve human freedom and dignity. In formulating such a strategy, moral truths are necessary but inadequate. The truths of power politics and psychological dynamics must be incorporated as well.

We in America need to reflect on some uncomfortable truths. As much as we might wish to see ourselves as an agent of global justice, other countries and their citizens do not always share this view. The conflict with China is not only an ethical dispute but is also a power struggle over which country will dominate East Asia militarily and the world economically. The United States is not just criticizing Chinese repression, but is actively seeking to limit China’s global influence.

Where does this leave U.S. policy on China? First, deploying human rights as a resource in geopolitical conflict is more likely to inspire cynicism around the idea of human rights than it is to vindicate the claim to higher values.

Second, because geopolitics makes national rivalry the most salient axis of political conflict, it is singularly ill–suited to advancing the human rights project. A geopolitics focused on U.S. global primacy encourages an alignment between China’s government and the Chinese people against threatening foreign forces. Under such circumstances, Chinese leaders are more likely to see those within China who defend human rights as the agents of alien ideas and alien interests, and can more convincingly portray them as such. Linking human rights efforts to geopolitical conflict strengthens those forces in China and the United States that are most hostile to human rights — forces such as nationalism, xenophobia, and militarism.

A U.S. strategy on human rights in China should begin by reducing the prominence of geopolitical division in U.S.–China relations. This would help to shape a domestic environment in China (and the United States) that would open space for human rights advocacy. America’s longstanding punitive and coercive approach to human rights promotion has failed everywhere it has been tried. The danger of such an approach is magnified in a moment when great power tension threatens to spin out of control.

It is more urgent than ever to formulate a more strategic approach. By stepping away from the commitment to global primacy as the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, a foreign policy of restraint offers new ways to approach human rights that avoid the pitfalls of associating universal rights with the power machinations of specific countries.