Economic and social rights have advanced in China since normalization of Sino-American relations, but progress on political rights has been uneven. As the U.S.-China relationship becomes increasingly important, the United States should develop a more consistent approach to human rights that keeps economic and political considerations relatively separate from human rights advocacy. Tougher, more confrontational approaches are less effective, partly because there is little support for them in the U.S., but also because U.S. soft power is at a historical low and aggressive U.S. rhetoric risks inflaming Chinese nationalism.

Jacques de Lisle, a specialist in Chinese law at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, debated whether greater American engagement has improved the status of human rights in China in the fifth installment of Carnegie’s China debate series. Minxin Pei moderated the debate.

Policy recommendations
The United States has approached the human rights question from a variety of angles over the last two decades, with mixed results. Both participants agreed that the question is not whether the U.S. should engage with China on the human rights question, but how to do so most effectively while maintaining productive economic and political relations.

Based on the experience of government and non-governmental human rights advocates, Hom suggested the following ways for the U.S. to engage effectively:

  • Take advantage of the Olympics. Beijing’s top priority is to stage a successful Olympics, which gives human rights advocates some leverage.
  • Avoid provoking Chinese nationalism. Aggressive, public condemnations are less effective than steady pressure in lower-profile venues.
  • Promote civil society development – a vital part of domestic reform – by engaging with a range of NGOs in China, not only government-sanctioned actors.
  • Don’t be afraid to use the term “human rights.” Too often, Hom argued, Western policymakers substitute “rule of law” or “good governance” for “human rights,” out of concern for Chinese sensitivity. Sidestepping the issue will not make it easier to address later.
  • Adopt and make clear public benchmarks. The U.S. should pressure China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and then use the ICCPR as a metric to judge progress on human rights.

Strategic opportunities
The U.S. should take advantage of the leverage it already has with the Chinese government, argued de Lisle, rather than seeking new ways to address human rights. China has signed but not ratified two important international conventions on human rights, and has accepted the definition of universal human rights. The U.S. can thus move the discussion toward implementation and can refute Chinese arguments that human rights are a “Western” intervention in internal Chinese affairs.