Trust is Hard to Build in China: The Human Rights Issue

Is human rights truly off the table as an issue between the United States and China? Based on the recent visits by representatives of the Obama administration and Congress, one might think so.

First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a longtime critic of China’s human rights record, surprised Chinese officials when she steered clear of the issue on her visit to Beijing in February. Even before she arrived, she signaled that the topic would be off the table, saying that “the debate with China over human rights, Taiwan and Tibet cannot be allowed to interfere with attempts to reach consensus on broader issues.” She said it might be better to agree to disagree on long-standing positions and focus instead on U.S.-Chinese engagement on climate change, the global financial crisis and security threats.

Last week, it was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s turn to surprise. With the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident only two weeks away, Chinese officials were not looking forward to her visit, to say the least.

During a 1991 visit to Beijing, Pelosi unfurled a banner that read “To those who died for democracy in China” in the Square. Years later, she attempted to present human rights petitions to then-visiting President Hu Jintao. When Tibetans staged protests against Chinese rule in 2008, Pelosi visited the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader.

A year ago, Pelosi was labeled a “disgusting figure” in a commentary by the state-run Xinhua News Service. According to Xinhua:

If an opinion poll were to be carried out on the Internet in China to choose the most disgusting figure, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would probably be on top of the list, as she confused right with wrong on the issue of Tibet, held double standards to interfere in China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and impaired China-U.S. relations.

From meeting with the Dalai Lama in India to calling on U.S. President George W. Bush not to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, from making irresponsible remarks on the Olympic torch relay to proposing an anti-China resolution on Tibet passed Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives, Pelosi has never hesitated to flagrantly interfere in China’s internal affairs with double standards..

With that as background, imagine everyone’s surprise when Speaker Pelosi, like Secretary Clinton before her, avoided the human rights issue altogether. The only mention came at a gathering of the Shanghai American Chamber of Commerce when she said: “I will continue to speak out for human rights in China and around the world. Indeed, protecting the environment is a human rights issue,” she explained. At a conference on climate change in Beijing last week, Pelosi said that global warming “is a game changer in the U.S.-China relationship.”

For Austin Ramzy, a Time reporter in Beijing, it already has been for Pelosi’s relationship with China. “She has gone from being one of the most officially reviled public figures in China to someone who is tolerated, if not exactly celebrated, Ramzy wrote.

Later in the article, though, Ramzy demonstrated how hard it is to win trust in China when he quoted Zhu Feng, an international studies professor at Peking University. While welcoming the new approach, Zhu said, “I think it’s evidence of a broader approach. For Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, the human-rights tool remains on the table, but this time they pick up another one from the tool kit. I don’t think their deliberate silence over the human-rights controversies between two countries means that now human-rights differences are truly fading away. The stipulation is when it will be coming back.”

For those of us who have lived and worked in China for some period of time, we know that trust cannot be built overnight, or repaired on one trip. It only comes when a consistent message has been given and acted upon over a long period of time. Whether human rights should or shouldn’t be an issue between the two countries is not the question. If the United States, in the interest of expediency, now intends to focus on other concerns where it needs Beijing’s help, then it must recognize that this does indeed represent a change in the relationship between the two countries, and that returning to the old issues at a later date will only threaten to destroy any trust that has been created.

2 Responses to “Trust is Hard to Build in China: The Human Rights Issue”

  1. Hi Jack,

    I think one of the better adages I’ve heard applies in this instance:

    “Everyone’s a great starter…few people are good finishers.”

    At least that’s what I was thinking when I’d read this piece.

    –ADM

  2. Agreed. We’ll see what happens