Jan 14, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Human Rights and Sino-American Relations

In many ways the present relationship between the US and China is relatively unique, and in recent days the nature of this relationship has led to constant frustrations within the Human Rights community and criticism of perceived US inaction.  As much as I may feel the US could do more to promote Human Rights around the world, it’s important to consider not only the current state of governance in China but the nature of Sino-American relations before assuming the specific challenges in China are ours to fix.  I’m rarely one to leap in defense of those who govern us, but specifically in regard to our relations with China I think a bit of recalculation of our expectations might be wise.

All too often criticisms of the US’ activities in China seem rooted in the idea that the US has the ability, through some form of influence, to make the government of China act as we wish.  And though the US is certainly a country used to negotiating from a position of power, China is neither a failed state nor a nation deeply subordinate to our own.  If anything, the nation is one we struggle constantly to ally ourselves with, despite constant roadblocks from the populace and governments of both nations.  Our relationship with China lays somewhere in the nebulous area between allies and competitors, but certainly there is no inkling of subservience on either side of the table.

The tricks typically up a nation’s sleeve in the field of foreign relations when influencing another nation are hardly limitless.  If military intervention isn’t an option (as it certainly should not be in China) and the threat of that intervention isn’t enough to influence a nation’s leadership, typically a nation falls back on economic influence, support of domestic opposition, public diplomacy or international pressure.  We seem nationally neither capable nor deeply interested in economic action against China and the nation is relatively impervious to international pressures for a number of reasons.  Thus we find the spheres of public diplomacy and support of domestic opposition remain.  The US has long made its stance clear regarding the state of human rights in China through official and public statements.  Further human rights and opposition groups are supported within China as much as might be expected given our non-hostile position with the nation.

Specifically in the field of business and economics, I find its best never to expect much in the way of cooperation or pursuit of national interests from US business or worse the financial sector without being forced by regulation.  However, there is the attitude of late that it is neither the responsibility nor the right of government to influence business or manipulate the market, and that somehow issues such as human rights will work themselves out so long as markets remain unrestrained. Unfortunately the market more and more frequently urges business to operate outside the United States in search of new sources of cheap labor, regardless of messy issues like human rights.

If not through economic influence, nor application of military power, how precisely should our government be expected to influence a nation as powerful as China? This question seldom seems addressed in the outcries over US impotence in supporting human rights.  Clearly in the area of public diplomacy (or political rhetoric as one prefers) the US hasn’t slackened its support of human rights in China.  What more should really be expected?



  • I agree fully, Imara. I think awarding the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo was a good example of the type of symbolic action outsiders can take. Demanding reforms I don’t think is going to work. China is powerful enough to ignore us (or tell us “mind your own business”) and fomenting political instability there is likely to cause more harm than good. Certainly we can support those that want our help. Beyond that, I am not sure how outsiders can play a useful role.

  • Check out today’s Democracy Digest post on How to engage China – regime and people – on rights and democracy?

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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