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From Discord to Cooperation

Jul 31, 2012
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

China and US should hold dialogues to build mutual trust on human rights issues, democracy and the rule of law

China and the United States have wrapped up their 17th round of dialogue on human rights in Washington. The Chinese side presented the recent measures it has taken to improve legislation, judicial justice and people's livelihood, including amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law, development of the Internet and grassroots elections, and expansion of the social security network.

The US, however, continues to find fault with China's "restrictions on free expression and Internet freedom, on religious and ethnic minorities, and on internationally recognized labor rights". US Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, who hosted the dialogue, said the overall human rights situation in China continues to "deteriorate".

The US' criticism is tendentious rather than aimed at seeking the truth. With the deepening of its reform and opening-up and fast economic growth, China has made great progress in democracy, improved the rule of law, and provided greater protection to civil rights (such as the rights and interests of women and migrant workers) and freedom of speech on the Internet. These are indisputable facts.

The US should know that copying American institutions and practices in totality is unsuitable for China's national conditions.

Washington and Beijing have differences on human rights issues. The US is a country with a very strong ideology and Americans believe they are "God's chosen people" and it is the US' "manifest destiny" to transform the world with its values. By signing unequal treaties time and again in the 19th century, the US strengthened its privileges to do missionary work in China, and American missionaries have never denied their mission to "moralize" China, that is, to transform China with American values.

Promoting American values has been a US foreign policy tradition. The US will not stop passing irresponsible remarks on human rights situation in other countries, including China. And China will never tolerate US interference in its internal affairs, so the disagreement will continue for a long time.

This does not mean the two countries don't have anything in common on human rights issues. China recognizes the universal principles of human rights, and an increasing number of US citizens tend to agree with China's proposal to include the right to subsistence and development in human rights.

Since the 1990s, some American scholars have enlightened us with insightful comments on the China-US dispute over human rights. Harry Harding, former professor at George Washington University, is one of them. He says that to get out of the impasse over human rights issues with China, the US should accept the broader definition of human rights and be patient toward China's democratization because it is a long and gradual process, which needs corresponding social, economic, educational, cultural and other conditions.

American democracy is a product of American society, Harding says, and China will develop a democratic system that Americans are not familiar with. Both countries should strive to make human rights issues an area of cooperation rather than confrontation. Unfortunately, neither country has been able to do so.

Human rights issues have long beset China-US relations. But its status in bilateral relations has changed in the past two decades. In the first few years of the 1990s, the US linked the renewal of China's most-favored-nation status to its human rights record. That pushed human rights to the top of the agenda of overall China-US relations. The US saw it as a policy option to force China to change its policy and even its leadership. That was a distortion of bilateral relations.

Human rights issues still beset China-US relations, but they are just part of the world's most important bilateral ties. Although the two countries still have differences on human rights issues, they do cooperate in many other fields. This is a big difference compared with the situation in the early 1990s.

The US' attitude toward human rights issues has changed, too. In the 1990s, the US frequently exerted pressure on China on human rights issues. Besides raising the issues at bilateral forums, the US also used multilateral forums, including UN Human Rights Commission meetings, to criticize China.

The US' practice of raising human rights issues had once become an irritating factor in China-US ties, periodically interfering with its normal development. Only after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks did the situation start changing, for the US needed China's support and cooperation to build a global anti-terrorism front. Since then the discord between the two countries has lessened to some extent.

Also, after years of trying unsuccessfully, the US recognized that pressuring China on human rights would not work.

Leaders of China and the US both have reiterated in their joint statements of October 1997 and November 2009 that the two countries should address the differences on human rights issues in the spirit of equality and mutual respect. But the US has not fully implemented the statement until now.

More than 20 years of history of China-US discord in the field of human rights suggest that confrontations, instead of solving the problem, will only intensify the contradictions and weaken the overall stability of China-US relations.

Only sincere dialogue and exchange can help build mutual trust in human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and change confrontation into cooperation.

Tao Wenzhao is a senior researcher with the Center for US-China Relations at Tsinghua University


The original article appeared here.



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