‘I have tried very hard not to inject myself into China’s internal affairs,” wrote President George H.W. Bush to his Chinese counterpart, Deng Xiaoping, soon after Chinese troops gunned down hundreds, perhaps thousands, of demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. “But I ask you as well to remember the principles on which my young country was founded — freedom of speech, freedom of assemblage, freedom from arbitrary authority. It is reverence for those principles which inevitably affects the way Americans view and react to events in other countries.”
This February, 25 years after that massacre, Gary Locke, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to China, gave a final speech before exiting the country.
“The U.S. is deeply concerned,” said Locke, “over the recent pattern of harassment, arrests, prosecutions of good-government advocates, of public interest lawyers, of activists, Internet journalists, religious leaders. … The United States calls on China to guarantee peaceful activists the protections and freedoms to which they’re entitled under China’s international human rights commitments.”
And so it goes. China remains an authoritarian, one-party state whose leaders see domestic activists and international human rights laws as threats to their sovereignty.
To Beijing’s credit, it has overseen economic development on a scale that is unparalleled in world history. Through three decades of double-digit annual growth, about half a billion Chinese citizens have pulled themselves out of poverty. This growth has been the envy of the developing world, but it has not been accompanied by a concomitant extension of political and civil liberties.
Recent examples abound. In a closed trial in January, a judge sentenced democracy advocate Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” When Xu tried to read his concluding statement, the judge silenced him after 10 minutes and called his words “irrelevant.” One month later, teacher Ilham Tohti was detained and charged with inciting Uighur separatism, and dissident Cao Shunli died in custody after being denied medical treatment. In March, leaders of the Hong Kong journalism community were physically assaulted following demonstrations against Beijing’s mounting media strictures.
In stark contrast to 1989, Beijing’s reach now extends far beyond China’s borders. The nation’s rulers have embarked on a multifront effort to undermine the international human rights regime. Beijing uses its considerable diplomatic power and economic leverage to block resolutions in multilateral forums and to weaken the United Nations Human Rights Council.
The latter endeavor became much easier in November when China won a council seat alongside such perennial violators as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Cuba. China now routinely wins far more votes on the council than the United States, due in no small measure to Beijing’s prodding of its African and Middle Eastern clients.
Even more significant is China’s bilateral pressure on developing nations that hope to secure trade, investment and development loans. It is no secret that Beijing has long served as a tolerant patron to abusive regimes and pariah states such as North Korea and Zimbabwe, but Chinese capital extends far beyond the developing world’s basket cases. Owing to Africa’s abundance of natural resources, China is now the continent’s largest trading partner.
Annual Sino-African trade tops $200 billion, and China has financed countless infrastructure projects in Africa and across the southern part of the globe.
This investment has been a godsend to troubled economies, and it may yet encourage stabilizing economic and political reforms in some nations. But as in China itself, so far the financial boost has done little for political and civil liberties in the developing world. Time will tell whether China’s desire for low-risk investments will persuade Beijing to reprimand the most repressive states, but for now the Robert Mugabes of the world seem only to have been strengthened by the infusion of Chinese cash.
China’s formidable economic influence has had a disquieting effect on global democracy promotion. The worldwide trend that culminated in dozens of democratic transitions late in the 20th century appears to be giving way to a countertrend that has been heavily influenced by leading authoritarian states.
According to Freedom House, 54 nations saw political and civil liberties decline in 2013. These governments in effect promise their citizens order and prosperity in return for limits on civil and political rights, and the larger nations among them work to undercut other nations’ reforms while they themselves serve as models of autocracy. “Russia and China set the standard for this kind of authoritarian regime,” says Freedom House’s president, David J. Kramer.
Beijing also has demonstrated its influence in more symbolic ways. When the imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, it was the first time since 1936 that neither the winner nor any member of his family attended the award ceremony in Oslo. Beijing saw the award as a Western stab at Chinese sovereignty and accused the Nobel committee of “orchestrating an anti-China farce.” Just as conspicuously absent were 19 nations that had declined to send representatives as a result of Chinese pressure.
No single figure has caused Beijing as much consternation as the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader’s visits to Washington invariably elicit official protests from Beijing. But while the United States is strong enough to fend off such criticism, other countries seem less capable. South Africa has twice denied the Dalai Lama entry visas in recent years, presumably for fear of hindering Chinese investment in that country. “We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure,” lamented Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. “I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.”
To be sure, the United States is hardly without guilt in the human rights arena. Washington has supported its share of rogues and dictators, and even today counts among its friends a number of illiberal, undemocratic regimes. The narrow defense of national interests has often forced Americans to compromise on democratic principles. But Beijing’s active undermining of international human rights is on another level altogether.
For the foreseeable future, outsiders will have a limited ability to pressure China to expand civil and political liberties at home and accommodate democracy abroad. If and when lasting changes come to China, they will have to come from within.
Joe Renouard is an associate professor of history at the Citadel. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.