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U.S. Steps Up Challenge to China on Human Rights

May 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Obama administration has stepped up criticism of China's human rights record in recent days. Judy Woodruff discusses the issue with Human Rights Watch's Phelim Kine and former President of the U.S.-China Business Council Robert Kapp.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a new challenge to China on human rights from the Obama administration.

At a meeting of top officials from the world’s two leading economic powers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to the surprise of many, raised the human rights issue.

SECURETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We have made very clear, publicly and privately, our concern about human rights. We worry about the impact on our domestic politics and on the politics and the stability in China and the region.

We see reports of people, including public interest lawyers, writers, artists and others, who are detained or disappeared. And we know, over the long arc of history, that societies that work toward respecting human rights are going to be more prosperous, stable and successful. That has certainly been proven time and time again, but most particularly in the last months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The two-day meeting ended this afternoon with both delegations acknowledging wide gaps remaining on several economic and political issues.

Secretary Clinton again said the U.S. side very clearly told the Chinese of its concerns about that country’s human rights record.

For more on where human rights fits into the U.S.-China relationship, we go to Phelim Kine. He’s a researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on China. And Robert Kapp, the former president of the U.S.-China Business Council, he now advises businesses and nonprofit organizations dealing with China.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Phelim Kine, to you first.

How would you describe the human rights situation over the last few months in China?

PHELIM KINE, Human Rights Watch: Well, what we have documented, particularly since mid-Feb. of this year, is a serious spike in repression in China.

We have seen the Chinese government security forces arresting, detaining and, more alarmingly, illegally, unlawfully disappearing dozens of human rights lawyers, civil society activists, bloggers, writers, and artists.

And this is a serious concern, because obviously these are the types of people who have been advocating for change in China, who have been advocating with their government for rule of law, for the Chinese government to obey the laws in its own constitution and embodied in its own regulatory infrastructure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how does this compare with what we have seen in the past in China?

PHELIM KINE: Well of course China — the Chinese government has a — has a sorry record of repression.

But the fact is that, over the past 30 years, you know, the Chinese government has actually made great progress in terms of improving the human rights situation for its citizens. But what we and other organizations have documented since the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics is that there has been a steady rollback in key rights and freedoms.

And that has really — what’s really emblematic of that, of course, is that, at the end of 2010, China had the world’s only imprisoned human rights laureate, Liu Xiaobo. And what we have seen since the middle of February really indicates a very, very serious uptick in the government’s willingness to use state security forces illegally, unlawfully to repress its citizens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Kapp, why is this happening now?

ROBERT KAPP, consultant: Well, I think that the last couple of years have shown the Chinese leadership looking out on the world with, to their lights, increasing alarm, not only in the period of the Olympics, when there were massive internal problems within China that made them very uneasy, but even more recently as the Jasmine Revolution has worked its way across the Middle East and North Africa.

They see the United States actually, at least at the highest levels publicly stated, as somehow complicit with some of these efforts in other countries to overthrow existing authority. They feel insecure for — I think more than they need to, but they feel insecure about the role of the United States in relation to forces within China that they feel threaten the stability of the state.

It’s a very difficult period. And I, frankly, am glad that Secretary Clinton said what she said, but realistically speaking, it’s inconceivable that she wouldn’t say something publicly like that, given the attention that’s been paid to this publicly in the last few months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in fact, we know that just in the new issue of The Atlantic magazine, she’s quoted as using even sharper language. She called China’s human rights record deplorable. She said China is trying to stop history. She said that’s a — quote — “fool’s errand.”

Why do you think the administration is feeling emboldened right now to speak out?

ROBERT KAPP: Well, I think…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or do you?

ROBERT KAPP: Excuse me.

I think Secretary Clinton — when they came into office, the administration chose not to put human rights so front and center, that everything else would be subordinated to it. We have a huge economic and political and global relationship with China that needs to be maintained and sustained.

And most of the strategic and economic dialogue which was concluded over the last two days has really been about those issues. But, at the same time, I think domestically here and because of the developments in China in recent months, it was just impossible not to take cognizance of the fact that things are going backwards. They are going backwards by our standards. And she spoke up.

I might say the headline in The Atlantic on the few words she used was way over the top, talking about Clinton saying that the Chinese system is doomed. She didn’t say that. But like her husband several years ago, speaking to then President Jiang Zemin, she said that the Chinese were on the wrong side of history. And I think many Americans on this issue would agree with her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phelim Kine, what is your — as you look at what’s happened with — what is happening in China, what the administration has been saying, what is this likely to lead to? Do you see any changes coming from this?

PHELIM KINE: Well the language that we have — we have heard from both Secretary of State Clinton and from Vice President Biden really indicates that the administration finally gets that the erosion in human rights in China in recent years actually has direct impact on key bilateral U.S.-China relations and key parts of that bilateral relationship.

Let me give you an example. Over the last couple of years, we have documented numerous cases of, you know, poison and toxic products from China entering the export stream, whether it’s poison dog food, toxic toys, poison melamine milk. Why does that happen?

Well, the fact is it happens because there is — there are severe restrictions on freedom of expression in China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

PHELIM KINE: There is severe state repression of whistle-blowers, state censorship.

And I think the administration’s realizing that, for key issues, there is a important human rights component, and they can no longer be separated. They need to speak up, because these have visceral impact on the United States and U.S. consumers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In just the few minutes that we have left, Robert Kapp, how wise is it, how smart is it for the administration — for the Obama administration to push this subject now?

ROBERT KAPP: I think Americans — Americans understand that, in global affairs, the United States, with its many partners and adversaries as well, needs to walk and chew gum at the same time.

There is no way that you can say this issue and this issue alone is going to define everything else in the relationship. And that’s what the strategic and economic dialogue is all about. We haven’t talked about the economic dimensions of it, but they are extremely important. And the discussions I think seem to have been very positive and very productive.

So, the United States — and this administration in particular — I think, understands that walking and chewing gum go with the territory, just as they do with many other countries with whom we have complex relations, Japan, India, even Pakistan.

You can’t have it all in one basket. And I think our friends in the human rights community and in the business community understand that as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phelim Kine, is that — is walking and chewing gum, is that a good way to put what’s going on here?

PHELIM KINE: It’s definitely one way to put it, but I think that the point that needs to be made is that, for a long time, there’s been a sense that, you know, the U.S. and other key bilateral partners with China don’t have leverage on human rights.

But the fact is you really need to put your hands on the levers in order to have leverage. And to a certain extent, human rights have been taken off the table. They have been marginalized in these meaningless, toothless human rights dialogues.

And what’s necessary are for these issues to come back to the main bilateral dialogue, the main bilateral conversation. And we’re starting to see that today in Washington. And hopefully this is the beginning of an important trend. It’s important — you know, China — the Chinese government buys a lot of U.S. treasuries. They purchase treasuries, but they don’t buy U.S. government silence on issues which are of visceral importance both to the Chinese people, but also to the U.S. consumers and to the importance and to the maintenance of a stable and sustainable long-term relationship between our two countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, Robert Kapp, what do you see coming out of this? Do you see the relationship changing in any way? Do you see what the U.S. is saying on human rights, just quickly, affecting the economic relationship between the two countries?

ROBERT KAPP: I suppose I hope it does, but I’m not sure that it will.

I think the interesting thing is that, as you look at who went to this SED, the secretaries of treasury, agriculture, commerce, labor, energy were all there, and a similar array of top people on the Chinese side. These two governments are extremely heavily engaged now. These people know each other. They can sit down and work together on problems, not only in the human rights field, but very much in the fields of economics, finance, trade and so forth.

Each country is asking the other to make fundamental changes in the way it conducts its economic affairs. Each country is struggling to do that for itself. It’s a long, slow process, but there’s a pretty good working relationship now between the two sides. And that shouldn’t be sacrificed — and I don’t think anyone in this show has suggested that it should be — on the altar of very, very black-and-white — or, I should say, do-it-or-else rhetoric that sometimes affects the relationship both in China and in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well we will continue to watch this. We want to leave it there, though, for now.

Robert Kapp, Phelim Kine, thank you both, gentlemen.

PHELIM KINE: Thank you.

ROBERT KAPP: My pleasure.