Is the Clinton administration's China policy the right policy?
July 2, 1998
in this forum:
How significant were President Clinton's comments on human rights? How much of an influence do you feel our president can have on Chinese leaders? What is the Clinton administration trying to achieve in China? Will engagement really bring forth changes in China? Has President Clinton made the most of his opportunity in China? Mike Cooper of Chicago, Il asks: How significant were President Clinton's comments on human rights?
Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch responds:The exchange between Clinton and Jiang Zemin on human rights, broadcast live on Chinese TV, was extraordinary and significant in at least three ways: first, Clinton directly addressed the sensitive issue of the 1989 crackdown. This might have the effect of stimulating even greater debate within Chinese government and Communist Party circles about the official verdict on 1989, and strengthen those who argue the verdict must eventually be reversed. Secondly, Clinton demonstrated that human rights concerns can be openly and rather firmly discussed without engaging in "China bashing" or triggering an immediate, nationalistic response. Finally, he did not shy away from making explicit recommendations and proposals, for example, on Tibet or by suggesting that China review the sentences of some 2,000 convicted "counterrevolutionaries" (crimes of "counterrevolution" were removed from the criminal code in March 1997 -- replaced by other political offenses). Such a review, if it were to take place, could open the door to the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
On the other hand, the debate between Clinton and Jiang dramatically illustrated the wide gulf that remains between the two countries and leaders on human rights. Neither side budged an inch. Though the debate took place in a positive atmosphere, it highlighted how far Beijing needs to go to move beyond dialogue and discussion to take concrete steps to improve its human rights record.
The question now is, what happens next? Will the Administration develop a strategy to move Beijing to make progress on the issues Clinton emphasized in his remarks: freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, Tibet, and freedom of religion?
Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, responds:
Mr. Cooper, there are many ways to measure "how significant" Mr. Clinton's comments on human rights were. No one way trumps all the others:
a. Certainly, the appearance of the American leader on Chinese television -- live and without filter -- in both the press conference and at Beijing University is a remarkable departure from established forms of Chinese political communication. One could even say that the very presence of Clinton on TV without filters might be as "significant," in terms of its breaking of a very heavy and deeply set precedent, as the content of his comments on human rights themselves. In addition, though, the things he said struck me as generally representative of broad American beliefs, and he delivered his ideas in a manner that by and large avoided heavy-handed and patronizing preachiness. Still, the tenor of the questions put to the president by members of the Beijing University audience -- even if the questions were carefully prepared and even if they might have been influenced by official "advice," should be a reminder that the citizens of China -- rather like citizens of our own country, I would suspect -- may not always respond with starry-eyed affection to the arrival of a powerful foreign leader who tells them that their country is out of step with world norms.
b. We will have to determine over the longer run whether the decision to broadcast the Clinton remarks on several occasions was the subject of serious political debate within the Chinese leadership, and if it was, whether the decision then and any after-effects later turn out to have been significant to the shape of China's domestic policy process.
c. The president's remarks, and his presence on Chinese TV, obviously were going to be noticed in the United States where, as we all know, controversy has long surrounded the president, his China policies, and the China trip in particular. I would like to think that, for some Americans exercised over China's domestic behavior, the sight of our president telling the Chinese leader to his face on HIS domestic TV station what American people believe and cherish, and stating American objections and concerns on a whole series of human rights issues, might lead some Americans to think a little more deeply about this China that seemed to one-dimensional before the trip. But on that, we'll have to wait and see; my hunch is that in the short run, as the president returns and the Congress after July 4 goes back to considering a whole range of punitive legislation aimed at China for China's supposed misconduct on a host of fronts, few minds will be changed. We will see the same familiar faces, on the news shows and in the op-ed pages, denouncing Clinton over China in much the same terms as they have done for the past five years.
So, all in all, the Clinton presentations on Chinese TV were striking, even riveting, both for many Chinese and for many Americans. But the "significance" of this performance cannot be known for a while. Will the Clinton visit "cause," "bring about," "promote," (etc.) specific changes in the human rights environment in China? We'll probably never know, because China, like most sovereign countries, is unlikely to change its behavior to meet a foreign country's desires and then TELL the other country (in this case, the U.S.) that they changed their behavior BECAUSE we told them to. That ain't likely to happen, and we will all be left guessing, five and ten and twenty years from now, about the traceable impact of the Clinton visit in 1998 on China's subsequent behavior.
Professor Michel Oksenberg of Stanford University responds:
Clinton's public remarks on human rights were quite significant. He spoke clearly and eloquently about American interests and values. He explained to students at Peking university, journalists at press conferences, and listeners to a call-in radio show that democracy and freedom promote stability and economic growth. He called for a review of people sentenced to prison for political actions no longer considered crimes. In effect, Clinton was calling for release of the remaining pro democracy activists who are still imprisoned for "counter revolutionary activities" - something no longer a crime. He stabbed that the brutal suppression of the spring 1989 demonstrations was wrong. And all this was televised live to a vast Chinese audience.
This is an extraordinary, indeed unprecedented event. His words are now circulating in China via video tape and written transcripts. The President legitimated discussion of topics previously banned from open debate. And all this was done with the permission of China's leader, President Jiang Zemin. Without doubt, Clinton nudged forward the enormously complex process of political reform in China.