Journal of International Affairs

Addressing the Human Rights Issue in Sino-American Relations

By Peter Van Ness

This article is dedicated to Elouise V. Deiter.

Under the best of circumstances, policymakers from China, the United States or any other major power must attempt to reconcile at least three competing priorities: national security, economic viability and moral authority. Each of these three dimensions of foreign policy typically has its own separate and conflicting logic. Security issues are most often seen in realist terms, assuming a world of anarchy and the inevitability of zero-sum games (e.g., I can gain only at your expense). Economic problems are usually addressed from quite a different perspective, assuming instead opportunities for interdependence and mutual benefit in a struggle, often understood in liberal terms, over how the benefits are to be shared (e.g., we both gain; but each will try to get the bigger share). Finally, moral questions are typically perceived in terms of absolutist alternatives (e.g., "mine vs. yours, or even good vs. evil") -- we might choose to coexist, to compete, or even to fight over who is right, but the outcome is rarely a compromise.

These three dimensions of foreign policy also seem to represent a rough hierarchy of priorities: first security, then economics and finally questions of morality. If the state is threatened, national security takes precedence. Economic policy is reshaped to support national defense, and moral debate tends to be suspended for the national emergency (e.g., my country, right or wrong). If, however, there is no major perceived threat to state security, then economic priorities take precedence. Finally, moral issues are most likely to receive priority in those countries, like the Group of Seven today, which perceive no military threat from any other state and which are economically well off.

This is not necessarily the hierarchy of foreign policy priorities that one might prefer; rather, it is presented here as a general approximation of what seems to happen in response to changing world events.

Human rights has emerged as one of the foremost moral issues of the post-Cold War world. Foreign ministry officials and national security advisors are being pressed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizen activists to take human rights abuse more seriously as a foreign-policy priority. Systematic monitoring and detailed reporting of human rights abuse by NGOs (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House), individual journalists and government reports (like the annual Department of State country reports) have produced a growing database to support comparative analysis and sustained policy debate.

This paper is an analysis of how the United States and China are treating the issue of human rights in their bilateral relationship. It assumes that no matter how much some U.S. and Chinese officials and trade council lobbyists may hope that the issue will disappear, NGOs and citizen activists in both countries will keep human rights high on the agenda of Sino-American relations -- particularly in a post-Cold War world characterized by a sharp decline in state-to-state security threats and increasing general economic prosperity.

Human rights, however, cannot be treated in isolation. In order to implement an effective and sustainable human rights policy, it must be designed in a way to complement security and economic concerns. Especially when considering that each of the three main dimensions of foreign policy is customarily treated in terms of a separate logic, human rights, like any moral foreign-policy priority, must be considered in terms of a broad concept of "national interest." This analysis attempts to show how both Beijing and Washington might address human rights as a foreign policy issue more effectively -- and in ways that could enhance economic and security cooperation between China and the United States rather than threaten it.

There is an emerging consensus among analysts that the recent differences in Sino-American relations have the potential to evolve into a strategic confrontation between the two countries. Before the Bill Clinton-Jiang Zemin summit in New York in October 1995, for example, some press commentaries pointed to the meeting as an opportunity to avoid "a new cold war." 1 Clearly, no country would benefit from such a confrontation. The greatest energy for such a confrontation is often generated in the moral dimension of foreign policy, in disputes over differing political philosophies and social values, making the strategic confrontation even more volatile and difficult to contain.

However, this essay argues that, paradoxically, it may be in the handling of some of these sensitive moral issues about which the two governments most disagree, including human rights, that a way might be found to identify common ground suitable for a dialogue that might in turn help to avoid such a self-defeating strategic confrontation. First, I will describe contemporary American and Chinese human rights diplomacy, then "the China threat" and finally a design for pursuing human rights in the national interest.

George Bush and the Beijing Massacre  

The violent suppression of the student-led protests of 1989 by the People's Liberation Army in front of the television cameras of the world's leading media organizations, assembled in Beijing to cover the meeting of the Asian Development Bank and a Chinese summit meeting with the Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, shocked the Western world. The reality of the Chinese Communist Party's insistence on totalitarian control over its own citizens, so long ignored in the West as part of the Nixon-Kissinger realpolitik of playing Communists against Communists, was revealed in horrific detail for all to see.
Forced by citizen outrage to respond, Western governments tailored their denunciation of the massacre to articulate the emotions of the moment, without, if possible, endangering long-term strategic and economic ties with China. George Bush, elected president just a few months earlier, was particularly concerned about maintaining the working relationship with the Chinese leaders that he had established as head-of-mission for the United States in Beijing before diplomatic relations between the two countries were formalized.

President Bush led the Group of Seven wealthy capitalist countries to impose a limited set of sanctions on China at the their July 1989 meeting in Paris; but, at the same time, Bush secretly sent to China two of his most trusted national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, to assure Deng Xiaoping of continued American cooperation. The covert contacts were revealed later in the year when Scowcroft and Eagleburger returned to China for a second visit.

The first foreign visit the president made after his election was to China, and presumably China was to play an important role in his strategic design for U.S. foreign policy. However, the duplicity of his China policy, once the Scowcroft and Eagleburger visits were revealed, helped to fuel a debate in the United States about human rights in China. A broad alliance of activist Democrats in the Congress, human rights NGOs, and Chinese student dissidents (some of them leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrations who had eluded the public security drag net to escape abroad) lobbied the U.S. government to make human rights a top priority in American policy on China. New organizations, such as the New York-based Human Rights in China, worked to keep the memories of June 4th alive.

Opponents of Bush's policy seized on the fact that the PRC's "most favored nation (MFN)" trading status (customary tariff benefits conferred on major trading partners) had to be renewed each year because of a legal provision in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974. The amendment required that the president submit a waiver for all non-market-economy countries each year. 2 In the case of China, the president would have to state his intention to renew or not to renew by June 3rd, just by chance

As a result, during the remaining years of the Bush Administration, the debate about human rights and China policy in the United States evolved into an annual cycle in which human rights proponents focused their efforts on Congress, attempting to place conditions on the annual renewal of China's MFN. President Bush opposed these attempts to constrict his China-policy options, but the annual debate helped to keep the issue alive in U.S. national politics. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party's unrelenting suppression of political opposition in China and its insistence on the right to monopolize political power and to rule arbitrarily helped to fuel the flames of the U.S. debate.

Bill Clinton, Human Rights, and China Policy  

Bill Clinton made human rights in China an important issue in his campaign for the presidency in 1992, and the expectation, both from supporters and political opponents alike, was that if Clinton were elected, there would be important changes in U.S.-China policy. There were important changes as it turned out but not in the way that most people expected. Clinton in 1993 imposed conditions on granting China MFN status, with a year's grace period for the Chinese to comply; but then in 1994, when Beijing failed to comply, Clinton backed down, lifting the conditions that he had imposed a year earlier.

Clinton's collapse in the face of Beijing's intransigence left U.S.-China policy in shambles. Lobbies tugged in different directions, pressing alternatively to make Taiwan, trade relations, or human rights a special priority. The White House seemed to change priorities from one minute to the next, appearing to make concessions to all of them but leaving the impression that there was no integrated Clinton policy toward China. Beijing, assuming that Clinton was soft, probed to gain advantage from Washington's disarray.

The Republican victory in the Congressional elections of 1994 brought additional problems. 3 Senator Jesse Helms, chosen

Clinton agreed to increase the status of the unofficial mission from Taiwan in the U.S., and granted President Lee Teng-hui a visa for a private visit to the purpose of being honored by his alma mater, Cornell University. 4 Beijing reacted with a storm of protest, including efforts to intimidate both Taiwanese leaders and the Clinton administration by means of military exercises adjacent to Taiwan. Finally, in October, Clinton and Chinese president Jiang Zemin met in New York in an effort to resolve some of their differences.

Beijing's probings of Clinton's inconsistencies had prompted new concerns about a Chinese strategic threat. David Shambaugh, an American China specialist interviewing Chinese military leaders in Beijing during the summer, was reported to have found that, in their view, the United States was trying to divide China territorially, subvert it politically, contain it strategically and frustrate it economically. 5

Whether or not such views were registered in some fairly orchestrated way for the benefit of a visiting foreign scholar, as sometimes happens in China, tensions were clearly growing between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC). In terms of relative economic and military power, measured for example in the way that Paul Kennedy assessed power relationships historically in his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers , 6 the present rates of economic growth and military modernization in China would, as many analysts have predicted, make China, among all the world's major powers, by far the most likely challenger to U.S. global hegemony over the longer term.

The intellectual task for Americans and Chinese is to work out ways not simply to coexist but to cooperate with each other in ways capable of achieving mutual benefit, for the two countries and for the rest of the world. Strategically, the task is to coexist without confrontation, to disagree without demonizing each other to avoid the emergence of a Sino-U.S. cold war. 7

China's Human Rights Diplomacy  

At first, in the months following the Beijing Massacre of 1989, the Chinese government rejected out of hand all foreign criticism as violations of China's state sovereignty and "illegal" attempts to interfere in the domestic affairs of the PRC. But soon, Beijing developed its own human rights diplomacy to respond to Western condemnation of the PRC's human rights practices. Several countries were invited to send delegations to China to investigate human rights conditions (Australia 8 , France 9 , and Switzerland); commentaries began to appear regularly in the Chinese press on human rights issues; human rights research programs were established in China 10 and a comprehensive White Paper was published in November 1991, setting out an official Chinese position. 11

Interpretations of China's motivation varied. Human rights organizations generally welcomed China's new approach, taking it as the first step toward Chinese participation in a serious dialogue about global standards and acceptable human rights practices. Other analysts saw Beijing's change of tactics as simply a gloss on the leadership's determination to do anything to return to business as usual after June 4th. No matter, it worked. China soon restored normal relations with all of the countries vital to achieving its economic and political agendas, and established several new key diplomatic relationships as well (most notably, with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Indonesia and South Korea). 12

Pressing Japan to send the Emperor to China for an unprecedented visit, nominally to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations but actually to bolster the legitimacy of Communist party rule post-Tiananmen, Beijing expected that the Emperor's visit would symbolize a new beginning for Chinese foreign relations. The Emperor's visit was a success, 13 but a month later Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States, vowing to put human rights on the agenda of American foreign policy priorities. Meanwhile, Chris Patten, the new governor of Hong Kong and intended to be the last British governor before 1997, began to press for new steps toward democratization before the eventual reversion of the colony to Chinese control. By 1993, even China's (eventually unsuccessful) bid to hold the Olympic Games in the year 2000 had become embroiled in human rights politics.

In short, Beijing broke out of its post-June 4th isolation with a two-pronged approach: by appealing for support to Third World countries, arguing that Western human rights diplomacy was in fact only Western imperialism in a new guise, while in relations with Japan and the West, holding out the promise of the potentially immense Chinese market and emphasizing the need to accommodate China strategically because of its stature as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a nuclear-weapons power. All of this was softened by Beijing's human rights diplomacy, and China's apparent willingness to participate in the global human rights regime. Premier Li Peng told a U.N. Security Council summit meeting in January 1992:

"China values human rights and stands ready to engage in discussion and cooperation with other countries on an equal footing on the question of human rights..." and later in March 1992, Li asserted that "China agrees that questions concerning human rights should be the subject of normal international discussion..." 14

It may indeed have been China's intention to participate in the United Nations-sponsored international dialogue on human rights only temporarily, until all of the sanctions imposed after June 4th had been lifted, and the rich capitalist nations whose capital and technology is so vital to sustain China's economic growth had returned to business-as-usual. But the human rights issue would not go away. As the PRC has become increasingly enmeshed in webs of economic and political organization (e.g., at the United Nations and in regional organizations like Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC] and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum [ARF]), the Chinese have been pressed to take positions on human rights and to respond to published reports of China's human rights abuse.

Scholars who study the international relations of human rights typically distinguish between the functions of setting human rights standards, on the one hand, and enforcing those same standards, on the other. Samuel Kim, in his analysis of international organizations that work in the field of human rights, has labeled this distinction as one between value-shaping  and value -realizing . 15

With respect to value-shaping, or setting global standards for human rights, the United Nations has made important achievements. Under U.N. auspices, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and more than twenty other human rights agreements have been successfully negotiated. In this respect, the United Nations' value-shaping effort has been a success.

But with respect to putting those same standards into practice, i.e., in the realm of value-realizing, the U.N. record has been dismal. The principal problem is that the United Nations is an organization of member-states. Most member-governments insist on the international society norms of honoring state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries when it comes to enforcing U.N. standards for human rights. 16 Chinese policy has followed this pattern.

Yet, in human rights diplomacy, no government has proven to be a model of consistency. Even among the most consistent, there always seems to be a double standard -- or sometimes no standard at all -- in the way that governments engage in human rights diplomacy. 17 Human rights abuses committed by friendly governments are typically ignored, while abuses by one's opponents are forcefully condemned. Moreover, when human rights issues are addressed in a systematic way by governments, it is always someone else's human rights abuses that are to be investigated, and almost never one's own.

There is also a problem about governments practicing what they preach when it comes to formal ratification of the major international agreements negotiated under U.N. auspices. Some governments, like Australia and the Scandinavian countries, have a good record with regard to ratifying the two covenants and other human rights agreements. Other countries, like China and the United States, do not. 18

None of the member states of the United Nations has a completely clear conscience on matters of human rights. In the United States, President Clinton has given higher priority to human rights than any president since Jimmy Carter, but the rest of the world sees the United States as a country with a history of black slavery and genocide against its indigenous Indian populations, and a present situation with respect to social and economic rights characterized by high income inequality and homelessness, drug addiction and crime. The male homocide rate and the incarceration rate in the United States are both more than seven times higher than the same rates for countries in the European Union. 19 Yet these problems are rarely discussed by U.S. officials as questions of human rights.

China's performance with respect to civil and political rights since the Beijing Massacre has become the subject of intensive monitoring by international organizations, NGOs and other governments (e.g., the annual U.S. Department of State report on human rights). The Chinese Communist Party, insisting on maintaining its monopoly of political power in China, relentlessly represses its political opponents as it has always done, arbitrarily manipulating the Chinese legal system and government institutions to its will. 20 But the individual courage of political dissidents in the PRC 21 and the social changes wrought by almost two decades of market reforms and the "open policy" have gradually eroded the Party's capacity for totalitarian control.Andrew Nathan credits Deng Xiaoping's rule in China as "an undoubted human rights improvement over Mao's," 22 and Wenhui Zhong shows how the social and political changes resulting from Deng's policies have opened up opportunities for the expression of dissent. Zhong writes:

The drive for rapid economic development to transform the country into a "socialist market economy" has called for the idea of a more open and accountable government, a clearer recognition of an individual's rights as different from the collective rights, and a greater need for the rule of law. There is clearly a process of change from a monolithic collective culture, where uniformity is of paramount importance, to a more pluralistic and individualistic one, where the initiative and interest of the individual are given prominence. In this process, the expression of dissent and free speech becomes more difficult to suppress. Furthermore, in order to reintegrate into the world community after decades of isolation, the Chinese leadership has to take into account "international standards" even though some of them were thought in the past to represent only interests of Western industrialized countries. To be committed to the open door policy means to maintain a certain degree of transparency in how the government operates. 23

Zhong describes how dissidents in China today are beginning to make legal appeals in the courts, knowing full well that the Party can and will tell judges how to decide; but, taking the leadership at its word that China has rule of law, they are challenging the government to practice what it preaches. 24 Internationally, the policy of what some have called "positive engagement" instead of "sanction/isolation" appears to be having a gradual but positive impact on Beijing's human rights performance.

China's participation in the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 and its hosting of the World Conference on Women last September, despite often heavy-handed efforts by China to manipulate the parallel NGO meeting, 25 represent an engagement by Beijing in international forums that has important positive implications for Sino-American relations.

"The China Threat"  

For the United States, as for any country, security concerns take first priority. How should we understand the alarms being rung about a "China threat?"

At the same time that the two former Cold War adversaries, the United States and Russia, have committed themselves to nuclear disarmament on an unprecedented scale, China has undertaken a program of substantial military modernization 26 and, like France, continues to test nuclear weapons in the face of broad world opposition. 27 China's Asian neighbors are also engaged in major military modernization programs. 28

From China's perspective, there are a number of good reasons to modernize its military now. The first is that recent military encounters have taught a lesson about the importance of advanced technology. For example, the bashing that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) received at the hands of the more technologically advanced Vietnamese military, when China invaded in 1979, plus the U.S. high-tech Gulf War of 1991 that flattened Saddam Hussein in just a few days, showed the world how decisively advanced "conventional" technology can shape military outcomes. To be able to compete strategically, China realizes that it must sustain its military modernization.

Second, at a time when Deng Xiaoping is increasingly incapacitated and Communist party leaders are positioning themselves for the struggle for power after his death, the Chinese military is being courted by all sides. At such a time, presumably the PLA is more likely to win budgetary concessions from the various Party factions, each eager to win their support for the struggle to come. Moreover, during the last several years, there has been a buyers' market in high-tech military hardware following the collapse of the Soviet empire. For example, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reported that the "Russians claimed to have sold China $2-3 billion worth of arms in 1994" alone, 29 and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (sipri) noted that "Israel is involved in Chinese combat aircraft, air-to-air missile and tank programs" in their assistance to China's military modernization. 30

Another reason to modernize is that the People's Republic of China wants to acquire power projection capabilities to contest for promising offshore natural resources in the South China Sea, and to strengthen its strategic position for negotiations with Taiwan. 31 The Chinese political position both with respect to the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea and with regard to negotiations for the reunification with Taiwan are substantially enhanced by increases in Chinese relative military power in the region. 32

Finally, the Chinese see their military modernization as simply what is appropriate for a great power. The problem is that its neighbors may read the increase in China's military capability (especially at a time when there is no apparent military threat to China) quite differently. A debate has begun both in the region and in the United States about whether or not there really is a "China threat." 33

In Japan, the government has published a new national defense statement to replace its 1976 National Defense Program Outline. When drafting that military doctrine, the question about whether or not to include even an indirect reference to a China threat became a matter of controversy among the members of the ruling coalition (the Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party of Japan and the New Party Sakigake). 34 The parties finally agreed, in the version approved by the Cabinet on 28 November 1995, simply to refer to "uncertain factors" in the region. 35 Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, the Far Eastern Economic Review  reported, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore agreed to participate in a naval exercise with the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but concerned not to upset China, they wanted to maintain their military cooperation at a "low-visibility level." 36

The potential is already in place for a classic security dilemma to emerge either in relations between the United States and China, or between the China and its Asian neighbors, or both. The countries of East Asia have the fastest growing economies in the world; they can afford to buy new weapons. Independent analysts, like sipri, have shown how they are virtually all modernizing their militaries; but the specialists disagree about whether or not this constitutes an arms race -- at least so far. Rather, they attribute the military build-up to a general caution about changing post-Cold War security relations in the region: the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. withdrawal from its bases in the Philippines and growing doubts about the durability of the U.S.-Japan Security Pact, especially after protests in Okinawa following the alleged rape of a primary school girl by three U.S. servicemen. 37

So far, no states in the region have identified each other as military threats (with the exception of the decades-long conflicts between China and Taiwan, and North and South Korea), and China has taken pains to deny that its military modernization should in any way constitute a threat to its neighbors. At the same time, however, Beijing has carried out naval exercises in the seas adjacent to Taiwan in an attempt to intimidate the pro-independence movement there, and there have even been incidents between U.S. and Chinese naval ships. "The most serious incident," according to iiss, "took place in the Yellow Sea near China on 27-29 October 1994. Chinese officials reportedly warned the Americans that they would `shoot to kill' next time." 38

Mark Valencia, a specialist in maritime dispute resolution, concludes his excellent analysis of alternative solutions to the South China Sea competing territorial claims on a note of urgency that applies equally to the broader strategic relationship between China, its East Asian neighbors and the United States. Valencia suggests that the window of opportunity for successful conflict resolution in the South China Sea may be closing, and he pleads: "The time to make peace is now, while there is peace." 39

Human Rights and the National Interest  

How can human rights policy contribute to avoiding a strategic confrontation with China? What is needed are some ground rules for treating this most volatile aspect of the relationship in order to place obstacles in the way of the mutual demonization that so often fuels a strategic confrontation. Participation by both the United States and China in the United Nations-sponsored human rights regime is beginning to provide some common ground and multilateral perspective on the Sino-American debate.

Economic cooperation with China is the most promising foundation for continued harmony in Sino-American relations. The vested interests that virtually all Chinese, leaders and citizens alike, have in maintaining the Deng Xiaoping strategy of market reforms and the "open policy" are the greatest constraint on any purposeful disruption of relations with China's Asian neighbors or the West over strategic differences. 40 But even the mutual benefit that grows day by day as Sino-American trade, investment and technology transfer relations deepen is not immune from disruption because of human rights.

Recall how close the United States came in 1994 to actually denying China MFN trading status, the foundation stone of economic cooperation, because of human rights abuses in the People's Republic of China. What would be the U.S. reaction, for example, if, after China takes control of Hong Kong in July 1997, the Chinese Communist Party suppressed pro-democracy protests in the former British colony with the ferocity of 4 June 1989? Could Sino-American cooperation survive a massacre in Hong Kong's Victoria Park, especially now amidst growing tensions in the strategic relationship and increasing influence from the Taiwan lobby on the U.S. Congress?

The strategic dimension of the relationship will be the most problematic with regard to sustaining Sino-American cooperation. In some respects, it is striking how similar the United States and China are in the way that they address each other and the world strategically. Both Chinese and American strategic conceptions are a combination of realist assumptions about how the world works and exceptionalist expectations about how the world should receive them.

American policy makers, like their Chinese counterparts, seem to assume, in realist fashion, that the world is basically one of anarchy in which zero-sum games and balance of power are among the most useful strategic concepts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Beijing and Washington have been eyeing each other warily, wondering if the other might emerge as its "new enemy."

While realist in strategic outlook, Chinese and American leaders each also assume that their country has a special role in the world, an exceptional place and a special mission. Maoist China and Confucian China were similar in presenting themselves to the world as the center of a universal civilization, the Maoists propagating a Chinese revolutionary model and supporting "wars of national liberation." The United States has propagated its own liberation theology, i.e., "to make the world safe for democracy." Like the Chinese, Americans have typically pointed to their own exceptional experience as a model to be emulated by the rest of the world. 41

While the urge to propagate and to civilize has ebbed and flowed for each of the two countries depending on a variety of circumstances (e.g., Beijing has said little about a moral mission since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), this common exceptionalist national identity makes the moral dimension of the relations between the two states particularly sensitive and potentially volatile. It is in this realm of competing cultural traditions, social systems and values that demonizing perspectives are most likely to emerge. 42

Given present circumstances, it is extremely likely that China and the United States will in the future increasingly see each other as opponents, and even enemies, if nothing is done to alter such a trend. Strategic friction between the declining hegemon and the world's most significant emerging power would seem to be virtually inevitable, especially at a time of growing doubts about the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the future military role of the United States in Asia. 43

There is absolutely nothing to be gained from making an enemy of China. With any luck, the history of the Cold War has taught us something about the dangers to human survival of a strategic confrontation between two nuclear-weapons powers, the bankrupting costs of high-technology arms races, and the immense human costs of even the so-called proxy wars (e.g., the Vietnam War) that appear typical of such a confrontation. On the other hand, there is much to be gained from both avoiding a strategic confrontation and, instead, building economic ties with the most populous country in the world, one of the fastest growing economies, and potentially the largest future world market.

Now is the time to address the issue of a potential China threat -- not after the dynamic of the classic security dilemma is already running full steam. China is not now a strategic threat to the United States. The PRC will not have the military capabilities to become such a threat in the near future -- despite China's military modernization and the fact that the Chinese economy has been growing at three times the American rate.

Nuclear-armed China is, however, a potential threat to all of its Asian neighbors, including Japan. 44 Security cooperation with the PRC can be helpful in preventing accidental or unintended military confrontations by encouraging greater transparency and confidence-building, and by initiating discussion of possible multilateral security arrangements for East Asia (e.g. under the auspices of ARF or APEC). But if Sino-American cooperation focuses exclusively on building security and economic regimes, while ignoring the important moral dimension of the bilateral relationship, that cooperative structure remains vulnerable to events, like June 4th, which might destroy almost overnight all of the good work that has been done.

What is needed is a structure for the United States and China to discuss and debate those moral issues about which their leaders most disagree, such as human rights. A viable U.S. human rights policy could help to establish ground rules for such a constructive dialogue and invite the Chinese leadership to engage those issues having the greatest explosive potential to damage or to otherwise hinder growing Sino-American cooperation.

Backing into the U.N. Human Rights Regime  

Neither the United States nor China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and nuclear-weapons powers, wants to be constrained by the requirements of the U.N. human rights regime but, bit by bit, both are being pressured to comply. Moreover, the human rights debate that has emerged between the two powers, since the PRC decided to undertake its own human rights diplomacy in 1991, has pressed both governments to practice what they preach with respect to international standards.

The United States is a principal author of the standards set in the U.N. regime, but the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to ratify the various human rights treaties once they have been negotiated and signed. Of the two major covenants, Washington has only ratified the civil and political rights covenant -- and then not until 1992 and insisting on many legal reservations. 45 China has ratified neither covenant.

But as Washington and Beijing's participation in the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna demonstrated, there is much more agreement between their two declaratory human rights positions than one might expect. Both governments accept and nominally support the role of the United Nations as an appropriate body to set and to monitor international standards for human rights, and they endorse the Universal Declaration from which the covenants and other human rights treaties derive.

Both the U.S. and Chinese representatives at Vienna endorsed the two key principles of universality of U.N. human rights standards, and indivisibility of priorities among those standards. China's declaratory position on international human rights, importantly, is neither Marxist nor cultural-relativist. Rather, Beijing takes "developmentalist" exception to the immediate implementation of U.N. standards for less industrialized countries, and emphasizes the economic agenda over civil and political rights and group rights, especially self-determination, over individual rights. 46

China's engagement and participation in the U.N. human rights regime has moved the bilateral debate into an international forum where international institutions, already in place, can monitor and will make judgments. Human rights issues will inevitably play a role in the bilateral relationship, but the standards are set and the monitoring of compliance is done independently by international institutions, both the United Nations and NGOs.

U.S. ratification of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has also changed American human rights policy. Like all parties to the Covenant, the United States is now required to report and to be responsible to U.N. bodies with respect to its own performance. 47 This has resulted in a gradual change from the role of holier-than-thou judge of the world's human rights to one of participant in the global human rights regime. 48

Yet, like all countries, the United States continues to be hypocritical in the implementation of its human rights policy -- as the Chinese are now quick to point out. 49 So if Washington wants to have an effective human rights policy, with respect to China or any other country for that matter, it must first get its own house in order. Let me suggest three basic principles that are vital to establishing a viable human rights policy for any government: consistency, reciprocity and responsibility.

1. Consistency in human rights diplomacy means practicing what you preach by ratifying the major international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The U.S. record on ratification of such treaties is one of the worst when compared with other Western industrialized countries. China's record is even worse. But both China and the United States are moving step-by-step to become a party to the major U.N. agreements. Consistency also means developing one set of standards for evaluating human rights conditions that is applied to all countries, friends and foes, including one's own country as well.

2. Reciprocity requires that, just as you presume to examine the human rights conditions in other countries, you also invite the same sort of investigation by others of your own human rights practices. Australia, for example, which sent the first official human rights delegation to China in 1991, invited the Chinese to visit Australia to study the situation there, including the conditions of the Aborigines. 50 Reciprocity also means that, just as the United States urges other countries to come to terms with human rights abuses in their pasts (for example, Japanese Second World War atrocities in China), it should also acknowledge the abuses of its own past (such as genocide against the Native American population).

3. Responsibility in human rights diplomacy obligates foreign policy makers to commit their governments to observe and to protect human rights as a foundation stone of their country's foreign policy, just as economic and strategic objectives are given priority. Responsibility to the international community entails a willingness to comply with the international human rights treaties that one has ratified and to participate in international institutions to undertake collective efforts to protect human rights.

Putting these principles into practice would show a seriousness of purpose on human rights as well as good faith in relations with other states, U.N. institutions, and NGOs committed to protecting human rights. For the United States, practicing these three principles would help to enhance the moral authority that is so vital to world leadership.

For China, one might wonder whether all of this debate makes any difference at all when, at the same time, the Chinese Communist Party continues to cynically repress any political opposition within the country in a systematic and persistent way. Note, for example, the announcement, on the day after President Jiang Zemin left the November APEC summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, that China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, had been officially "arrested" and charged with the capital offense of attempting to overthrow the Chinese government. Wei had already been detained by police and held incommunicado illegally without charge since 1 April 1994, only months after having been released from prison where he served almost 15 years for his role in the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s. 51

The hopeful side is that Beijing, however reluctantly, has accepted the obligation to defend its record before the world in the forum of international institutions. The Sino-U.S. human rights debate is no longer one of my values versus yours, but rather about compliance with U.N. standards.

Note 1: For a sampling of press commentaries before the October 1995 summit, see Michel Oksenberg, "Heading Off a New Cold War with China," Washington Post , reprinted in Daily Yomiuri , 8 September 1995; David M. Lampton, "Can They Salvage U.S.-China Relations?" The Asian Wall Street Journal , 31 July 1995; Don Oberdorfer, "To Repair Links with China, U.S. Must Fix Its Policy Process," International Herald Tribune , 23 October 1995; and Harvey Stockwin, "A Sino-U.S. `Summit' Makes No Sense," Japan Times , 23 October 1995. Back.

Note 2: Nicholas R. Lardy, China in the World Economy  (Washington, D.C.: Institute for International Economics, 1994), pp. 99-103. Back.

Note 3: "The Republican victory in mid-term elections has resulted in the most anti-Beijing U.S. Congress in years. Expect fireworks over Taiwan, Tibet and China's missile sales." Nayan Chanda, "Storm Warning," Far Eastern Economic Review , 1 December 1994, pp.14-15. Back.

Note 4: Lee Teng-hui, "Always in My Heart," Olin Lecture delivered at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 9 June 1995, text in Free China Review , August 1995, pp. 4-7. Back.

Note 5: International Herald Tribune , 2 August 1995, pp. 1 and 6. Back.

Note 6: Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000  (New York: Vintage, 1987). Back.

Note 7: John Dower's study of mutual demonization during the U.S. war with Japan provides an important warning about what Americans and Chinese ought to work together to prevent happening. John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War  (New York: Pantheon, 1986). Bosnia is a more recent example of how mutual demonization can contribute to the perpetration of the most horrible atrocities in this case, among Serbs, Muslims and Croats who had lived peacefully together as neighbors for decades. See the commentary and survey, following the Dayton agreement, in The Economist , 25 November 1995, pp . 11 and 19-21. Back.

Note 8: Report of the Australian Human Rights Delegation to China , 14-16 July 1991 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, September 1991). See also "Australia's Human Rights Delegation to China, 1991: A Case Study," in Ian Russell, Peter Van Ness, and Beng-Huat Chua, Australia's Human Rights Diplomacy (Canberra: Australian Foreign Policy Papers, 1992). Back.

Note 9: Justice Repressive et Droits de L'Homme en Republique Populaire de Chine: Rapport de la Mission de Juristes Francais  (October 1991)(no publication date, no publisher, and no place given). Back.

Note 10: For example, all of the following Chinese institutions were reported to have undertaken substantial research projects on human rights: Law Society of China; Department of Law and Center for the Study of Human Rights, Chinese People's University; Institute of Law, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Institute of Constitutional Law, Shanghai Law Society; Chinese Institute for Peace and Development, Shanghai; Institute of International Studies, Beijing Academy of Social Sciences; and the Department of Law, Beijing University. Back.

Note 11: Human Rights in China  (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council of the PRC, November 1991). Subsequently, the Chinese government also published human rights White Papers on the criminal reform process in China, on Tibet, and with respect to women: "Criminal Reform in China, Beijing Review , 17-23 August, 1992, pp. 10-25; "Tibet Its Ownership and Human Rights Situation," Beijing Review , 28 September-4 October 1992, pp. 10-43; and "The Situation of Chinese Women," Beijing Review , 6-12 June 1994, pp. 9-23. Back.

Note 12: For the role that China's relations with the governments of Southeast Asia played in this post-Tiananmen diplomacy, see Chen Jie, "Human Rights: ASEAN's New Importance to China," The Pacific Review , no. 3 (1993). Back.

Note 13: Although the Emperor did not make the apology to the Chinese people for Japanese Second World War atrocities that many had hoped for, the Emperor's visit to China was generally seen as a success for both governments. For a text of the Emperor's statement in China, see Japan Times , 24 October 1992, p. 4. Back.

Note 14: Quoted in Andrew J. Nathan, "Human Rights in Chinese Foreign Policy," The China Quarterly , no. 139 (September 1994) p. 641. Back.

Note 15: Samuel Kim, The Quest for a Just World Order  (Boulder: Westview, 1984), pp. 229-43. David Forsythe makes this distinction somewhat differently in his book, The Internationalization of Human Rights  (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1991) chapter 3. See also Mara R. Bustelo and Philip Alston, eds., Whose New World Order? What Role for the United Nations?  (Sydney: Federation Press, 1991), especially the chapter by Philip Alston. Back.

Note 16: See Paul Keal, "Can Foreign Policy Be Ethical?" in Ethics and Foreign Policy,  ed. Keal (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1992); and R. J. Vincent, Human Rights and International Relations  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). For a commentary on the difficulty of addressing human rights in a normative theory of international relations, see Stanley Hoffman's critique of John Rawls' recent effort. Stanley Hoffman, "Dreams of Just World," New York Review of Books , 2 November 1995, pp. 52-56. Back.

Note 17: Chinese critiques of Western human rights diplomacy make great capital of the hypocrisy that is often so evident in the positions put forward by the Western powers. For an example see Liu Wenzong, "On Sovereignty and Human Rights," Renmin ribao , 13 June 1993, p. 5. Back.

Note 18: The annual Amnesty International Report  contains an appendix showing the signing and ratification by U.N. member-states of the major human rights agreements. Back.

Note 19: United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1994  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 186. Back.

Note 20: Michael J. Sullivan, "Development and Political Repression: China's Human Rights Policy Since 1989," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars , forthcoming; and James D. Seymour, "Human Rights in Chinese Foreign Relations," in China and the World: Chinese Foreign Relations in the Post-Cold War Era , ed. Samuel S. Kim (Boulder: Westview, 1994), pp. 202-225. See, also, the China sections of the annual reports published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch/Asia, and the periodic studies by Human Rights in China. Back.

Note 21: See, for example, the petition urging political tolerance, signed by 45 intellectuals, led by Wang Ganchang of the Chinese Atomic Energy Institute, a scientist who helped to develop China's atomic bomb, which was submitted to the PRC National People's Congress on, 15 May 1995; and The New York Times , 16 May 1995, p. A1. Back.

Note 22: Nathan, "Human Rights in Chinese Foreign Policy," p. 631. Back.

Note 23: Wenhui Zhong, "China's Human Rights Development in the 1990s," Journal of Contemporary China , no. 8 (Winter-Spring 1995), pp. 87-88. Back.

Note 24: ibid ., pp. 87-95. See, especially, his account of the case of Guo Luoji, a professor at Nanjing University. Back.

Note 25: The New York Times , 3 September 1995, p. 1. Back.

Note 26: On the controversial question of the size of PRC military expenditures, see "China's Military Expenditure" in International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1995/96  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 270-275. See, also, "Uncertain Weather Ahead," in IISS, Strategic Survey 1994/95  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 160-168. The official U.S. interpretation of the growth of Chinese economic power and its military modernization appears in Department of Defense, Office of Security Affairs, United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region , February 1995, especially p. 15. Back.

Note 27: For example, on 16 November, the U.N. General Assembly's Disarmament and International Security Committee passed a resolution deploring nuclear testing and calling for a halt to all nuclear testing: 95 nations for, 12 against, and 45 abstained. Daily Yomiuri , 23 November 1995, p. 1. Back.

Note 28: Bates Gill, "Arms Acquisitions in East Asia," pp. 550-562, sipri Yearbook 1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); and sipri Yearbook 1995  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 428-452. Back.

Note 29: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 1994/95  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 167. Back.

Note 30: Eric Arnett, "Military Technology: The Case of China, in sipri Yearbook 1995 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 367. Back.

Note 31: John Garver, "China's Push Through the South China Sea: The Interaction of Bureaucratic and National Interests," The China Quarterly , no. 132 (December 1992) pp. 999-1028. Back.

Note 32: Mark J. Valencia, China and the South China Sea Disputes, Adelphi Paper 298 , International Institute for Strategic Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, October 1995). See also Ji Guoxing, Maritime Jurisdiction in the Three China Seas  (La Jolla: Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California, Policy Paper no.19, October 1995). Back.

Note 33: Denny Roy, "Hegemon on the Horizon? China's Threat to East Asian Security; and Michael G. Gallagher, "China's Illusory Threat to the South China Sea," International  Security , 19, no. 1 (Summer 1994), pp. 149-194. See, also, "Fear of the Dragon," a cover story in Far Eastern Economic Review , 13 April 1995, pp. 24-30; and the debate between Kwan Chi Hung and Nakajima Mineo on the theme "Is China a Regional Threat, or a Challenge?" in Daily Yomiuri , 19 November 1995, p. 3. Back.

Note 34: The passage, referring to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty read: "The treaty is indispensable for the nation's security because there are still large military presences including nuclear weapons in its neighboring area." Daily Yomiuri , 26 November 1995. Back.

Note 35: Daily Yomiuri , 30 November 1995, p. 1. Back.

Note 36: Far Eastern Economic Review , 23 November 1995, p. 14. Back.

Note 37: Bates Gill, "Arms Acquisitions in East Asia," pp. 550-562, sipri Yearbook 1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); and sipri Yearbook 1995  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 428-452. Back.

Note 38: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 1994/95  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, May 1995), p. 165. Back.

Note 39: Valencia, China and the South China Sea Disputes , p. 67. Back.

Note 40: See, for example, The Economist 's enthusiastic assessment of President Jiang Zemin's new commitments, announced at the November APEC summit in Japan, to substantially liberalize trade and to open up the Chinese economy even further. The Economist , 25 November 1995, p. 16. Back.

Note 41: Although realists and idealists among American foreign policy analysts agree on little else, both typically concur in observing the persistence of exceptionalism in the way Americans understand their country's role in the world. Compare, for example, Tony Smith's idealist advocacy of a moral mission with Henry Kissinger's realist disdain in their differing assessments of U.S. foreign policy. Tony Smith, America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); and Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994). Back.

Note 42: On the American side, note, for example, Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations?" and the debate that it provoked. Samuel P. Huntington et al., The Clash of Civilizations: The Debate (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1993). Back.

Note 43:

43. Even before three U.S. servicemen were charged with the rape of a primary-school girl in Okinawa in September, prompting protests against the U.S. bases in Japan, there were debates in both the U.S. and Japan about whether the security agreement should be continued. See, for example, Chalmers Johnson and E. B. Keehn, "The Pentagon's Ossified Strategy," pp. 103-114, and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., "The Case for Deep Engagement," pp. 90-102, in Foreign Affairs , 74, no. 4 (July/August 1995). Back.

Note 44: See, especially, Eric Arnett, "Military Technology: The Case of China,"sipri Yearbook 1995  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 359-386. Back.

Note 45: David P. Stewart, "U.S. Ratification of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: The Significance of the Reservations, Understandings and Declarations," Human Rights Law Journal , 14, nos. 3-4 (April 1993), pp. 77-83. Back.

Note 46: Michael Sullivan, "Development and Political Repression; and Peter Van Ness, China's Human Rights Diplomacy: The Theoretical Foundations of the Chinese Communist Party's Response to Western Condemnation of China's Human Rights Practices  (Canberra: Peace Research Centre, Australian National University, Working Paper no. 141, November 1993). Back.

Note 47: United States Department of State, Civil and Political Rights in the United States: Initial Report of the United States of America to the U.N. Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  (Washington, D.C.: Department of State Publication 10200, July 1994). Back.

Note 48: Daniel W. Wessner, "From Judge to Participant: The United States as Champion of Human Rights," forthcoming in Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars . Back.

Note 49: See, for example, the Chinese reply to the Department of State annual human rights report's section on China: Information Office of the State Council, "A Report Which Distorts Facts and Confuses Right and Wrong," Beijing Review , 13-19 March 1995, pp. 17-22. The PRC commentary contains many questionable points; but what is important about this kind of debate between official organs of the two governments is that it is based on U.N. common ground. Back.

Note 50: Ian Russell, Peter Van Ness and Beng-Huat Chua, Australia's Human Rights Diplomacy (Canberra: Australian Foreign Policy Papers, 1992), Part II," Australia's Human Rights Delegation to China, 1991: A Case Study." Australia is more consistent than the United States in its human rights policy but, like all countries, has its problems. East Timor is Australia's Achilles' heel. The Economist , 4 November 1995, p. 32. Back.

Note 51: Daily Yomiuri , 11 November 1995, p. 1. Back.