China: Trumping Human Rights

February 28, 2009

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a historic visit to China last week, which will undoubtedly improve relations between the world’s largest consumer of goods and the its most prolific producer of consumer products. But at what cost?

For many environmental and social activists, the most remarkable statement to emanate from this visit was Secretary Clinton’s acknowledgement that: “Human rights cannot interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.” Embedded in this statement is perhaps an inherent contradiction that the Obama administration might not recognise. The structural factors that lead to human rights concerns are indeed also responsible for many of the economic and environmental concerns that the administration is so admirably trying to resolve in Asia.

At the heart of the matter is a lack of transparency and accountability that ultimately leads to an erosion of economic and ecological institutions. Human rights abuses are the most acute manifestations of these structural problems in autocratic societies that the administration must duly recognise.

It is far more difficult to find integrative policy solutions when civil society organisations have limited access to independently verifiable data on environmental and social performance or economic institutions have marginal accountability to their constituents. Often it is tempting to be captivated by autocracy because it may seem that under good leadership there will be a much faster road to salvation than the lumbering and languid workings of a democracy. No doubt, China can “get the job done” very fast, when it comes to building Olympic stadiums, marvellous airports and green cities. However, the perilous bargain that we make in ignoring the question of human rights is that all such achievements are far more precariously reversible.

Even if we ignore the moral salience of human rights, there are many strategic reasons to be concerned about these issues. For example, economic and environmental policy requires clear and credible data, and without a free civil society, it becomes highly difficult to challenge official statistics and find scientifically verifiable information. At every step of the policy-making process data is contested and deliberated in order to come up with the most effective outcome.

However, in China, it is exceedingly difficult to challenge any government data and the outcome can often lead to imprisonment, as experienced by Hu Jia, a 34-year-old activist who was imprisoned in April of last year for “inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system” by sharing independent data on environmental and economic issues.

The reliability of economic and energy data from China has been repeatedly questioned by US researchers such as Thomas Rawski, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh and Jonathan Sinton,an energy analyst at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The Financial Times reported in January this year that Chinese economists even had a phrase for the manipulation of official statistics — jiabao fukuafeng, or “wind of falsification and embellishment”.

The trumping of the human rights narrative will also confound the Obama administration’s regional approach to conflict resolution. Earlier last week, Secretary Clinton presented a clearly hawkish stance towards North Korea in alignment with the new South Korean government. However, giving a pass to China on its human rights record will not make the job any easier for Stephen Bosworth, the newly appointed envoy to the peninsula.

China’s support is pivotal to the North Korean regime’s survival and the appeasement of our friends in Beijing on human rights and accountability will likely make them even more complacent when comes to policy changes on North Korea or Burma. Policies of ‘quid pro quo’ have failed to gain much success in Asian politics during the past decade and are unlikely to succeed now. Simple, determined, principled politics is far more likely to succeed.

Unfortunately, it appears that the Obama administration is going to apply similar chameleonic approaches to international relations in its dealings with the Muslim world and Israel. Giving an easy pass to autocracy or the asymmetric use of force to countries on the pretext of the economy or the environment or for pure political expediency seems to detract from the promise of change that was so fervently trumpeted during the campaign. Even the initial order of the closure of Guantanamo Bay seems to be ringing hollow as the administration has recently argued for a continuation of Bush administration policies for detainees in Afghanistan.

Yet many of my fellow liberals are so entranced by some of the environmental edicts of Mr Obama that they are willing to ignore these serious departures from campaign promises that will ultimately erode environmental issues as well.

For environmentalists, what is most ironic about Mrs Clinton’s stance is that ecological policies that were often critiqued by conservatives for being too detached from the problems of human development are now being used by a liberal government to obfuscate human rights.

China is a great nation from which the US, and indeed Pakistan, have much to learn. However, as friends we must engage in a relationship that builds on our common humanity. As one Chinese environmentalist once said to me at a conference, “We Chinese live in a society, not just an economy.”