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Should U.S. Pressure China More on Human Rights?

May 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Since the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, American presidents of both parties have struggled to balance criticism of Chinese abuses with other interests. Judy Woodruff discusses the Obama administration's dealings with China with the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Lieberthal and Human Rights Watch's Sophie Richardson.
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GWEN IFILL: As Secretary of State Clinton arrives in China for a previously scheduled visit, the Obama administration’s human rights policy is back in the spotlight.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For many, the images from the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square remain the most vivid example of human rights violations in China.

In 1992, then candidate Bill Clinton denounced those he called the butchers of Beijing. Eight years later, nearing the end of his time in office, President Clinton signed legislation creating permanent normal trade relations with China.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The more China opens its markets, the more it unleashes the power of economic freedom, the more likely it will be to more fully liberate the human potential of its people.

(APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: In August of 2008, President George W. Bush criticized China’s human rights record during a speech in Thailand.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The next day, Mr. Bush attended the opening ceremonies at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

And in 2009, China was one of the stops on Hillary Clinton’s first trip as secretary of state. At the time, she said, “Pressing on those human rights issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis.”

But now escaped dissident Chen Guangcheng is apparently under the protection of American diplomats in Beijing, and human rights is back at the forefront of U.S.-Chinese relations.

Secretary Clinton acknowledged as much on Monday before leaving for a long-scheduled trip to China.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I can certainly guarantee that we will be discussing every matter, including human rights, that is pending between us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s on top of an agenda that includes the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and a longstanding dispute over China’s currency valuation.

Two views now on how the Obama administration has handled human rights, among the many issues on the U.S.-China agenda.

Kenneth Lieberthal directs the China Center at the Brookings Institution. He served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. And Sophie Richardson is the advocacy director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Sophie Richardson, do you first. And briefly tell us what is the state of human rights right now in China, and has it improved at all in the last few years?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON, Human Rights Watch: Well, look, we’re at a point in time where the Chinese government has made numerous commitments to uphold and protect rights on paper, and indeed the constitution was amended to that effect in 2004.

And yet very few of those laws are actually upheld in the breach with respect to the use of the death penalty, the lack of due process, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, really garden variety difficulties in people accessing justice.

So, I think the gaps between what’s on paper and what happens in reality is quite significant still.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how do you size up how the Obama administration has done in dealing with this?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, the administration, I think, got off to quite a wobbly start in the first year-and-a-half, but sort of I think found its voice and found some greater confidence to talk about these issues and engage in some of the more established diplomatic practices.

I don’t know that they really kept up necessarily as the situation has deteriorated over the last year-and-a-half. And what we would really like to see them do is not just integrate human rights concerns across a much broader and more complicated bilateral relationship than what the U.S. and China had 10 or 15 years ago, but to also do a better job of not just welcoming the Chinese government’s rise, as is mentioned in almost every speech, but to also welcome the rise of people like Chen Guangcheng and the work that they’re trying to do to hold their own government accountable, largely because that’s consistent with what the administration has said it wants.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, you’re referring to the dissent who is, we think, it is believed, is in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Ken Lieberthal, what about that, I mean, the words she used, got off to a wobbly start, maybe hasn’t been consistent? How do you see the Obama administration handling of human rights?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL, Brookings Institution: I actually will give them somewhat higher marks than Sophie.

I think the administration decided from the start that China’s a major power. We have got an array of very, very serious issues that we have to deal with them on, nuclear proliferation, North Korea, now the South China Sea, a vast array of economic and trade issues and human rights issues.

So the administration’s approach has been quite clear from the start. We will stress human rights and push that as effectively as we can, but we can’t let any one of these issues, nuclear proliferation, human rights, economic and trade, whatever it is, to be a precondition of making progress in the other areas, because each of these areas is vital for U.S. security, prosperity, and our relationships throughout the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sophie Richardson, what about that point, that, in his view, human rights can’t be a precondition?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, look, I think while there are issues that don’t necessarily have a human rights component to them that are unbelievably important to the bilateral relationship and deserve attention, the fact of the matter is that there are quite a few issues across the relationship that fundamentally rest on better human rights protections inside China, whether you’re talking about the free flow of information inside the country in an uncensored press and product safety, on down through a legal system that will both defend people’s right to the freedom of expression and uphold contracts.

Human rights aren’t a boutique issue that sort of sit off in one corner. They’re — they’re legal reforms and political reforms that will help the U.S. accomplish progress across the board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ken Lieberthal, I think, if I’m hearing Sophie Richardson correctly, she’s saying human rights are part and parcel of all these other issues, including economics.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: No, but let me say, if you look at, for example, our economic negotiations with China, we focus very much on the issues that Sophie has identified. We don’t call them human rights issues.

We call them issues of legal reform and due process. Certainly, the sanctity of contracts, protection of intellectual property rights, running your system according to your own laws and regulations, we stress those all the time.

There’s also a specific civil liberties dimension to this, protection of dissidents, protection of free speech and so forth. We raise that all the time. We tend to raise that less publicly because the administration thinks — I happen to agree with them — that a significant part of this has to be done privately if it’s going to be more effective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can these conversations in private serve the need that you’re saying needs to be served? And can It accomplish what you’re saying needs to be done?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Sure. There’s plenty of room for private diplomacy.

And, indeed, that’s 90 percent of the diplomacy that takes place every day. You’re not going to get an argument against that. I don’t think that this administration or indeed plenty of its predecessors have necessarily taken advantage of all of the opportunities they’re now afforded across a much bigger, richer relationship to connect the dots in the way that Ken is suggesting happens.

I don’t think that happens as effectively as it could. And there are points where the U.S. simply has to stand on principle and make that case publicly. And I think that doesn’t happen as often as it should either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Lieberthal, you want to respond quickly to that? And then, if you would. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, go ahead.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Please.

Well, I’m not sure how you measure whether the administration is doing everything it possibly could or not. There are a lot of areas, such as Sophie again mentioned, a number of things that effectively relate to sanctity of contracts, business conditions and so forth. We’re very public about that. We press it constantly.

We do it in bilateral government-to-government interactions. We do it through our corporations. We do it through our various trade associations and so forth. And if you look at what the president has said repeatedly about China, it is that China will do better itself if it does a better job implementing its own laws and regulations, respecting the rights of its own people, recognizing that, in the modern era of social media and so forth, the demands of the Chinese people are such that you’re not going to have stability going forward unless you’re more responsive.

So I think the spirit is the same. Whether you should do it a little more or a little less is something that frankly is very hard to calibrate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, one sentence from each of you on what the administration should do with regard to Chen Guangcheng?

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Well, I think it’s important that they do what he wants.

I think the most important dimension right now is to protect him and his family members and those who helped him get out from house arrest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Ken Lieberthal?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Total agreement with that. I think we should do what he wants. If possible, that means having him stay in China, but fully protected; if not possible, certainly giving him the opportunity to leave China under our protection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ken Lieberthal and Sophie Richardson, we thank you both.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Thank you.